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The Throw-In: Arena vs. Kinnear is like Walsh vs. Shula

Throw-In: Arena and Kinnear

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LOS ANGELES – Sometimes championship games really don’t need any introduction or side plots to dress them up. The matchups simply speak for themselves.

Saturday’s MLS Cup final is one of those occasions. Oh sure, we can dress this one up to death – and we sure are trying, aren’t we? Who’s possibly playing their last game, who’s possibly playing in their first MLS Cup, who’s out for redemption, who’s out for revenge…

The list goes on and on. And given the two-week lead-up into this one, it’s almost imperative that we media types wring this dripping-wet washcloth for every last morsel of narrative.

For me, it comes down to one basic element: greatness.

It’s not very often that you get a game that pits pure legend against pure legend. MLS Cup 2012 comes down to Bruce Arena vs. Dominic Kinnear. These are two of the winningest coaches in US soccer history. They’ve been here, they’ve done it and they keep on doing it. And that is a very rare thing indeed.

Let’s say we were to carve a Mount Rushmore of MLS coaches into the side of a mountain somewhere. (Maybe we could start with RFK Stadium – I understand there’s a lot of concrete there.)

If I were to say you get to pick four coaches, whom would you choose? Arena and Kinnear are no-brainers. Sigi Schmid, too. The fourth, you can debate Bob Bradley vs. Frank Yallop, and I probably wouldn’t disagree with either one.

Those five guys dominate the all-time lists of honors. They account for 10 of the 18 MLS Coach of the Year awards handed out and 10 total MLS Cup titles (11 by Saturday evening). They’re also the top five names on the list of all-time regular-season victories.

Matchups between these guys don’t happen often. Before last year’s LA-Houston showdown, members of this coaching fraternity had collided only once before: at MLS Cup 2001, when Schmid’s Galaxy faced Yallop’s San Jose Earthquakes (with Kinnear as Yallop’s top assistant).

So why is this one so special? After all, it happened last year, right?

It’s about dominance – pure, unadulterated dominance over your craft. Peaking at the right time, establishing that “d” word that Arena is so loath to use: dynasty.

Arena is the first coach to lead a club into six MLS Cup finals. That number is not even funny when you think about the relatively short amount of time Arena has actually been in MLS. Somehow we seem to gloss over the fact that he wasn’t part of the league during his eight years in charge of the US national team – that’s a little less than half of MLS’ entire existence.

Put it another way: Discount his 2006 and ’08 half-seasons in charge, when he took over the Red Bulls and Galaxy, respectively, in midsummer, and Arena has only failed to lead his team to MLS Cup twice. That’s six trips out of eight full seasons. And that is mind-blowing.

What about Kinnear? He’s no slouch, either. This is his fourth time coaching a team in the final in the past seven years. And then consider the fact that he was Yallop’s Consigliere for San Jose’s 2001 and ’03 championship runs. That means Kinnear’s influence has helped a team to MLS Cup six times in 12 years. Wow.

So what does all this mean? We can bury you with impressive numbers all day, but on their own, that doesn’t necessarily capture the greatness of either man. It’s about what they’ve built and how they’ve gone about it.

In Kinnear’s case, he has established himself as a force in this league over the entire existence of one franchise. Sure, a lot of the faces have changed. But the core has stayed the same – even if many of them have joined Kinnear’s coaching staff – and that means Dom’s ethos is his club.

The work ethic, the mentality, the pragmatism and all the rest is what makes Dynamo soccer what it is. Very rarely has a club been so single-mindedly the product of one person’s influence and seen this much success. You may not love the aesthetics of a Kinnear-led team, but you cannot argue with the results and the buy-in of every player who puts on an orange jersey.

Meanwhile, Arena can become the only coach to lead a team to back-to-back titles twice. You think about his first dynasty at D.C. United back in the beginning of Major League Soccer and you think of the seemingly effortless way he got arguably the greatest collection of talent in league history to work together.

What he’s done during his four-and-a-half seasons with the Galaxy is tantalizingly close to the same feat. But he also repaired something that was very broken when he arrived in LA, established a winning culture by bolstering his roster and got his superstars to buy in. Three MLS Cup final appearances in four seasons is a stunning achievement.

So appreciate Saturday’s big game for whatever reason you choose. Just keep in mind it’ll be one of those rare occasions where the great minds of the game lock horns. Krzyzewski vs. Smith. Walsh vs. Shula. Riley vs. Jackson. Bowman vs. Demers.

It’s that kind of occasion. Remember it well.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.