20 November ~ "I try not to get caught up in storylines," the Houston Dynamo's Scottish-born coach Dominic Kinnear said this week in the run-up to tonight's Major League Soccer Cup final against the LA Galaxy. But in US sport, the game almost always takes second place to the storyline, and Kinnear can't escape this year's main story being that his team is expected to roll over and be runners-up to LA. The Galaxy boasted the best regular season record, finishing with 18 points more than Houston, and are so far unbeaten in their home stadium, where this year's final will take place.
Kinnear, though, has a winning history in this competition, having lead Houston to the championship twice, in 2006 and 2007. His LA counterpart is former US coach Bruce Arena, also a two-time victorious MLS coach, but that was with DC United way back at the dawn of the league in 1996 and 1997. Arena has built a fluid team this year around star names Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham. Kinnear's side is tough, but packed with MLS journeymen. They didn't win an away game until the end of September, but a late surge of form, often relying on dead balls placed on tall heads, has seen them make a bid for another title.
They will be missing the league's leading playmaker, Brad Davis, who finished the season at the top of the assist charts. He suffered a torn quad in the semi-final win over Sporting Kansas. Behind him in second place is Beckham, just voted "Comeback Player of the Year", who has enjoyed a very good year for the first time since his dollar-busting move to the league in 2007. Although his game is as limited as ever, Beckham has been doing the things he's good at extremely well – corners, free-kicks and the kind of precision long balls that few in MLS have managed since the early days, when a largely unhindered Marco Etcheverry controlled games while apparently meditating and staring at the clouds.
This looks like being Beckham's final game for LA, thus concluding what has been the longest and most wearisome narrative arc in the league's 16-year history. There was the ticker-tape arrival, the sold out stadiums, Victoria's six-part LA reality TV series that was condensed into a spectacularly embarrassing one-off "special", the European departures, the threats to stay away, the injuries, the international recalls, the odd free-kick from 30 yards out, but not a single trophy.
The sold out, 27,000 home crowd will expect a happy ending. League executives, meanwhile, have suffered sweat-drenched nights, waking up and screaming "Nooooooooooo!" as their vision of Houston captain Brian Ching raising the trophy before an almost empty stadium mercifully fades back into the realm of a nightmare as yet unrealised.
The inevitable focus on Beckham aside (and, of course, the riveting question of whether or not Keane can add to his tally of honours, currently stalled at one League Cup winners' medal), this should be a decent match if the play-off games so far can be taken as a guide. Now that the league has expanded to 18 clubs, the overall quality of the teams that make the final ten is tending away from the mediocrity that has blighted the post-season in so many past years when it was almost harder not to qualify. Both semi-finals – LA's 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake, and Houston's 2-0 victory at Kansas – were lively, open games. The league's showpiece event is seriously overdue a game that is not strangled by negative tactics and the mutual fear of failure.
There is no doubt that LA deserve to be this year's champion. If all goes to plan, images of Beckham holding the MLS Cup aloft will be central to the league's marketing brochures for several years to come. But Kinnear is a canny coach with no attachment to that particular storyline. Houston fans may be joined by many neutrals who find Arena's standoffish arrogance hard to stomach, and LA's supercilious sense of entitlement wholly out of kilter with its hubristic history of under-achievement. Any desire to see a stylish game to be cited as the proverbial great advert for MLS would be willingly sacrificed by those who prefer their stories to have surprise endings. Ian Plenderleith