Armchair Analyst: How Houston can stun the Galaxy

LOS ANGELES — Every MLS Cup final has a narrative, and thanks to David Beckham, this year’s version is pretty easy to latch onto. His Royal Becksness is playing his last official game for the LA Galaxy, destined for parts as yet unknown to us mere mortals.

There’s also a chance that this could be Landon Donovan’s last game. On Thursday’s ExtraTime Radio, Taylor Twellman guaranteed that the Galaxy legend would take a year off. It could be the end of the Omar Gonzalez era as well, as European clubs are certainly watching his progress.

Brad Davis is back. Boniek García is awesome. Bruce Arena and Dominic Kinnear are the two best postseason coaches in MLS history.

These are the boldface headlines this week. I’ve read those articles, and so have you.

But the boldface headlines haven’t told the whole story. With two evenly matched teams (and that’s what we have here), it’s often the little things that matter most. Yes, Beckham can scorch you from 30 yards, but six other guys need to be a part of the passing sequence that gets him an open look from that distance. Yes, Will Bruin can go top shelf with that nifty little chop-step finish he’s patented, but the entire Dynamo team has to do serious work both on and off the ball to get him an open lane to run into.

Soccer, played right, is a game of useful interactions. The best teams know how to create them, and the best coaches know how to gameplan against them.

And the more I think about it, the more it really comes down to one thing: If the Dynamo pin back Sean Franklin and Todd Dunivant, they’ll find a way to win. If they don’t, Beckham goes out on top.

Take a look at the charts below. On the left is the first leg of the Western Conference Championship, a 3-0 LA win over Seattle. Dunivant and Franklin combined to complete 83 passes, dragged the Sounders defense all the way to the touchline (repeatedly), and created a ton of room for Donovan and Robbie Keane to work in. Franklin wasn’t the boldface name afterward, but he may have been the key player on the evening.

On the right is the second leg, a 2-1 loss for LA. Combined successful passes for Franklin and Dunivant were less than half of leg one, and Franklin, in particular, created none of the width that he’d found so readily in the first 90 minutes.

Three caveats: LA really hate playing on turf; they really hate playing without Donovan; and they were protecting a 3-0 lead in that second leg. So of course they weren’t going to overlap as much.

Nonetheless, Seattle laid a pretty effective blueprint for Kinnear to follow. And it’s actually more evident the fullback duo’s unsuccessful passes in that second leg:

That’s a lot of long balls, which is a pretty good indication of the pressure LA were under throughout. And as we saw all season with Sporting KC, and in fits and starts with Houston, the best way to press a team into hasty clearances is to spread it out and play a high, aggressive 4-3-3.

Not only would that formation mean Franklin and Dunivant always have a guy in their face, but it also gives the Dynamo a numbers-up central midfield advantage. Houston won the possession battle 27 times in 34 games this year (and yeah, possession is a dangerous stat to rely upon), and strung together some of the longest passing sequences of the year. Putting Davis, and Adam Moffat and Rico Clark, in the central midfield means that Beckham and Juninho will be chasing instead of initiating. It makes it a Dominic Kinnear game, not a Bruce Arena game.

Of course, what makes the Galaxy so hard to beat is that, if you press them, they can counter you to death. And even if Houston plays great, there’s a decent chance they’ll lose because Keane and Donovan are just that good.

But Kinnear & Co. can probably live with that. Cut the “other guys” out of the play and make the boldface names beat you. If they manage it, you tip their cap and start planning for 2013.

Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.