The Eight Minutes That Won MLS Cup No. 4 For L.A.

Written by Ian Thomson

An eight-minute spell early in the second half propelled Los Angeles Galaxy to a fourth Major League Soccer title at Home Depot Center Saturday in David Beckham’s farewell appearance.

Omar Gonzalez’ header on the hour mark and captain Landon Donovan’s penalty five minutes later gave the Galaxy a 2-1 lead following Calen Carr’s opener for Houston Dynamo two minutes before half-time. That capped a miserable passage for the Texans beginning when Carr limped out of the game after an innocuous collision with Gonzalez. Houston never looked like restoring parity and Robbie Keane sealed Los Angeles’ second successive MLS Cup Final win over the Dynamo with another penalty kick deep into injury time.

Carr’s departure curtailed the Dynamo’s offensive threat when it was most needed, but it was Gonzalez’ aerial dominance that turned the game in L.A.’s favor and saw the 6-foot-5-inch center-back receiving the Most Valuable Player trophy. Gonzalez’ attacking presence also led to the Galaxy’s go-ahead penalty while his excellent positioning saw him make a series of important interceptions at the other end.

A comfortable Galaxy win seemed unlikely at the interval. It looked a near certainty once Bruce Arena’s side took the lead. Cheap turnovers dogged a dreary, slovenly first half as both sides struggled to make a final-third impression until Carr’s goal relieved the mediocrity. Houston’s continued sloppiness early in the second half helped the hosts to slowly build momentum, and a cluster of L.A. free kicks and corners provided the pivotal moments.

Pressure Mounts On Dynamo Defense

A couple of dubious refereeing calls aided the Galaxy’s second-half charge. Referee Silviu Petrescu took no action three minutes after the restart when Juninho clearly fouled Corey Ashe. He awarded a soft call to L.A. seconds later following Brad Davis’ tackle on Swedish midfielder Christian Wilhelmsson. Beckham’s delivery bounced off defender Tommy Meyer into the path of Keane. The Irish striker had wandered into an offside position before rifling the ball into Tally Hall’s net, but the disallowed goal enlivened the Galaxy’s home support.

Houston’s slide began on 57 minutes when Carr chased an over-hit pass into the Galaxy’s penalty area. The former Chicago Fire forward stretched out with his left foot to disrupt Gonzalez’ attempt to clear. The powerful defender’s frame ploughed through Carr’s extended leg, twisting the Dynamo player’s knee accidentally as the two collided. Carr’s ungainly challenge conceded a free kick. It also left him hobbling badly and unable to contribute further to his team’s attempt to become MLS champion for the third time in seven years.

Galaxy took immediate advantage of Houston’s disorientation. Beckham, with time and space on the halfway line as the Dynamo prepared to bring on Macoumba Kandji for Carr, sprayed the ball to Sean Franklin on the right wing. The full back’s cross struck Davis’ left arm for a free kick on the edge of Houston’s penalty area. Kandji raced on to help out as the Dynamo’s defense tried to regain its composure to defend the set piece. Gonzalez’ header from Beckham’s cross was deflected wide for a corner and a sudden surge of energy could be detected.

Hall fisted Beckham’s inswinger back toward the touchline where the Englishman and then Franklin changed the angle of attack to find Juninho open on the right edge of the box. The Brazilian midfielder floated a delightful ball toward the back post that begged to be attacked. Gonzalez rose above Houston defenders Bobby Boswell and Kofi Sarkodie to loop his header into the far corner. The defending champion was level on the hour mark and the record 30,510 crowd at Home Depot Center had truly found its voice.

Set Plays Turn Final In Galaxy’s Favor

Another corner arrived two minutes later after Beckham punted a deep free kick into Houston’s penalty box. Gonzalez again soared above Boswell to win the header and Keane swiveled to volley past Hall from six yards. This time Petrescu made a debatable call against the Galaxy by ruling that Gonzalez had climbed on his marker – karma, perhaps, for the decision that robbed Houston’s Andre Hainault of a late winner between these teams in the 2009 Western Conference Final, though it merely delayed the inevitable on this occasion.

Keane drew the game’s first caution from Boswell on 64 minutes after skipping around the defender 40 yards from goal. Gonzalez spun away from his markers to meet Beckham’s cross unchallenged at the back post. Ricardo Clark scrambled the ball away from the six-yard box, though Meyer instantly nodded it back into the danger area. Mike Magee’s overhead kick struck the extended arm of Clark and Petrescu pointed to the penalty spot.

