One is a team of superstars led by David Beckham and Landon Donovan, probably the closest thing soccer has to household names in this country.
The other is a team of unsung grinders, probably the closest thing soccer has to the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Galaxy is sleek but temperamental, like an expensive sports car. The Houston Dynamo is dull but dependable, like a well-worn pick-up truck.
Yet for all their differences, the two teams who will meet in Saturday’s MLS Cup final at the Home Depot Center also have a lot in common — starting with ownership. The Anschutz Entertainment Group, a global sports and entertainment empire, owns the Galaxy and is the majority owner of the Dynamo. So it will be celebrating no matter what happens in the title game.
“We’re very ecstatic,” AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke joked, “that we’re going to win the MLS Cup this year.”
Just as they did last year when the same teams met in a final won by the Galaxy, 1-0. Which brings us to another thing the teams share, success: Saturday’s rematch will mark Houston’s fourth MLS Cup appearance in seven seasons, and the Galaxy is playing in its third final in four years.
There’s quite a bit more intrigue this year, however, since Beckham has already announced the game will be his last competitive match for the Galaxy after six years in which he helped the league achieve unprecedented growth at home and newfound respect overseas.
A mentally and physically exhausted Donovan has repeatedly hinted that he, too, might walk away after this one, meaning history will be made no matter the score. As a result, temporary bleachers have been installed at the Home Depot Center, swelling the stadium’s capacity to more than 30,000.
Yet for all their similarities, the Galaxy and Dynamo have necessarily taken different paths toward Saturday’s final. The Galaxy has repeatedly reached into AEG’s deep pockets to sign players such as Beckham, Donovan and Robbie Keane — with Beckham and Keane earning more in base salary by themselves than the $2.9 million the entire Houston team will be paid this season.
However, Dynamo Coach Dominic Kinnear, a creative Scottish-born defender who had 54 caps with the national team during a 14-year playing career, has proved equally inventive as a coach. With Houston he has used his meager resources wisely, building smart, veteran squads that emphasize traits such as teamwork and unselfishness — and his teams have missed the postseason just once in seven seasons since the franchise relocated from San Jose.
“I don’t think we’re the prettiest of teams,” Kinnear, 45, told reporters after winning the Eastern Conference finals. “We’re not glamorous. We don’t hoot and holler and talk about ourselves too much. We just go about our way.”
This year, that meant losing just one of their final four regular-season games to win the conference’s last wild-card playoff berth by a point. Once there, though, they rolled through the playoffs.
“You could argue,” Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said of Kinnear, “that he’s been the best coach in the history of this league.”
That would be an easier argument to make if not for Arena, the winningest coach in the history of the U.S. national team and the only coach to win three MLS Cups — a record Kinnear can tie Saturday.
Arena and Kinnear are rare among MLS coaches in that, in addition to coaching their teams, AEG has allowed them to build them too, acting as both manager and general manager.
“It’s important that Dom and I have the responsibility — you could even say the word ‘power’ — to piece our teams together in the way we want to do it and feel is right,” Arena said. “It’s very helpful.”
And Leiweke says Arena, who inherited an eight-win team in 2008 and took it to the MLS Cup final a year later, may have done his best work this season. Because like Kinnear’s Dynamo, Arena’s Galaxy trod a rocky path to the postseason, climbing from the Western Conference cellar in June to a wild-card playoff spot in September, then rallying to beat Vancouver, San Jose and Seattle to reach the Cup final.
“What we have is two of the best coaches in the game,” said Leiweke, who watched Kinnear win consecutive MLS Cups in 2006-07, something Arena can match Saturday. “Two very different teams and both of them have some core business principles and soccer principles that are the same. They both control the roster. They both control the decision on player personnel.”
But though only one can win Saturday, both coaches can take credit for contributing to a hard-driving corporate philosophy that has paid off in consecutive internecine Cup finals.
“Both of them understand the pressure with AEG. We win championships,” Leiweke said. “Our influence is setting a tone and setting a standard that we want all of our teams to hit. And we’ve had a very good year.”