It wasn’t exactly a classic, but it’s in the record books now and the LA Galaxy have won their record-breaking fifth MLS Cup in their ninth final.
Three of LA’s wins have come over the past four seasons. They’ve been dominant in a league that’s keen to promote some kind of parity and help the clubs at the bottom climb back up the ladder.
If you look at the sides that have won the 19 MLS Cups to date, nine different teams have hoisted the trophy. That’s 47% of the current 19 teams, and three others have made the final.
That is certainly a better return than you’ll find for League Champions elsewhere in the world, but LA account for 26% of the total Cup wins. Now you can put that down to a multitude of things – their ability to attract top talent that other clubs seemingly can’t, many of them at surprising cut-price deals, and the perception that exists that MLS will do what it takes to help out their top team, amongst them.
But there’s another factor that has helped the Galaxy become dominant in the past few seasons and it’s one that the Whitecaps should be paying close attention to – experience has a very big part to play in success in MLS.
I was down in Seattle last weekend for the Western Conference final second leg and after clinching their ninth final appearance, the Galaxy players and management had no doubts about what it was that saw them past the Sounders and saw their MLS dominance continue.
“Experience is a factor,” admitted Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. “We’ve been through a lot this year. I think we got better in the second half of the season to protect leads.”
The goalscoring hero on the night, Juninho, backed up his coach’s thoughts.
“We are a very experienced group, we know that,” Juninho said. “We don’t get nervous in moments like that. We know we have very good players and when you need a player they are there.”
It sometimes feels that LA just bring in big name players on a constant stream, but eight of the Galaxy’s 11 starters had previously played in a MLS Cup final. Of the team that started LA’s 2012 win, four started this year’s final, with another two on the bench, so there’s a lesser element of stability to it all as well.
“We’re a team full of Champions and winners and that’s what separates us,” Landon Donovan told reporters after the win over Seattle. “We’re very proud of that fact. Some days it’s the guys you expect and some days it’s the guys you don’t and that’s what champions do.
“We have a lot of guys here who have won, in their career. That’s a big advantage over a lot of other teams, including Seattle. They don’t have a ton of guys who have won a lot of Championships. We know how to win, in any scenario. That’s what we pride ourselves on. We’re not always perfect, we know that.”
And that’s just it, they’re not. LA are there for the taking over the course of the season, especially away from home. They’ve had sluggish starts the last couple of years, but when the going gets tough, and other teams like the Whitecaps start having summer slumps, the Galaxy seem to find another gear to kick into to push on stronger and take them over the line and into the playoffs in form. Experience does that, as does having a winning mentality at the club. Winning becomes a habit.
“It’s everything,” admitted Omar Gonzalez. “Once you start winning everyone knows the feeling, everyone wants it more. Everyone wants another ring, another Championship, when are we going to get the next one.”
Gonzalez also gave a nod to team chemistry. There is no doubt that the Whitecaps had such chemistry in abundance under Carl Robinson this year. There’s no signs to suggest that it is going anywhere either.
The ‘Caps also started to develop a strong winning mentality under Robinson this past season and that is something else that has to continue if Vancouver are going to take the next step forward and stop being the last team in the West to clinch a playoff berth and go further than a first round exit.
Robinson told us on the latest AFTN podcast that he doesn’t want the Whitecaps to be a team that just sneaks into the playoffs and will challenge his squad to take that next step and genuinely compete with the likes of LA and Seattle on a regular basis late in the season.
Robinson has build an exciting crop of young talent at the ‘Caps and he’s keen to not dismantle it, but at the same time, he wants to improve every area if he can and one of the big improvements for the overall squad will be to get some more experience in there. Some more veteran presence from players who have done it and won trophies.
After Kenny Miller left, Andy O’Brien did well as the veteran guy imparting knowledge and taking some of the young ‘uns under his wing. Mauro Rosales did the same when he came in towards the end of the season. Realistically, both players might not be with Vancouver next season.
The Whitecaps only had three players over the age of 30 in the squad that finished the season (O’Brien, Rosales and Mehdi Ballouchy). The Galaxy had ten, five of whom started the MLS Cup final against the Revolution. Vancouver do have 30-year-old Jordan Harvey and Pedro Morales and David Ousted, both 29, falling into the veteran category too, however.
The Whitecaps average squad age is 23.85 years old, the Galaxy’s is 26.7 years old. LA have done an excellent job in getting their talented younger players minutes and having them make a key impact alongside experienced players who know how to win trophies. It’s a model that the Whitecaps need to try and emulate, albeit on a much smaller budget.
It was great to see Robinson give so much of the young talent a shot this season and they will have learned a lot from their experiences. What was very evident though is how many of them are confident players and when things are going well they are flying, but when the going gets tough, they struggle a bit to cope and get themselves out of the ruts and slumps that invariably come.
While Vancouver were bringing on the youth of Kekuta Manneh, Darren Mattocks and Erik Hurtado to try and get them points late on in games, LA were bringing on Alan Gordon to get the business done. That’s a difference and that’s why Robinson told us that he’s looking for those extra 20 to 25 goals next season to be up with the LAs and Seattles of the league.
What the ‘Caps young stars showed and learned in the season run-in can only bode well though and Robinson has certainly laid the foundations for what could be a very formidable Whitecaps side for years to come.
He just needs those few pieces, especially in the striking department.
The silly season gets underway in MLS on Monday when the trade window opens ahead of a week of drafts. Robinson told us that he’ll only move someone on if he has something better lined up, so just how busy the ‘Caps will be will be interesting.
But the Whitecaps need to look at getting some experience in. Some wily MLS veterans and an experienced striker from overseas. The younger players in the team need it badly to continue their development.
The Whitecaps have a strong and talented young core. They now need to take a leaf out of the Galaxy’s playbook and mix in the experience of some players who have been there, done it and have the medals to prove it.
Finding them in the salary cap land of MLS is the struggle but if Vancouver want to move on to that next level next season and be serious MLS Cup contenders, they have to make the moves and some of them will have to be at the expense of one or two of the current crop of young talent.