Donovan sends Hall the wrong way to put the Galaxy 2-1 ahead

Hall faced five penalties during the regular season and had been left to pick the ball out of his net on each occasion. Donovan waited for the 27-year-old stopper to edge to his right before coolly slotting his kick low to the left. Momentum had decisively shifted in the Galaxy’s favor.

Dynamo On Top After Poor First Half

Donovan’s goal spared his blushes after an astonishing first-half miss. Houston started in the ascendency with Clark’s dipping shot testing Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders in the first minute and Juninho charging down Davis’ drive three minutes later after the Dynamo captain stripped the ball away from a dawdling Beckham. The Englishman had sharpened up when he collected a loose ball on the edge of the Galaxy’s box on 13 minutes as Houston pushed forward again. Beckham launched an early 40-yard pass over Boswell and Jermaine Taylor for Keane to gather in the inside-left channel.

Donovan steered an early “sitter” past Hall’s left post to keep the game scoreless

The Irishman slid a perfectly weighted ball into Donovan’s stride, teeing up a certain goal from 12 yards, but the United States national team’s all-time leading goalscorer side-footed his shot wide of Hall’s left post.

L.A. Galaxy lined up in its familiar 4-4-2 system with Magee supporting the strikers and Beckham looking to drift wide to the right

Donovan’s inaccuracy typified a poor first half. Saunders struggled to cope with early crosses from Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia, Houston’s Adam Moffat put his team in trouble with a miscued clearance that Donovan eventually scuffed wide, and Wilhelmsson ruined three promising situations for L.A. through a combination of awful crossing and passing.

Magee almost nodded the Galaxy ahead on 19 minutes after Petrescu gave another soft decision in Wilhelmsson’s favor following Davis’ challenge. The former New York Red Bulls midfielder reached Beckham’s free kick at the back post. Moffat defended exceptionally to prevent him from making clear contact and the ball bounced wide of goal.

Petrescu wasn’t conned a minute later when Wilhelmsson burst onto Ashe’s loose touch. Boswell covered but under-hit his pass back to Hall, allowing the Swede to continue his run into Houston’s penalty area. Wilhelmsson shamelessly threw himself to the ground after trying to wrestle his way around Boswell before Hall cleared.

Houston stayed with its recent 4-1-3-2, Moffat lying deeper than the other three midfielders and Davis free to roam across the field

The lack of midfield pressure from both sides saw Moffat keep the ball for 13 seconds at one point. The Scottish holding midfielder produced an excellent performance when the Dynamo beat the Galaxy 2-1 at BBVA Compass Stadium on May 26. His fundamentals were lacking this time around. Another poor pass aimed for Garcia on 23 minutes eventually led to Juninho flashing his shot wide of Hall’s near post from the left edge of the penalty area.

Davis began drifting infield on 25 minutes, probing for a seam on the left side of the Galaxy’s defense as he had done at R.F.K. Stadium in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final against D.C. United. He picked out Sarkodie’s forward raid on 25 minutes after exchanging passes with Clark and Garcia. The 21-year-old right-back stepped inside Magee far too easily and fired off an instinctive toe-poke before Meyer converged. Saunders tipped the ball over his bar for a corner kick.

Hainault, an unused sub on this occasion, scored the winner in this year’s regular-season meeting between these teams when he rose to head Davis’ inswinging corner inside the Galaxy’s unmanned back post. Arena’s side wasn’t about to give up such a simple goal this time around and Keane dropped onto the goal line to help his defense.

Houston’s Andre Hainault (circled) headed the winner into the Galaxy’s unguarded far post during the team’s regular-season meeting in May

Houston struggled to involve top scorer Will Bruin throughout the first half despite holding the edge in possession. Davis finally found the sophomore striker with a cross on 40 minutes that Bruin flicked goalward. Meyer scrambled the ball away from Carr on the edge of the six-yard box.

Carr’s goal when it arrived on 44 minutes perfectly illustrated the benefit of crossover runs by forward players. Moffat, Clark and Garcia kept possession before Clark and Bruin made runs toward the inside-right channel up ahead. Galaxy left-back Todd Dunivant advanced to press Garcia, forcing him back to Moffat who had time to pick a pass as Beckham stayed 10 yards deeper. Clark and Bruin moved inside as Carr crossed over, finding himself between Gonzalez and Meyer as Moffat played the ball into space over L.A.’s defense. Carr took a touch, smartly leaned into the recovering Meyer to prevent him from making a challenge, and coolly lifted his shot high into Saunders’ net as the goalkeeper anticipated a shot toward his far corner.

