The Galaxy is seeking their record seventh MLS Cup title-game appearance, and FC Dallas is aiming to reach the final for the first time. Who has the advantage in Sunday night's Western Conference final at Home Depot Center (ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, 6 p.m.)?
Let's take it piece by piece.
GALAXY: Donovan Ricketts
FC DALLAS: Kevin Hartman
Ricketts was MLS's Goalkeeper of the Year. Hartman probably deserved the honor, and had he not missed the final six weeks of the regular season with a sprained right medial collateral ligament -- product of that dumb Thierry Henry celebration -- he surely would have won. Ricketts is the more athletic, and he was sensational against Seattle, the most important figure in the victory up north.
Hartman (Palos Verdes/Peninsula HS and UCLA), still revered in L.A. for his decade of service to the Galaxy, has had a career resurrection in North Texas, and he bears most of the credit for the Hoops' magical campaign. There are few better shot-stoppers in American soccer, and nobody commands his box better than Hartman.
Both prefer to parry than catch in tight situations, and both make the mind-boggling saves that make a difference. Hartman might be a better decision-maker, but there's no denying Ricketts' form.
GALAXY: Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza/Gregg Berhalter and Eddie Lewis/Todd Dunivant
FC DALLAS: Jackson Goncalves/Zach Loyd, Ugo Ihemelu, George John and Jair Benitez
The Galaxy is steadier at the back, with or without Berhalter, whose bout with a mystery ailment has kept him from L.A.'s starting XI all but one game since August. It has enabled DeLaGarza, a versatile sophomore, to grow into the perfect partner for Gonzalez, last year's MLS Rookie of the Year, a finalist this year for Defender of the Year -- and his former University of Maryland teammate/roommate. Gonzalez has been at his best in the postseason, and at 6-foot-5, he's a prime target for David Beckham's dead-ball service. We knew Franklin (Palmdale/Highland HS and Cal State Northridge), the 2008 Rookie of the Year, was a fast, attack-minded right back, but he has become so much more, as evidenced by his defensive work against Sounders winger Steve Zakuani. Lewis (Cerritos/Cerritos HS and UCLA), who is retiring, stepped in for Dunivant against the Sounders and made everyone wonder why he's retiring.
John enjoyed a breakthrough season for FC Dallas, and his partnership with Ihemelu prospered under Hartman's leadership behind them. Neither finished the regular season healthy, and John missed the first leg against RSL, although he was solid in the second leg in Utah. Heath Pearce is one of MLS's premier left backs -- he was on the U.S. preliminary World Cup roster -- but he's out with a hamstring injury. Benitez is a fine fill-in, and his pace and attacking sensibilities add to the Hoops' dynamism going forward. Jackson Goncalves appears likely to get the nod over Loyd at right back; both can play wide or centrally, both have progressed nicely this season.
GALAXY: David Beckham, Juninho, Dema Kovalenko/Chris Birchall and Landon Donovan
FC DALLAS: Atiba Harris, Daniel Hernandez, Dax McCarty and Brek Shea/Milton Chavez
This game probably will be won and lost in midfield, and it could be an epic battle. Donovan (Redlands/Redlands East Valley HS) and Beckham are so important for the Galaxy's attack, but more impressive these last few games has been their commitment and expertise tracking back to defend. Both like to pinch in -- Donovan (7 goals/16 assists) has free reign to do as he sees fit -- and let the outside backs attack the flanks; Donovan can finish as well as he creates, and his speed makes him more dangerous coming from midfield than attacking from up top. Beckham is the best crosser on the planet, from the run of play or set pieces, and so the Galaxy is goal-dangerous any time he has the ball anywhere on the field. Juninho has evolved into a solid linking midfielder whose creative impulses complement Donovan's and Beckham's. Kovalenko surely gets the call again in the other central spot. He's a destroyer, a brutal tackler who disrupts foes, and how well he can neutralize David Ferreira and McCarty might determine the winner.
FC Dallas' group is almost as good as the Galaxy's, probably better if you include Ferreira, whom we're listing as a forward, but that's just semantics. Hernandez is a steady holding midfielder and an inspirational leader who provides the foundation for everything the Hoops do going forward, and McCarty is an expert linking player whose deep-lying runs can unhinge opposing defenses. There are a lot of attractive options on the flank, and head coach Schellas Hyndman is likely to go with 6-2 Harris and 6-4 Shea, which is more about defending Beckham on set pieces than anything else. Harris has great speed, and Shea, who at 20 is still learning his craft, brings the unexpected. Both are dynamic attackers, and slowing them down will be as important for the Galaxy as was halting Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi in the Seattle series. Chavez is smaller, just as quick and more technical, and he'd be dangerous off the bench if the Hoops need a late goal.
