Climbing the Ladder: Landon Donovan, Geoff Cameron
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Climbing the Ladder: A closer look at MLS Cup

The bottom line on MLS Cup is simple: It’s one game, and anything is possible.

When examining a fixture which has seen the team with the better record upset nine times out of 15, it’s hard to find trends that indicate success. Other than win-loss records, goal differential is probably the best measure of a team’s quality, and it has predicted eight of 13 winners (two years were even). San Jose in 2001 and Real Salt Lake in 2009 stand out as the two champions with worse records but a better goal differential.

This year, the LA Galaxy seemingly have every advantage heading into Sunday’s MLS Cup final. They already have homefield advantage, finished 19 points higher in the standings, a goal difference of +20 compared to Houston’s +4, and have watched the Dynamo’s MVP finalist, Brad Davis, ruled out with an injury.

What are their chances of winning? A home team in a one-off playoff game should win about 61 percent of the time, but the difference between the two this season suggests higher odds. One of the top betting websites lists odds that equate to the Galaxy having a 71 percent chance of winning, while a poll on Stephen Goff’s blog, Soccer Insider, saw readers peg LA’s chances in the mid-80s.

It’s fair to say that if Houston win, it will go down as the largest upset in MLS Cup history. That would be true in terms of the points per game difference, but even more so given all the other factors. Most people didn’t like their chances against Sporting Kansas City, especially without Davis, so who’s to say they can’t do it again? They do have one thing going for them: No team has won the title with a Designated Player since the introduction of the rule in 2007.

2. Galaxy looking good in case of shootout

With a win in regulation or extra time, LA or Houston would become the first playoff team to take maximum points from every postseason game. D.C. United and the Chicago Fire each went 5-0 in 1997 and 1998, but both had matches end in penalty kick shootouts. The only thing that could prevent a perfect playoff run for either team in this year's Cup is the dreaded shootout.

2011 MLS Cup: Penalty Shootout Records
Name Made Attempts PCT
Brian Ching 2 4 50%
Colin Clark 1 1 100%
Corey Ashe 0 1 0%
Geoff Cameron 0 1 0%
Bryan Jordan 1 1 100%
David Beckham 1 1 100%
Gregg Berhalter 1 1 100%
Todd Dunivant 1 1 100%
Jovan Kirovski 2 3 67%
Landon Donovan 2 4 50%
Mike Magee 1 2 50%

As if their other advantages weren’t enough, the Galaxy would probably be favorites in a shootout as well. That’s not just because of World Cup penalty veterans in David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Their players have simply performed better than Houston’s in shootouts involving MLS teams. Seven Galaxy players have taken a penalty in a shootout, and all have made at least one. Together, they’ve made nine of 13 (69 percent), compared to Houston’s three of seven (43 percent). The Dynamo’s best player from the spot is the little used Jason Garey (2/2), but he’s unavailable through injury in addition to Davis (0/1). The Galaxy will be without Chad Barrett (1/1).

Of course, the Dynamo know a thing or two about shootouts. Houston have only emerged victorious from one out of four in their history, but it was the one that mattered. They won the 2006 MLS Cup on penalties while the Galaxy lost the 2009 MLS Cup the same way. Brian Ching is the only Houston penalty taker left from that '06 team, and he was successful in scoring the fifth kick that day. Meanwhile, the first five of the Galaxy’s 2009 penalty takers all return: Beckham, Gregg Berhalter, Jovan Kirovski (miss), Donovan (miss), and Mike Magee. They went 3-for-5 before losing in the seventh round.

3. Experience and the 2011 final

There have only been 10 players in 15 years to start in an MLS Cup with less than 10 MLS regular season appearances. On Sunday, two more should join that list: LA's Robbie Keane and Houston's Luiz Camargo. Both midseason additions are now a sure part of their team’s first 11, and they will look to join the likes of Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez in making an immediate impact by leading their new team to victory on Sunday.

Fewest Career Regular Season Games Played by an MLS Cup Starter
Year Name Club Games Played
1996 Jaime Moreno DC 9
1997 Chris Martinez COL 8
2000 Tenywa Bonseu CHI 2
2002 Daodua Kante NE 8
2004 Christian Gomez DC 9
2004 Khari Stephenson KC 3
2006 Paul Daglish HOU 6
2008 Danny Cepero NY 2
2008 Diego Jimenez NY 6
2009 Chris Birchall LA 9
2011 Luiz Carmargo HOU 7
2011 Robbie Keane LA 4

In terms of overall experience, Houston was the greenest team in this year’s playoffs. Their starting lineup – assuming Jermaine Taylor takes the place of Davis – has played a combined 953 career regular season games. Since 2004, only the 2008 New York Red Bulls have fielded an MLS Cup lineup with less total experience. LA will have more experience than Houston regardless of who replaces Barrett. If it’s Adam Cristman, the combined total is 1,159 games. However, the median for each of those lineups is equal at 79, which means that both teams are pretty similar in this department.

The most experienced MLS Cup lineup ever? That would be the 2007 Dynamo, with a total of 1,584 games worth. Every player had at least 84 regular season games behind them, with nine in triple figures. Maybe that time in the trenches played a role in not panicking after conceding an early goal to the New England Revolution, as the Dynamo rallied in the second half to win 2-1.

Speaking of comebacks, they have become somewhat of a theme throughout the years, as only eight of 15 teams to open the scoring have gone on to lift the trophy.

But going back to experience, Bobby Boswell is set to start for Houston, which will end a long personal streak for the former Defender of the Year. After 192 regular season games in his career, he’ll finally play in an MLS Cup. That’s the third most experience of any active player to miss out on the final, behind only Chicago's Logan Pause (227) and San Jose's Jon Busch (213). Barrett also ranks in the top 10 (174), but he’ll miss out. Current RSL coach Jason Kreis remains the all-time leader with 305 games played, though he’s since won a championship from the sideline as a coach.

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