Carr leaned into Meyer before lifting his shot into the roof of Saunders’ net

Carr’s Miss Keeps Galaxy Within Touching Distance

Two spectacular Beckham passes that released Keane down the Dynamo’s left side caught the eye. What was harder to spot was how his unwillingness to track runners almost put the Galaxy in a 2-0 hole shortly before Gonzalez’ equalizer.

Houston worked the ball from right to left on 55 minutes and Wilhelmsson pushed forward to confront left-back Ashe at the halfway line. Davis shuttled across the midfield, followed by Beckham, to offer a short pass inside before taking off down the touchline ahead of Ashe. Beckham raised his arm as if to pass Davis on to one of his teammates. There were no teammates in support. It was a simple abdication of Beckham’s midfield responsibilities that carried a knock-on effect.

Franklin pushed up to confront Davis, who promptly found Bruin running into space behind the right-back with Gonzalez subsequently being pulled wide from his commanding position at the front post. Carr made a move toward the near post before checking, drifting off Meyer’s shoulder and earning a free header at Bruin’s deep cross. Meyer’s desperate recovery cut off the far corner and forced Carr to aim at Saunders’ left side. He couldn’t generate enough power to beat the goalkeeper.

A sloppy pass across Houston’s back line by Ashe one minute later forced Taylor to steer the ball back to Hall at full stretch under pressure from Donovan and Keane. It was another moment where the Dynamo relinquished its forward momentum and invited the crowd to lend their vocal backing to the hosts. An entirely different feeling surrounded Home Depot Center within 10 minutes.

Galaxy Keeps Back Door Closed While Looking To Counter

Beckham did a better job tracking back on 70 minutes to concede a corner as Kandji burst into L.A.’s penalty area. Bruin couldn’t make a clean connection to Davis’ inswinger and the ball sailed harmlessly wide of target.

Moffat’s disappointing afternoon ended one minute later when Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear replaced him with summer acquisition Giles Barnes. Veteran striker Brian Ching came on for Sarkodie on 77 minutes as Kinnear moved to a 3-5-2 formation to chase the equalizer.

Arena responded by bringing on Edson Buddle and Michael Stephens for Wilhelmsson and Juninho. The Swede’s contribution attracted much scorn for those three wasteful passes when L.A. threatened Houston’s goal. His overall performance deserves greater credit. He defended strongly, curbing Ashe from attacking and largely neutralizing Davis during their 1-vs-1 confrontations. Wilhelmsson’s withdrawal allowed the Galaxy to use Donovan’s added pace and sharpness on the counter attack as Houston pressed forward.

Franklin cleared Bruin’s dangerous cross against the unfortunate Kandji for a goal kick on 78 minutes. Donovan released Keane on the break at the other end five minutes later. The Irishman skipped past Boswell at the edge of the box before firing his shot straight at Hall.

Back came Houston within a minute. Bruin’s shot on the turn from 16 yards after Barnes’ effort had been blocked flew too close to Saunders. Magee found space on the left for L.A. almost immediately afterward, and he floated a ball toward the back post that just eluded Beckham’s reach. The Dynamo was still struggling to move the ball around rapidly in the final third and L.A.’s midfield swarmed around Davis when he took possession. Davis still dug out a cross from the right on 89 minutes that Clark steered tamely toward Saunders.

Garcia kickstarted another Houston foray two minutes into injury time when he danced around two opponents on the halfway line and fed Clark, who had three teammates ahead of him in the final third. The former Eintracht Frankfurt man cheaply gave away possession to Gonzalez, and L.A. launched one last counter attack. Donovan’s long pass found Magee on the left. He paused before chipping the ball into the box behind Boswell and into Keane’s path. Hall fouled the former Tottenham Hotspur striker as he shifted the ball around the goalkeeper, and Keane buried the resulting spot kick low into Hall’s bottom-right corner.

All that remained was for Beckham to receive high fives and hugs from his teammates and everyone on the Galaxy bench as he made way for Marcelo Sarvas in the final seconds. Chants of “Thank You, Beckham” rang out from the fans – a far cry from the jeers that greeted his return from a loan spell at A.C. Milan in the not-too-distant past.