There are many storylines surrounding Sunday night's MLS Cup between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo at Home Depot Center, in Carson, Calif., and almost all of them revolve around one player: David Beckham.
The contentious arrival of one of the most famous players in the sport may come to end, as Beckham's contract is set to expire on Dec. 31, and as the English midfielder decides on whether he will return to Europe.
Some critics have questioned whether MLS got their money's worth in Beckham, who signed a huge salary when he arrived in 2007. To many, Beckham's duration in Los Angeles has brought much-needed exposure to the growing league.
While Beckham weighs the option of playing in London or Paris, he can help deliver his first title to Los Angeles at the stadium he helped make a name for. With all of the fanfare that has surrounded Beckham, he is still a player who has prided himself on winning, whether it was with Manchester United or Real Madrid, and now he is now just one win away from giving the Galaxy their first MLS Cup since 2005.
The Galaxy will be playing in their home park when they face the Dynamo, and Houston will be without playmaker Brad Davis. While Los Angeles finished the regular season with the league's best record, Houston finished in seventh place.
The Galaxy's excellent season included an unblemished home record of 12-0-5. Meanwhile, Houston has only two victories on the road.
Though the outlook may seem gloomy for Houston, there are several signs that should concern the Galaxy.
The Dynamo have been surging in the past two months, and have a 7-0-2 record in their last nine games. The club has been playing with a lot of cohesion, and the arrival of Honduran striker Carlo Costly has bolstered the attack.
While the Dynamo will be without Davis, Dominic Kinnear's squad still has veteran talent, and history of winning in their short history in MLS. In six seasons, Houston have two titles (2006, 2007) and currently have experienced players in defender Bobby Boswell, midfielder Geoff Cameron, and forward Brian Ching. Canadian defender Andre Hainault has also been a key presence for Houston.
The midfield is where Houston know they have the disadvantage. Kinnear will need left wing Corey Ashe to create opportunities for Ching, who should be marked by Omar Gonzalez. The 23-year-old centre back was voted Defender of the Year, and his hard-nosed approach is one of the reasons the Galaxy had the best defense in MLS.
The Dynamo will also have to contain a rested Landon Donovan. The star attacking midfielder chose to skip international duty to prepare for the MLS Cup, so he will be particularly focused.
While forward Chad Barrett is sidelined with a dislocated foot, Bruce Arena still has Irishman Robbie Keane who seems to have improved his effort since leaving the Premier League.
Both goalkeepers have over-achieved this season. The Galaxy's Josh Saunders has done an admirable job filling in for Jamaican international Donovan Ricketts, while Tally Hall has steadily improved since serving as the understudy to veteran Canadian Pat Onstad.
In May, the Galaxy defeated Houston in their last meeting at HDC, 1-0. Houston defeated the Galaxy in their last meeting, but Los Angeles mainly used reserves in the Oct. 23 match at Robertson Stadium.
D: Franklin, DeLaGarza, Gonzalez, Dunivant
M: Magee, Juninho, Beckham, Donovan
F: Keane, Cristman
D: Hainault, Boswell, Cameron, Taylor
M: Cruz, Moffat, Carmargo, Ashe
F: Ching, Carr
PREDICTION: Playing in their home stadium and with the final being perhaps David Beckham's last game, the Galaxy will be the more inspired club. Los Angeles has a talent-rich roster, and should be aggressive from the start. Expect midfielders Mike Magee and Juninho to give a particulary strong performance. Houston will need Scottish midfielder Adam Moffat to maintain ball possession for Houston, and the Dynamo will need to seize on Galaxy mistakes if they expect to pull off the upset.
PREDICTED SCORE: Los Angeles 3, Houston 1