The only obstacle between David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy and a Major League Soccer championship is an MLS Cup opponent that barely made the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a losing record.
Sure, it might sound like a simple Sunday in Seattle for Beckham, Landon Donovan and the star-studded Galaxy. Yet Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena is certain it’ll be anything but easy to finish off Real Salt Lake in the league final at Qwest Field.
“I don’t think any of us focus on who are the underdogs or anything like that,” Arena said Tuesday. “Very little separates one team from the other. … Let me tell you, Salt Lake was not a team with a record of six more losses than wins this year or something. They were a team that was right up there. They’ve been a competitive team throughout the season.”
The Galaxy and Real will travel to the Northwest later in the week for the one-game culmination of the MLS season, with Los Angeles looking to win its third league title in its record sixth appearance in the championship. Salt Lake squeaked into the playoffs’ eighth seed at 11-12-7 before winning three straight postseason games to make its first final.
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“Wow, it sounds like we better not even go,” said Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “We don’t even have a chance, do we?”
Nobody in either locker room expects a coronation for the Galaxy, even after they finally meshed their star talent with outstanding results. Los Angeles finished with the Western Conference’s best record despite a rocky start to the season during which Beckham was booed by the home crowd during a friendly against A.C. Milan for his elongated dalliance with that Italian team.
“We’ve been growing as a team all year, and this is definitely the culmination of that effort,” said defender Gregg Berhalter, who scored the extra-time winner – his first goal all season – in Friday’s Western Conference final against Houston. “We haven’t given up on ourselves, and we’ve been plugging away when a lot of people were saying we weren’t that good of a team.”
With Beckham playing the best soccer of his U.S. career while Donovan rose to the top of the MLS playoff scoring charts, both stars happily missed national team assignments this fall to pursue the league title. Since that rocky homecoming in July, Beckham has reclaimed most of the fan support he lost during his elongated stint in Italy – even though he’s headed back to A.C. Milan in January.
“I think the reason (fans staying angry with Beckham) didn’t happen was because of the way David played and demonstrated he cares about the L.A. Galaxy,” said Arena, who will go for his third league title after winning two with D.C. United in the 1990s.
“His performance has quieted his detractors,” Arena said. “I think that day against A.C. Milan in the exhibition, obviously there were some frustrated fans, and things weren’t perfect, but I never felt David wouldn’t be able to handle it. He’s played with the biggest clubs in the world. I thought he was able to handle anything, and he’s done that.”
Real Salt Lake also opened the season under a spotlight. It was a popular preseason pick to contend for the league title after reaching the conference championship game last season, but an early seven-match winless skid suggested Real was overrated – even to Kreis, who blamed himself for his club’s early struggles with poor motivational ploys and faulty lineups.
“It was dire, and I think I contributed to that because I was very overconfident,” Kreis said. “I think I added to what was a little bit of an underlying thing on the team that we were a bit overconfident going into this season. We had been reading a bit too much about how we would compete for a championship this year, and we forgot the little things that got us here. We don’t have stars on our team, and we had got away from that a little bit.”
Salt Lake was the last side to make the eight-team MLS playoff field, winning the tiebreaker with D.C. United and Colorado after all three finished with 40 points. Real’s 11-12-7 record wasn’t spectacular, but it was good enough to get in – and since then, it has won three straight matches to advance to its first league final.
While European observers might scoff at the idea of crowning a champion that couldn’t even win more than it lost during league play, the system works for Arena and MLS.
“No one cares what the rest of the world thinks,” Arena said. “We have a system here that’s really an American sports tradition here: playoffs. It’s not that unique.”