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Sunday, November 20, 2011
MLS CUP: Two big keys to the title

By Scott French

CARSON -- Expect a tight, physical, tactical battle in Sunday evening's MLS Cup final at Home Depot Center, with both teams looking to implement a direct attack -- and the Galaxy, in their home stadium, likely the aggressors, at least to start.

Whether it'll be an attack-filled classic or a defensive struggle is impossible to know. This is an intriguing matchup of size (advantage: Houston) and skill (L.A.), reliance on long balls or possession and the limits of defensive organization, which ultimately will determine who's parading the trophy at the end.

Here are two keys to victory in the final:

1. UP IN THE AIR

Geoff Cameron is 6-foot-3, fellow center back Bobby Boswell is 6-2, and forward Brian Ching is a very aggressive 6-1, and the way they go after Brad Davis' set pieces is something to behold. The Dynamo are even more dominant at the other end, with Cameron, Boswell and 6-footer Andre Hainault repelling crosses into their area.

This team thrives on the aerial game, and in Davis possessed the perfect conduit, the closest thing to a Bobby Boswell among American players. Davis' injury complicates things.

Adam Moffat, who has a rocket foot, will take the set pieces, but speedy Corey Ashe, who will take Davis' place on the left side of midfield, has a far different game. Figure Moffat to wander wide to provide service or go over the top for Ching or to take advantage of Calen Carr's pace.

Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear can call on rookie Will Bruin and Honduran star Carlo Costly, both 6-2, if he needs more targets late.

“Adam places a good ball,” Davis said. “And I've said all year we've got guys that have the desire and will to want to score goals and want to attack the ball.”

The Galaxy have occasionally struggled with their marking on set pieces, so that's been a point of emphasis in preparations.

“It's going to be very important,” said 6-5 Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, the Galaxy's primary target on its set pieces. “I think they score all of their goals mostly from set pieces and crosses and things like that. They're very good about getting bodies around the box and putting goals away, so that's going to be a major thing for us, defending those set pieces and not giving them any sniffs at our goal.”

Said 6-1 left back Todd Dunivant: “We have to do a good job of getting on bodies. We can't give them space to jump, because if we do that, they're obviously bigger than us, and they're going to get good service in, so we got to get tight to their men and put an arm around them. If we don't do that, they'll have a free run, and its going to be difficult.”

The success of the Galaxy's air game, primarily through Beckham (although nearly everyone has sent in at least one good cross or long ball this year), likely will depend on service (not a problem) and the ability of Robbie Keane and whoever partners him, likely Adam Cristman, to carve space with runs in among Houston's defenders. That's been key to L.A.'s playoff attack, and it's where Chad Barrett's absence might most be felt.

2. STAY ORGANIZED

It's always about defense, and nothing matches the Galaxy's résumé: 18 shutouts in 37 MLS matches (regular season and playoffs), just 30 goals surrendered -- just 10 conceded in 19 home games.

Defensive organization is what the Galaxy's success is built upon. Now they need to be on their game.

“They're great defensively,” said Ching, whose battle with L.A.'s backline is one of the matchups to watch. “The proof is in the statistics. And I don't think it's just their back four, I think it's their whole team, their whole team mentality to work hard and get behind the ball and make things difficult.”

That's an approach Houston has adopted, especially with Ching's return from injury, the acquisitions of Moffat, Costly and midfielder Luis Camargo, and, most of all, Cameron's move from midfield to center back. The Dynamo have given up just six goals in nine games, seven of them wins (none of them losses), since Cameron's mid-September switch.

“A lot of times when you're playing teams with outside backs, they like to get forward and run the flanks, and you can find a way to expose that,” Galaxy midfielder Mike Magee said. “This team, at least on my side with Hainault, that's not really the case. He will get forward and he does run, but he's kind of always going to be in a good position, so he's harder to break down.”

The Galaxy will be difficult to penetrate if they go ahead, no matter how much possession they concede. No team grinds out victories better than L.A.

“I think they're probably one of the best teams when they get a lead of shutting other teams down, of shutting the game down,” Ching said.