Tomorrow at 3 eastern, the final match in the 2014 MLS season kicks off. One participant is no surprise. Los Angeles Galaxy are rapidly becoming the default hosts of MLS Cup as much as the default winners.
They don't dominate the entire season like one has to in European leagues, but they have mastered the art of doing enough. Head coach Bruce Arena controversially dropped Robbie Keane for the final regular season game in Seattle, even though the Supporters' Shield was on the line.
Arena maintained throughout, that the MLS Cup was all that mattered and his side duly came up short in Seattle. Real Salt Lake awaited them in the first knock out phase. RSL are a hurdle for LA that they take very seriously. Only once in the last six years have LA Galaxy been eliminated by someone other than RSL, by Dallas in 2010.
Their goalkeeper Jaime Penedo saved them from a very dangerous first leg result in Utah in squally conditions. The match finished scoreless.
In the return leg, Galaxy were outstanding and swamped RSL 5-0. In the Western Conference final, they actually trailed Sounders FC with one quarter of the two legged tie remaining after (yet) another 2-goal meltdown.
LA surrendered two goals in quick succession in three of their last four games with the Sounders, in every case when being in a dominant or leading position. That tendency to nod off may give New England an opportunity.
Against Seattle in the regular season, they surrendered a comfortable 2-0 lead and lost the upper hand in the Shield. Still they could have won the Shield with a victory in Seattle, but two goals by Marco Pappa in rapid succession put paid to that.
They repeated the pattern surrendering two quick goals in the first half at the same stadium in the playoffs. Somehow they survived all three.
Like Seattle, New England have a quality above the MLS norm. Much has been written about US international Jermaine Jones who will have many good reasons for remembering 2014. His goal in Manaus against Portugal will long be remembered as one of the finest and most enthralling in US Soccer history.
Although he seemed somewhat unanimated in the press conference, that is just his public nature. His calm demeanour is in contrast to his physical approach on the pitch where his style is to stake out territory in the crucial central areas of midfield. His partner is the increasingly influential Scott Caldwell. They will be up against Juninho and Sarvas and there is no guarantee that the LA duo will have things their own way, even on their home field.
One other interesting battle is not a direct confrontation in the pitch, but between two players who were in direct competition for the league MVP. LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane prevailed in that vote over New England's Lee Nguyen.
Keane is more an out-and-out centre forward and his finishing is among the crispest the league has ever seen. Nguyen has had a marquee season and few of us saw it coming. However, he has been exciting to watch, shown a great touch and added 18 goals, an immense contribution for a non-forward. Nguyen got my MVP vote and I am still curious how to forward with just one more goal pips a midfielder with that tally.
Nguyen has nine game winning goals (to Keane's five).
If he were to have the kind of match that led to those numbers, we may be in for the biggest shock seen at the StubHub since Dallas dismantled LA in a second leg in 2010 or Chivas USA announced a realistic attendance number.