Dynamo's Hall: Two teams at their best vying for MLS Cup

HOUSTON – This time last year, the Dynamo were reeling from an MLS Cup final that for the first time in their history did not go their way. On Sunday, when final week kicked off, it was clear that work is underway to ensure disappointment doesn’t strike again.

While the 2012 MLS Cup clearly has a familiar feel to last year’s edition – same teams, same venue – Houston are a much different team than the one that absorbed 1-0 loss at the Home Depot Center last November.

After meeting eight times from 2009-11, the teams played only once during the 2012 regular season, a 2-1 victory for Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium on May 26. That game, however, was altered by injuries and national team call-ups that limited both teams’ lineups.

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Fast forward six months, and Houston now have three new starters – Boniek García, Ricardo Clark and Kofi Sarkodie – while LA are back to full strength, with stars such as Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez, and Landon Donovan (all of whom missed the May matchup) back in the lineup.

“What makes it a challenge is that they have all their players back,” Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall said after Sunday’s training session. “Watching LA, attacking-wise, they’re once again attacking on all cylinders. So it’s going to be a fun game, because they’re at their best, and I feel like we’re playing our best soccer. It should be two teams who are playing their best going after one thing.”

With all hands on deck, LA are no longer the team that, as Galaxy boss Bruce Arena pointed out, had some thinking the Galaxy would miss the playoffs early in the campaign. In their place is a group that carved up their Western Conference foes for nine goals in five games.

Still, the Dynamo don’t have the time or inclination to spend much time thinking about LA’s form. They’re trying to keep the focus as internal possible as they prepare for the winner-take-all match.

“We’re back here, and it’s interesting that LA is back here again, but as long as we stay focused on ourselves, we can’t really control everything else,” defender Kofi Sarkodie said. “We want to put in a good performance, everyone working for each other, and that’s about it.”

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Predictably, head coach Dominic Kinnear echoed those sentiments.

“In the coaches’ room, we’re trying to treat this as another week as much as we can,” the Dynamo boss  added. “You don’t want to try and change it, because players will feel you’re doing too much or you’re feeling a little bit nervous.”

As for last year's final, a 1-0 Houston loss, if it has any effect on this year's preparations, it seems likely to center around individual motivation rather than provide any tactical insight.

“When that game ended against the Galaxy last year, you wanted to play it again right away,” forward Calen Carr said, who spent the Thanksgiving break rehabbing his strained hamstring. “We’ve waited a long time, but now we get another chance to do it.”

Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.