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The More They Stay The Same: LA Galaxy, One Year On

Dec 1, 2012, 8:14 AM EDT

2012 MLS Cup - Los Angeles Galaxy Training Session Getty Images

CARSON, Calif. — Houston looks better (much better) than this time last year, when a late Landon Donovan goal broke a deadlock between them and eventual MLS Champions LA Galaxy. But that’s only half the picture. Teams don’t improve in vacuums. They improve relative to their competition.

But while Houston’s story is “The Most Things Change,” for a Galaxy team making it third MLS Cup Final in four seasons, the narrative is “The More They Stay The Same.” Whereas Dominic Kinnear’s team will be better at up to six positions (with the loss of defender Geoff Cameron the only significant departure), Bruce Arena’s team may start 10 of the players who claimed the coach’s third league title.

Here’s how LA’s two teams line up, the 2011 versus 2012 versions:

2011 Pos. 2012
Josh Saunders G Josh Saunders
Sean Franklin RB Sean Franklin
Omar Gonzalez RCB Omar Gonzalez
A.J. DeLaGarza LCB DeLaGarza/Meyer
Todd Dunivant LB Todd Dunivant
Landon Donovan RM Christian Wilhelmsson
Juninho CM Juninho
David Beckham CM David Beckham
Mike Magee LM Mike Magee
Adam Cristman SS/ST Landon Donovan
Robbie Keane ST Robbie Keane

The big question for LA team is whether A.J. DeLaGarza, the starter along side Omar Gonzalez through the Galaxy’s best part of the season (August and September), plays. Out with a knee injury for the playoffs, DeLaGarza could return to action on Saturday, though that would entail demoting Tommy Meyer, who has yet to crack against the likes of San Jose and Seattle.

Bring DeLaGarza, out of action for nearly two months, back for the final? Or stay with the kid from Indiana? Unless Bruce Arena’s told us (and big shock, he hasn’t), it would be senseless to speculate. Any insight we could offer would be mitigated by the fact we haven’t see how DeLaGarza and Meyer have trained. While it’s easy to say keep Meyer in, don’t risk a rust factor with DeLaGarza, but A.J. may be out-performing Tommy in practice.

source: Getty Images

Just short of a wink from the Galaxy captain.

Elsewhere in the team, swapping Christian Wilhelmsson in for Adam Cristman is an upgrade, especially given the relationship that’s developed between Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. Donovan is always a weapon, but moved closer to Keane from the get-go, the two MLS Best XI selections form the league’s most dangerous forward tandem.

One place where Los Angeles is almost certainly better than last year: The bench, not listed above. In 2011, Arena only used one substitute, bringing on Chris Birchall for Cristman in the 57th minute. On Saturday, we’re almost guaranteed to see Marcelo Sarvas for Beckham late (if Sarvas doesn’t get the call over Juninho at the onset). Edson Buddle, Michael Stephens, or Jose Villarreal could also see action.

The names in the table, however — the people most likely to actually play — don’t tell the whole story. When you see Franklin and Franklin across a line, Gonzalez and Gonzalez, Dunivant and Dunivant, you just assume those positions are a wash, but they’re not. Dunivant and Gonzalez had huge 2011s. On Saturday, are they likely to play to that standard? It’s possible, but based on what we’ve seen from them, Franklin, Saunders, and David Beckham in the middle, there are multiple places within this Galaxy team where a sheepish fan can ask whether this vintage is really as good as 2011′s. It’s a difficult case to make, particularly with Beckham.

The juxtaposition between that regression and Houston’s near-across the board improvement is what makes this year’s matchup so compelling. We’ve heard some misgivings about this year’s final being a repeat of last year’s, but it’s not. Sure, you can say that about any rematch — something almost always changes — there are huge improvements for Houston. And for an LA team which may have hit a crest last year, Saturday’s final sets up to be much more difficult than the one they nearly won a year ago.

If LA’s to repeat as MLS champions, they likely have to play better than they did a year ago.

MORE: How the 2011 Dynamo compare to this year’s model


Final note: Here is the side-by-side of LA’s 2009 finalists (who lost in the seventh round of penalty kicks to Real Salt Lake in Seattle) and this year’s likely XI:

2009 Pos. 2012
Donovan Ricketts G Josh Saunders
Sean Franklin RB Sean Franklin
Omar Gonzalez RCB Omar Gonzalez
Gregg Berhalter LCB DeLaGarza/Meyer
Todd Dunivant LB Todd Dunivant
Landon Donovan RM Christian Wilhelmsson
Chris Birchall CM Juninho
David Beckham CM David Beckham
Mike Magee LM Mike Magee
Jovan Kirovski SS/ST Landon Donovan
Edson Buddle ST Robbie Keane
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