Kick Off: Storybook finish has some pondering: Best yet?
Confetti. Queen blaring over the speakers. Grown men wiping misty eyes which shimmer with the reflection of the brightly polished MLS Cup.
Late Sunday night, the LA Galaxy capped off an incredible year which already boasted the best record in the league with a playoff triumph as well. View match highlights of the 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in the final.
But this was no ordinary triumph. For one, it came in front of a home crowd at the Home Depot Center (with over 30,000 crammed inside). It also was a trophy five years in the making, with David Beckham waiting until the last MLS game of his five-year contract to win the league's most celebrated prize.
It marks the first time a team with a Designated Player has won MLS Cup, which led to some mulling about the impact the Galaxy's win will have on the purse strings of owners across the league.
Others wondered where the 2011 Galaxy rank among the best teams in MLS history. The consensus: right at the tippy top.
Bruce Arena coached another of the teams in contention, the D.C. United outfit that won the first two MLS Cups. He equivocated when asked where the Galaxy ranked, saying he'd leave that to journalists to decide, but he didn't shy away when evaluating the season. "This is a damn good year, it really is."
It took Arena three-and-a-half years in California to build a championship team. But the former US boss admits he nearly ran away when he got his first glance at the Galaxy roster upon taking over midway through the 2008 season.
Questions following the match quickly turned to Beckham's future, with the Englishman's contract expiring at the end of the calender year. The 36-year-old shrugged off that topic, maintaining that no decision had been made. “Whatever he decides to do, I support it, 100 percent. He's earned that,” Arena said. “If he decides to get on his horse and ride into the sunset, I'm all for it – whatever he wants to do. He's earned the right to make the kind of decision he wants to make for him and his family.” (VIDEO)
The emotion of the moment caked Becks' face and broke through in an incessant grin. With the final whistle, Beckham called his three sons out onto the field and onto the podium for the trophy celebration. Then he enjoyed the triumph in the locker room in good ole American fashion: with a Budweiser.
Beckham has now won titles in three different nations. Still, there were some who doubted his ability while still in his 20s at Real Madrid. In the press conference, he wore a mischievous grin as he pointed out that: "It's always nice to have doubters along the way. And it's always nice to prove them wrong."
There's no need to convince Arena of his star midfielder's quality. "I've been around great athletes and competitors in my life in different sports," the coach said. "This guy is as good as they come."
Perhaps most impressively, Beckham injured his hamstring on Tuesday and didn't train for most of the week. Additionally, Arena revealed that goalscoring hero Landon Donovan has been carrying a quad injury for a couple months.
All three DPs connected to score the game's lone goal. Beckham headed the ball to Robbie Keane, who fed Donovan. “I remember the first day [Keane] got here,” Donovan said. “Watching him pass the ball, I was really impressed. I didn’t realize what a good passer he was. And the pass he gave me for the goal was fantastic. Absolutely world class.”
The offense will dominate the headlines, but equally vital in beating Houston was the LA backline. The Galaxy won 11 matches with 1-0 scorelines in 2011, wich speaks to the tightness of the defense throughout the season.
The formidable pair in the heart of defense for LA has been together for six seasons. The catch? Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza have only been in the league for three years. Prior to that, they anchored Maryland's back line.
Of course, on the other side, the Dynamo were left only with "what-ifs" and disappointment. Watch Dominic Kinnear and Brian Ching don steel-eyed gazes as they magnanimously fielded questions during the postmatch press conference: “We were a little bit slow. We just weren't clearing our lines fast enough,” Kinnear allowed. (VIDEO)
Kinnear also rued a strain to Geoff Cameron's right knee, which he felt hampered his side's ability to press: “He wasn't his normal self.”
Still, the two-time MLS Cup-winning coach couldn't complain too much, as he felt LA worthy of the title. "They're the best team in the league from Day 1 to now," Kinnear said. "They kind of led from the first to the last (day), and they're a deserving champion."
With the Galaxy celebrating into the night, the Dynamo fans could only remorsefully turn around and head back to Texas. A full 48 rode buses 28 hours to witness the match, and all they have to show for their devotion is a handful of the 1,000 orange flash lights passed out to recall the Western Conference final in 2009 when power outages impacted a Galaxy win.
But the two teams playing weren't the only sides with real consequences from the game. LA's win means the Seattle Sounders qualify directly into the CONCACAF Champions League group stages next year.
In the CCL, Sounders FC will wear a new third kit, dubbed “cyan blue,” which replaces the old “electricity yellow.” They'll feature in most cup competitions. (PICTURE)
Along with a new jersey in tow, Seattle will head into the 2012 with something else freshened up: the schedule. The league announced an unbalanced schedule in 2012 focused on prioritizing local rivalries and limiting travel.
The new schedule is one of many changes happening across the league. Commissioner Don Garber spoke with several media outlets about MLS as a whole and its direction in the buildup to the final. Perhaps the most thorough was a lengthy interview with SI.com..
Also ahead of the final, MLS announced the club and executive award winners. The Portland Timbers' Mike Golub won the Doug Hamilton Executive of the Year prize. Catch the full list here.
Golub's distinction came hot on the heels of the news that the Timbers, who sold out every home game in 2011, have already sold out of season tickets for 2012.
Portland easily rank as one of the best MLS attendance stories. So too do Sporting Kansas City's uptick in support. The 2011 season saw an attendance jump of 73 percent at home games. “At a very basic level, the team is now playing in a field that’s the correct shape for soccer,” said Josh Whisenhunt, who is part of Sporting KC's communications team.
As MLS grows in attendance and popularity, so soccer gains prominence in the United States. This San Francisco Chronicle feature takes a look at soccer's rise in America over the past several years.
While the offseason provides ample opportunity to take stock of soccer's place, club officials focus on kick off in 2012. Real Salt Lake found themselves stretched thin by injuries and suspension in an ultimately disappointing 2011, and coach Jason Kreis would like more roster wiggle room: "I think we need to get our roster deeper. I think it needs to be 28 strong that we can rely on next year, but we won't need to rely on a lot of those players until the end of the season."
Over the Rocky Mountain range, the Colorado Rapids plot a return to the MLS Cup summit. One thing that may help are the lessons midfield anchor Jeff Larentowicz picks up training with England's Bolton during the winter: "The more I am able to play with players of this calibre, the more I learn and improve."
Sunday night's game marked the last MLS game until March, but the soccer on TV is endless. At 1 p.m. ET, Tottenham Hotspur take on Aston Villa in the English Premier League on ESPNDeportes and ESPN3.com.
Lastly, some sad news. The funeral for former Revs and Galaxy player Winston "Fanna" Griffiths was held over the weekend. The testimonials and memories make for touching reading.
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Gallery: MLS Cup 2011 in pictures