Galaxy's Landon Donovan walks down the ramp to the field at the Home… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
The MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center on Sunday has a number of compelling story lines, including a straight one that starts with Houston Coach Dominic Kinnear, passes though his captain, Brian Ching, then ends with Galaxy teammates Landon Donovan and Todd Dunivant.
That quartet won an MLS Cup together eight years ago in San Jose, after which Donovan and Dunivant headed off to Los Angeles and the entire San Jose franchise later moved to Houston.
The foundation for this year's championship game might have been poured back then.
"There is a special connection with that old Earthquakes team," Dunivant conceded. "There's a lot of players that have gone on to do big things."
Kinnear, for example, coached Ching and the Dynamo to consecutive MLS Cup titles in the team's first two seasons in Houston. That came after Donovan and Dunivant won a championship their first year in Los Angeles in 2005.
So was it destiny that brought them together again in another MLS Cup?
"I never really thought about it that way," Ching said. "It's kind of cool, though."
Expect most of those warm, fuzzy feelings to fade Sunday when the opening whistle begins what might be the most-hyped title game in MLS history. The possibility that the match could be David Beckham's last in a Galaxy uniform in Southern California has drawn 400 journalists from around the world. And the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center sold out shortly after the Galaxy-Dynamo final was set.
When makeshift bleachers were added to accommodate nearly 5,000 more fans, those tickets were scooped up within minutes.
"I'm hoping it's a difference," said Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, whose team is unbeaten in 23 home matches this year. "There are certain advantages we have. But they get thrown out the window if you step on the field and you're not ready to play."
Anything less than victory would be a surprise and a disappointment for Arena. Behind Donovan, Irish import Robbie Keane and Beckham — fit again after missing two days of practice with back and hamstring troubles — the Galaxy have the most explosive offense in MLS. And with a record-tying 17 shutouts and a goals-against average of 0.82 in the regular season, they have perhaps the best defense in MLS history — one that helped them post the league's best record for the second year in a row.
And while Houston comes in riding a nine-match unbeaten streak — a streak that includes a 3-1 rout of the Galaxy — the Dynamo is without scoring leader Brad Davis, who tore his right quadriceps in the conference final. Plus they won two of 17 regular-season games on the road, failing to score in Home Depot Center losses to the Galaxy and Chivas USA.
None of that has shaken the confidence of the Dynamo, which can play loosely knowing the pressure is on the other guys.
"Whoever rates us as the underdog, that's outside of our control," said Kinnear, who has won two titles as a head coach and two more as an assistant. "It's a Cup final and it's just 90 minutes of soccer. Anything can happen.
"You can't walk on the field afraid."
The weather could be an equalizer. The forecast calls at least two hours of rain Sunday afternoon, dropping to a 70% chance of precipitation at kickoff. That could make the first goal important, especially if bad weather makes the field — which Kinnear called "chewy" — difficult to navigate.
A good scenario for Houston, then, would be a scoreless game at halftime and a winner-take-all second 45 minutes. That was the formula the Dynamo used to beat Kansas City on the road in the Eastern Conference final.
Only they're not in Kansas City anymore.
"The Galaxy are good at defending leads," Ching said of L.A., which won 10 games by 1-0 scores this year. "They know how to shut games down. So it's going to be important that we don't let score first."