Houston Dynamo at Los Angeles Galaxy, Friday, Nov. 13, 11 p.m. ET (ESPN2/Deportes)
Matching two of the top defenses in Major League Soccer in 2009, the Western Conference Championship matchup between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo is one of the most eagerly anticipated of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
The Dynamo tied for the League’s best defensive record, allowing less than a goal per game over the course of the regular season then backed it up by posting back-to-back shutouts in their defeat of Seattle Sounders FC in their Western Conference Semifinal Series. Ironically, it was Sounders FC who tied for the league-best defense with Houston; they allowed only the single goal to Brian Ching in extra time of the second leg.
The Galaxy renaissance from worst to first in the Western Conference was formed on the back of a rebuilt defense. A year ago, the Galaxy allowed a league-high 62 goals; this year, they tied for the third-best defensive mark with just 31 goals conceded in 30 games. After a couple of uncharacteristic errors in the 2-2 first leg draw with Chivas USA, the Galaxy rebounded with a shutout in the second game of the SuperClasico playoff series to advance to the West final.
“The game on Friday on Houston will present different problems. I can’t even look at [the Chivas game] and say it has to get better against Houston. It’s going to be completely different circumstances. If we win 1-0 on Friday and the goal comes in the 95th minute, I’ll take it,” said Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, who was a winner in an MLS Cup Playoffs game for the first time since winning the Eastern Conference Final in 1998 with D.C. United.
Of course, someone will have to score a goal, and the scoring leaders for both teams came through in crunch time. Ching’s goal was his first since Sept. 19, but the U.S. international still led the Dynamo with eight goals on the season. It was his seventh career postseason goal, but the third he’s scored to win a semifinal series. Landon Donovan converted from the penalty spot for the Galaxy’s 1-0 win in the second leg, his second goal of the playoff series and the 16th postseason goal of his career, tying him with Carlos Ruiz for the all-time MLS lead.
The teams had little to divide them over their two regular-season meetings. The Galaxy took a 1-0 win at The Home Depot Center on June 28, a victory that snapped Houston’s club-record 11-game undefeated streak. The lone goal was scored by fullback Todd Dunivant. On Oct. 18 at Robertson Stadium, the teams played to a goalless draw.
Eastern Conference Championship Preview
Real Salt Lake at Chicago Fire, Saturday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m. ET (FSC/FSE)
For the Chicago Fire, their path to MLS Cup has always started from their home field. If Real Salt Lake are going to reach the league championship game for the first time, they will have to do it where the club has never seen much success over its entire history — on the road.
Since the current format for the MLS Cup Playoffs was adopted in 2003, the Fire have played in four conference championships. They’ve won one to make it to an MLS Cup Final — a 1-0 overtime win against New England in 2003 at Soldier Field. The three they’ve lost have all been on the road. On each of three occasions they’ve reached the MLS championship game (1998, 2000, 2003), the Fire have clinched their berth with a victory at home.
“We were really happy on Thursday night when we saw that Columbus lost and we could have the opportunity to host the final. We knew we had to take care of business [Saturday] and that gave the guys a lot of energy knowing that we could host the Eastern Conference final,” said Fire head coach Denis Hamlett. “The crowd had a huge effect on us; I think the guys fed off their energy for the whole 90 minutes. Hopefully we pack the house next week like we did tonight.”
On the road in the regular season, Real Salt Lake won just twice and tied twice in 15 games — the second-worst record in MLS. Over their five-year existence, RSL has just 10 regular season wins in 77 road games. But all that was washed away in the 3-2 second leg victory at Columbus that secured a berth in a conference championship for the second consecutive year.
Having thrown off one long-standing trend to reach the Eastern Conference Championship, RSL will have to throw off another to get to MLS Cup 2009. Real have not defeated Chicago since June 3, 2006 — a span now of seven games. That 3-1 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium was the only RSL victory in 10 all-time meetings.
“It will be interesting to see this week if all those people who were saying, ‘They’ve got no chance,’ are suddenly saying, ‘They’ve got a chance.’ That will be interesting,” said RSL head coach Jason Kreis. “Maybe a team improves over the course of a season facing a lot of disappointing situations. At some point it clicks in their minds about all the little things that they have to do in order to win and never give up.”
The teams met twice during the 2009 regular season. The Fire remained undefeated all-time vs. RSL at their Toyota Park home (3-0-2) with a 1-0 victory on Aug. 1; the game’s lone goal came from Patrick Nyarko. The teams then played to a 1-1 draw at RSL’s Rio Tinto Stadium on Sept. 12, with Chicago’s Chris Rolfe and Salt Lake’s Jamison Olave trading goals.