Landon Donovan has a knack for doing away with platitudes and aphorisms in postgame interviews. Sunday night, when ESPN’s Rob Stone spoke with the Galaxy captain after LA's 3-0 loss to FC Dallas, was no different.
“We started the game well,” Donovan said. “In soccer, I guess in hockey, too, a goalie can always be a great equalizer.”
FCD 'keeper Kevin Hartman wasn’t just a great equalizer Sunday night. He was a force whose presence loomed over the entire game from the first whistle to his save of David Beckham’s free kick in second-half stoppage time.
In between, he demoralized the Galaxy, inspired his teammates and led his club to its first-ever MLS Cup final.
FC Dallas came out in their soon-to-be-copied-everywhere 4-1-3-1-1, a formation very similar to that of the Columbus Crew in 2008. The centerpieces are defensive midfielder Daniel Hernandez, who sweeps in front of the back line, and “attacker” David Ferreira, who plays a free role just underneath one center forward.
We have to call Ferreira an attacker because he’s not really a midfielder, and he’s not really a forward. He’s as likely to be dropping back to help in possession as he is to be in the box, finding space for a shot on goal.
The Galaxy came out in their standard 4-4-2. Juninho and Dema Kovalenko were twin central midfielders, Kovalenko tasked with the responsibility of destroying higher up the pitch while Juninho is mainly asked to distribute and fill gaps. Neither plays the role of a typical d-mid, and as a result good teams can find a seam between the midfield and center backs to exploit.
FC Dallas did just that.
The First Half
While Hernandez and Ferreira are the keystones for FCD, central midfielder Dax McCarty is the litmus test. You can tell how well Dallas is playing by where McCarty is on the pitch. If he’s dropped deep, alongside Hernandez, chances are Dallas are chasing the game.
This is where McCarty lived for the first 25 minutes. LA peppered Hartman’s goal, attacking effectively down both sides of the field. They alternated combining down the left with short passes and sending in deep crosses from the right, courtesy of Beckham and Sean Franklin, and only a series of highlight-reel saves kept the Galaxy off the board.
Things changed when the visitors found the score sheet. Ferreira’s turn-and-shoot from the top of the 18 was a superb bit of individual skill that was aided and abetted by inexplicably bad defending from LA’s Omar Gonzalez. The big defender had done everything right up to that point, staying in the central channel even though Atiba Harris — usually a right midfielder, but used as a battering ram of a center forward on the night — had drifted out to the right side in pursuit of a long-ball.
Even with LA scrambling, they had numbers back to defend. Gonzalez should have been in Ferreira’s shorts on that play, but he gave the Colombian time and space to turn, and like that it was 1-0 to the visitors.
Five minutes later, Donovan burst into the box and controlled a very nice pass from Mike Magee, then lashed a left-footed shot that seemed destined for goal. Hartman somehow got down to tip it around the back post.
It was almost a mirror-image of the save Oliver Kahn made on Donovan in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. And that’s appropriate, because just like Kahn in that game, Hartman wouldn’t be beaten.
The Second Half
With FCD holding the lead and the Galaxy looking demoralized, the visitors started to take more risks in the second half. This may seem counterintuitive, since most road teams that go up 1-0 simply bottle up and protect that lead, but clearly FCD coach Schellas Hyndman is made of different stuff.
The key change was making sure McCarty stayed higher up the field, harrying Juninho and Beckham. Dallas weren’t going to allow LA to build through possession, and the Galaxy succumbed — perhaps a bit too easily — to repeatedly launching long-balls.
That lapse, combined with their inability to draw set-pieces around the box, doomed LA.
The night’s second goal came in the 54th minute when defender George John tapped in Brek Shea’s perfect cross. This wasn’t a goal that happened because of tactics; this was a goal that happened because of effort, sharpness and will. The Galaxy hadn’t been able to clear a corner kick, or control in the scrum that followed.
FCD took the opportunity with both hands, pushing back up into the box and executing perfectly.
Down 2-0, the Galaxy attempted to adjust, but the writing was all over the wall at this point. Even when Hartman made a mistake — a poor punch-out saw the ball fall to Donovan, whose full-volley went just over a wide-open net — Dallas weren’t punished.
The cherry on top came in the 73rd minute, when Ferreira again found time and space in the attacking third. This time he split the Galaxy defense and found Marvin Chavez, who slotted calmly past Donovan Ricketts. The last 20 minutes of the match were academic.
The Galaxy were never quite the same after the World Cup, though it’s Gonzalez’s loss of form that should be of most concern heading into 2011. There’s also a lack of creativity from the central channel that needs to be addressed, as LA almost never score goals like FCD’s first and third on the night.
That said, they have every reason to be happy with 2010. The Supporters' Shield — in a balanced schedule year, no less — is a fantastic accomplishment, Beckham’s return to health is promising and Buddle and Donovan remain in their primes. Galaxy fans should be looking forward to 2011 already.
But FCD fans should be looking forward to next week. It’s clear now that their late-season dip of form, which was slight, was due almost entirely to the absences of Hartman and Hernandez. With them back and mostly healthy, the team have now comprehensively handled the two best regular-season teams in the league, and they are playing with a confidence that seems to scream “We want the Cup.”
If they play like they did in Los Angeles, chances are they’ll get exactly that.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed at twitter.com/mls_analyst.