Dallas George John and LA's Edson Buddle go up for the ball.
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Western Conference Championship Head-to-Head preview

The LA Galaxy’s Donovan Ricketts – 2010’s MLS Goalkeeper of the Year – may have been the least-heralded addition of Bruce Arena’s tenure, but the big Jamaican has had as significant an impact as anyone on the roster. Ricketts has sure hands and takes great angles. His distribution with his feet is weak, but he has the right arm of a cricketer. If he gets a chance to start a break with a throw, he’ll take it.


While Ricketts has been great, it’s actually FC Dallas 'keeper Kevin Hartman who holds every significant LA goalkeeping record, and it could be argued that Hartman’s 2010 was the best year in league history. His .62 GAA was best in the league, and he stopped 56 of the 68 shots he faced, only cementing his status as the best pure shot-stopper in league history. The one blemish? A September injury.

The headliner for the league’s second-stingiest defense is towering second-year central defender Omar Gonzalez. His dominance in the air is one of the reasons why the Galaxy are the league’s best at both scoring and defending set-pieces. A.J. DeLaGarza, his college teammate, has filled the breech nicely after a midseason injury to veteran Gregg Berhalter, while fullbacks Sean Franklin and Todd Dunivant provide quality both going forward and defending.


The cast of characters in FC Dallas’ defense is seemingly as large and diverse as a Tolstoy novel. They’ve needed every bit of that depth this year, as FCD have been plagued by injuries and have had to mix and match on an almost weekly basis. The fact that it’s worked is a testament not only to the individual quality of the players involved, but to a system whose strength lies in its simplicity.

There’s obviously star-power aplenty in the Los Angeles midfield. David Beckham and Landon Donovan are offensive catalysts, and both look to have recovered their best form after an injury and post-World Cup fatigue, respectively. Watch for Beckham to pinch inside, helping Juninho and Dema Kovalenko in possession and allowing space for Franklin to push into attack. Donovan will stay wider and higher, then dive toward goal once he has the defense on their back foot.


Defensive midfielder Daniel Hernandez has been the rock upon which FC Dallas’ success is built. The veteran – of both MLS and the Mexican Primera División – serves the dual purpose of protecting the back line and igniting the attack. Kovalenko will be in his face all game, and how Hernandez handles that will go a long way toward determining whether or not attackers Brek Shea, Marvin Chavez, Atiba Harris and, most importantly, David Ferreira are successful. If Hernandez has a good game, chances are FCD will, too.

World Cup veteran Edson Buddle lost the race for the Golden Boot on the last weekend of the season, but he’s consoled himself with two goals in two playoff games. And lest we forget, the annual “Edson Buddle Hat-Trick Day” hasn’t happened yet in 2010. Beyond Buddle, though, the pickings are somewhat slim. Mike Magee is a clever runner off the ball and good passer, but an inconsistent finisher (his goal in last year’s MLS Cup final notwithstanding).


FC Dallas boast the league’s second all-time leading scorer in Jeff Cunningham, who had another good year with 11 goals. But even with Cunningham and fellow frontrunner Milton Rodríguez (who will miss the match with an injury) finding the net regularly, much of FCD’s offense comes from the midfield. Ferreira lurks in the hole just underneath Cunningham, while whichever two of Shea, Harris and Chávez happen to be on the field crash the box from out wide.

Arena wrote the book on how to win in MLS when he built D.C. United’s great dynasty of the ‘90s. While that team was built around the playmaking brilliance of Marco Etcheverry, a traditional No. 10, this Galaxy team has diversified. Donovan still managed to lead the league in assists, but Arena has built a team that can beat you from almost every angle. And it goes without saying, he knows how to win.


Most preseason debates about who’d win MLS Coach of the Year probably didn’t include Schellas Hyndman. That didn’t stop him from taking the award, forging a 19-game unbeaten streak out of a seemingly mismatched roster of unheralded youngsters and reclamation-project veterans. While the award is a fitting tribute, and Hyndman has proved any doubters wrong, he can’t match Arena’s championship pedigree.

When Dunivant picked up an injury before the playoffs, Eddie Lewis stepped in at left back and didn’t miss a beat. Berhalter, who was a starter, is now backing up Gonzalez and DeLaGarza. Chris Birchall can play anywhere in the midfield, and rookie Michael Stephens is a potent playmaking force off the bench. The Galaxy don’t have a lot of pure attacking options up front, but they haven’t really needed them. There’s enough in the cupboard to play multiple formations, and they can always bring on an extra midfielder and push Donovan up top if they’re desperate.


One of the things about an injury plagued season is that you learn who can handle the job, and who’s not quite up to it. FC Dallas have an inordinate amount of guys who fall into that first category, and Hyndman has put them to good use. However, the loss of starting right back Heath Pearce, along with Rodríguez, will test FCD’s remaining depth. That lack of options and flexibility can come back to haunt them.
Los Angeles came out of the gate back in March like a house afire. They slumped during the middle of the season, but then picked it up again down the stretch and then comprehensively handled the Seattle Sounders in the first round. They’re healthier, they’re more experienced, and they have three veterans (Beckham, Buddle, Donovan) in “You’ll have to kill us to beat us” mode. And with Beckham standing over the ball on set-pieces, they have an advantage no other team in the league can claim.


FC Dallas have returned to their stingy defensive ways now that Hartman and Hernandez have recovered from injuries. They also have the size and athleticism along the back line to make life miserable for Buddle and Donovan. It still probably won’t be enough. FCD have had a great season, but everything about this team says “They’re a year away.” If they do pull off the win, it’ll be one of the biggest surprises in playoff history.

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