Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What Philadelphia Union fans can learn from the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup Final

Throughout this year, and for much of this blog's history, I've tried to write stories with an eye towards how Union fans might learn from other teams and cultures in Major League Soccer. That was never more true than when I watched the Houston Dynamo win the Eastern Conference Final earlier this month.

What Philadelphia Union fans can learn from the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup Final

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This year´s MLS Cup Final will be a rematch of last year´s game between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo. (Bret Hartman/AP file photo)
This year's MLS Cup Final will be a rematch of last year's game between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo. (Bret Hartman/AP file photo)

Throughout this year, and for much of this blog's history, I've tried to write stories with an eye towards how Union fans might learn from other teams and cultures in Major League Soccer.

That was never more true than when I watched the Houston Dynamo win the Eastern Conference Final earlier this month. 

I focused on the Dynamo's remarkable consistency in the playoffs, and how they've built a team without stars.

Now, on the eve of MLS' championship game, here's another perspective.

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On Wednesday, I got to spend a few minutes chatting with ESPN color analyst Taylor Twellman. You all know him not only for his national TV work, but as a former local TV color analyst for Philadelphia Union broadcasts.

Twellman had quite a decorated career as a player with the New England Revolution. Though he never won a championship, he helped the Revs reach four MLS Cup Finals and two Eastern Conference Finals from 2002 through 2007. So he knows what it means to be a perennial postseason contender.

The Union would very much like to attain such status. It seemed after the 2011 playoff run that the club might be headed in that direction. But this year's slide was so profound that it raised serious questions about what comes next for John Hackworth and company.

So I asked Twellman directly: if you were Hackworth, would you model your rebuilding process on the Dynamo or the Galaxy?

"My argument would always be with the Houston Dynamo," Twellman responded with equal candor. "You need to have a good mix of guys that understand what this league's about."

Twellman noted, though, that the Galaxy have a similar core of MLS veterans.

"Yeah, they've got [Robbie] Keane, [Landon] Donovan and [David] Beckham, but look at their back four [and] look at their midfield," he said. "There's a common denominator between both teams."

Indeed, if you really want to highlight the "core" of Los Angeles' lineup, look at the lower end of the payroll. Defenders Todd Dunivant and Omar Gonzalez and midfielders Mike Magee and Juninho have played huge roles in the Galaxy's recent era of success.

"You have to have a core group of 7-10 players – they don't all have to start… that are [MLS] veterans," Twellman said. "They're not 18 and they're not 34."

The inference, in case you missed it: you can't just win with young players and you can't just win with Designated Players.

"If I'm Philadelphia, I would look at it and say this is what you have to strive to have," Twellman added. "If I was building a team in MLS I would build from the bottom up and not go fin designated players right away."

As such. he argued that Philadelphia fans ought to have "a little sense of patience," as the Union pursue their offseason signings.

"But I would also feel [fans'] pain, because what I saw in 2011 was a [Union] team that kind of had the right makeup," he said. "They had Danny Califf and [Sébastien] Le Toux, but also [Jack] McInerney, [Michael] Farfan, and Brian Carroll. They had a decent core group."

It also helps to have a good coach, and Saturday's game will feature two of the very best in MLS history. Both coaches have over 300 career MLS wins and multiple MLS Cup rings.

Kinnear has won plenty of respect from fans and observers of MLS during his career. But given his lack of flash – and Arena's tenure as U.S. national team manager – I asked Twellman whether Kinnear gets as much respect as he truly deserves.

"I don't think he gets enough credit," Twellman answered. "Dominic Kinnear has made tactical decision that have [directly] won MLS cups … [He] is up there, if not in the top two in this league, right with Bruce Arena."

Kinnear's team hasn't gotten much credit either heading into the weekend. It's a rematch of last year's title game, which should be a great storyline. But between David Beckham's departure from MLS and Landon Donovan's potential retirement, the Dynamo have been completely out of the spotlight.

Of course, that's exactly how Kinnear wants it – especially with his team once again at full health.

"Nobody is talking about Houston," Twellman said. "Óscar Boniek García has easily changed this franchise around because you can't just sit on Brad Davis - and then if Ricardo Clark plays and is healthy enough, it's a huge difference from what they had last year."

I also asked Twellman for his view of the current playoff format. I couldn't help it. There's been a lot of grousing this year about the fact that two low seeds advanced to the final. I don't agree with all of it, but Twellman says "it's not a coincidence" that no higher seed advanced from a two-leg series.

"I've played in it so it's not something I start saying because I'm doing this job," Twellman said. "Who's to say you want to go in the road in that first game? How is that home field advantage for people?"

Now, that's not entirely meant as an insult to the lower seed. As Twellman noted: "If a team's good enough - and the Houston Dynamo are - they bury you in the first leg and get a result on the road."

Twellman's chief concern, though, is not how a team gets home-field advantage. He's more concerned by the fact that teams don't get equal amounts of rest

"If we're going to do the playoffs the way we did this year – which I don't mind - then everyone should be on the same level with equal days amount of rest," he said. "Every team should be on a Wednesday-Saturday or a Thursday-Sunday [schedule], so when that first leg comes and Seattle's at LA and they lose 3-0, at least you take out all the other complaints."

Twellman also would like to see the away goals rule adopted as it is in other competitions. It would mean that if the aggregate score is tied after 180 minutes, the team that has scored more goals on the road in the series advances.

"If they did that I wouldn't touch [the format] for years to come," Twellman said.

(And I'll add this: the fact that MLS has changed the playoff format so many times in its history is a problem in and of itself.)

"I'm as tired as everyone else is of complaining, but they have reasons to," Twellman concluded. "Take the reasons out."

Considering all of the topics that Twellman and I discussed, that seems like a pretty good quote to end with.

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