The 16th MLS Cup final provided some drama, but little inspiring soccer as the Los Angeles Galaxy captured their third title Sunday night.
Both Los Angeles and the Houston Dynamo displayed commitment and physicality, the Galaxy’s high-priced talent - David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane - making the difference in a 1-0 victory.
But there was not much to hold a neutral observer’s interest. The emphasis on physical play that predominates in most soccer in this country is reflected in the style of most MLS teams, and the lack of sophistication in the US game was on display in Carson, Calif.
The Galaxy have a good balance of skill and strength, and deserve to be champion after completing two successive impressive seasons. The trick now for the Galaxy is to overcome league financial restrictions that were set up to promote parity among teams but instead have led to mediocrity.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena already has seen one of his creations stripped down. Arena guided D.C. United to the first three MLS Cup finals, then left for the US national team, United soon declining.
The Galaxy could stay on top for a while, though. Only two of their players in Sunday’s game - Beckham and Keane - are over 30. And only Omar Gonzalez, 23, is certain to be on foreign teams’ shopping lists.
Beckham’s future is in question, but even if he doesn’t return, he paved the way for the next Galaxy designated player. And Arena already has lined up replacements for Gonzalez.
The Galaxy should have no problem attracting high-profile performers. Skillful foreigners easily will be convinced to join MLS, based on Beckham’s experience. But if they watched Sunday’s game closely, they would have noticed at least one incident that might give them pause.
Late in the match, Beckham was running with the ball, starting a counterattack. Houston right back Andre Hainault, caught upfield, simply cut down Beckham. Referee Ricardo Salazar awarded a free kick but did not caution Hainault, his judgment likely conditioned because Hainault already had been issued a yellow card.
But it is that kind of thinking that helps hold back MLS. Hainault knew the chance he was taking but believed it was worth risking being ejected. There could have been no protest from Houston had a caution been given.
No matter if Hainault’s tackle had been determined to be a dangerous play or professional foul, it was the type of contact that could discourage potential marquee performers from risking their careers in MLS.
And it isn’t just the chance of a serious injury being sustained by Beckham, or other star players. If those types of plays are allowed, the game will degenerate.
A few minutes after Beckham had picked himself up and, presumably, recovered - though it looked like the combination of rough play and slick conditions had taken its toll - he decided it was his turn to make a crude attempt to stifle a counterattack. Beckham grabbed Carlo Costly from behind in a rugby tackle that appeared to place him in more danger than the powerful, fresh Costly, who had been on the field for 18 minutes as a substitute.
This time, Salazar showed the yellow card, though Beckham had not done anything worse than what Hainault had done to him.
One of the fundamental concepts of soccer is that most problems can be solved by intelligence and skill. But players must be encouraged to do so. This starts with messages being sent by coaches and followed up by referees’ enforcement of the rules. But the media and spectators also have to demand teams place a premium on skillful play.
The Revolution developed a reputation as a physical team when they were making MLS Cup final appearances. But their most technical players also suffered in those days. Clint Dempsey had been so debilitated by tackles from behind in the runup to the ’06 final he was going half speed in the game and was unable to participate in the penalty kick shootout.
Neither the Revolution nor Dempsey, who played at least two games with an undiagnosed broken jaw during the 2004 season, complained about rough treatment. But, the fact is, if the league’s better players are victims of gratuitous mistreatment, there is little chance MLS consistently will produce games worth viewing.
Sunday’s match was a final, so the teams played cautiously in order to limit mistakes and defended ruthlessly. But the spirit and tenor of the game did not seem much different than a regular-season MLS match. The stakes might have been high, but that does not mean the style of play has to be chaotic.
Beckham’s contract has expired and he is being courted by Paris Saint-Germain and teams in the Middle East. But Beckham’s postgame speech to the Galaxy at the Staples Center did not make it sound like he is leaving MLS, according to a league source.
“Beckham gave a toast, saying this has been a good night for all of our families to spend together,’’ a source said. “It was not like ‘this is the end.’ ’’
Anschutz Entertainment Group hedged its bets in the final, since it controls both the Galaxy and Houston. But this was the first time an AEG team won the MLS Cup since 2007, when the Dynamo concluded a six-year AEG run.
Protecting their interests
Midfielder Shalrie Joseph and goaltender Matt Reis were among 11 players the Revolution protected in preparation for tomorrow’s MLS expansion draft for league newcomer Montreal. Also protected were Kevin Alston, Benny Feilhaber, Rajko Lekic, Stephen McCarthy, Sainey Nyassi, Bobby Shuttleworth, A.J. Soares, Chris Tierney, and Monsef Zerka. Diego Fagundez is automatically protected because of his home-grown status . . . Among Revolution coach Jay Heaps’s first moves will be to replace assistants Peter Fuller and Steve Myles, whose contracts have not been renewed. Fuller coached the reserve team this season, and Myles was Steve Nicol’s top assistant the last two years . . . Revolution all-time leading scorer Taylor Twellman has been named ESPN’s lead analyst for MLS and US national team games, replacing John Harkes, another former Revolution player.
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.