GALAXY: Edson Buddle and Mike Magee
FC DALLAS: David Ferreira and Jeff Cunningham
Buddle (19 goals, two of them in the first-round triumph over Seattle) was the best pure striker in the league this year, and he's sure to be a handful for the Hoops' backliners, especially with Beckham's and Donovan's service. Magee has won the second spot by default, but he's shown little feel for finishing and will contribute more as a link within the attack.
Ferreira (8 goals/15 assists, including playoffs) really is a classic playmaker in a 4-1-3-1-1 formation, with the speedy Cunningham -- he of 132 career goals, a dozen this year -- running off him, the only choice with the more complete Milton Rodriguez sidelined with a groin injury. It doesn't matter who's the lone man up front with Ferreira in charge: He's going to be MLS's MVP (that's not only our prediction), and deservedly so. He makes FCD's attack go, and his vision, mobility, and ability to find seams and spread the ball among his fellow attackers is clearly special. Close down Ferreira, and the Galaxy wins. If he's on, the Hoops will be tough to stop.
Advantage: FC Dallas
COACHING: Two of the league's best here. The Galaxy's Bruce Arena is America's most accomplished coach, both in MLS and with the national team, and he's rebuilt L.A. into a powerhouse since taking charge in August 2008. Hyndman, who this week won the MLS Coach of the Year honor, was renowned for his work at SMU and in coaching-education circles, and his methodical assemblage of the Hoops over the past 2½ seasons has been most impressive work. Both are tactical masters, and both can count on advice from assistants with MLS head-coaching experience (Galaxy's Dave Sarachan, FC Dallas' John Ellinger).
DEPTH: L.A.'s best depth is along the backline (especially with Berhalter and, likely, Dunivant on the bench following phenomenal injury-fill-in play from DeLaGarza and Lewis) and in midfield (with veterans Birchall and and Chris Klein and rookie Michael Stephens). Jovan Kirovski and Tristan Bowen (Van Nuys) provide different looks up top.
FC Dallas has options on the wing, but injuries to Rodriguez up front and Pearce in the back saps a lot of the depth. And with so many players coming off injury -- and some, like Hernandez, not yet 100 percent -- depth could be key.
FORM: FC Dallas played wonderfully in beating MLS's best team -- that would be Real Salt Lake -- after surrendering an early goal in the first leg of their playoff opener. And it reeled off a single-season, league-record, 19-game unbeaten streak before falling to RSL and the Galaxy in its final two regular-season matches. A lot of those games were draws, and the Hoops have won just one of their last four games, albeit against the league's top two sides.
The Galaxy went through a four-month funk after a 10-0-2 start, but when pressed at the finish responded with a fine comeback against FC Dallas to win the West and the Supporters' Shield. Then they outclassed a Seattle Sounders side, wrapping up the first-round series with arguably their best performance since that early run. L.A. might be a team of stars -- Beckham and Donovan, at least -- but its character has more grit than glitz, and its approach to team defense at the moment is the stuff of champions.
TACTICS: FC Dallas is fast, athletic and talented all over the field. It attacks quickly, with precision and usually through Ferreira, and its flank play expertly breaks down defenses. The Galaxy are is the best counterattacking team in MLS, and although they promise to emphasize attacking soccer -- with Beckham, Donovan and Buddle, why wouldn't they? -- it's their defensive approach that will be so vital. If they can close off space for Ferreira and Co., pressure the ball all over the field and quickly transition into their attack, they'll determine the course.
HISTORY: The Galaxy won MLS titles in 2002 and 2005 and reached the 1996, 1999, 2001 and 2009 finals. FC Dallas has been to the Western Conference final just twice before, back when the club was called the Dallas Burn. Colorado won in 1997 and the Galaxy in 1999. L.A. has won both previous postseason meetings, sweeping a 1998 series and winning, two games to one, in 1999.
Four players were part of the Galaxy team that won the 2005 title: L.A.'s Donovan and Dunivant and FCD's Hartman and Ihemelu.
HOME FIELD: L.A. was better on the road (9-3-3) than at home (9-4-2) this year, and FC Dallas was pretty good away from Frisco (4-3-8). But the Galaxy doesn't lose at home in postseason games. They've lost just once in 23 playoff encounters in L.A. since MLS's 1996 debut -- the only defeat: 1-0 to Chicago in their 1998 Western Conference semifinal home leg; Dallas won in a shootout following a 2-2 draw in 1999 -- and are 6-0-1 at Home Depot Center, with six home wins a draw in Chivas USA's home leg in last year's first round.
Galaxy 2, FC Dallas 0