The 2012 MLS Cup is the culmination of a tumultuous season for the Los Angeles Galaxy .
Coming off of a stellar 2011 campaign, the team began this year with high expectations. But the Galaxy stumbled out of the gate, starting the season with a dreadful 3-10-3 record in all competitions by the end of May.
They crashed out of the CONCACAF Champions League at the hands of lowly Toronto FC , were knocked out of the US Open Cup by a second division team, and simply making the playoffs seemed a lofty goal. Nothing was going according to plan for Bruce Arena and his squad. A return to the MLS Cup seemed but a dream.
Fast-forward six months, and Los Angeles has completed an improbable turnaround. They surged in the second half of the season, with a 10-game unbeaten streak in all competitions in August and September. By the end of that stretch, LA was through to the knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League, and had all but secured a spot in the playoffs.
The postseason saw the Galaxy overcome the Vancouver Whitecaps in a win-or-go-home play-in match, take down Supporters' Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes , and defeat a tough Seattle Sounders side to reach the Cup Final. On Saturday, Los Angeles will face the Houston Dynamo in a rematch of last year's final, while bidding farewell to David Beckham.
The England star announced last week that this would be his last match with the Galaxy but Beckham may not be the only one heading to the exit. Landon Donovan recently hinted at retirement, leaving his future up in the air.
This puts LA with perhaps one last chance to win with a roster that contains the two most influential names in the league. If the Galaxy repeats as MLS champions, it would send this duo out on top.
But it wasn't always so picturesque. The two stars got off to a rocky start when Beckham first came to MLS in 2007, as they clashed off the field while the team struggled on it. When Bruce Arena arrived in the middle of the 2008 season, he helped repair that relationship and rebuild the team. In the first 12 months of his Galaxy reign, Arena completely revamped the squad, signed 18 new players and built a team around Beckham and Donovan.
The new head coach's first order of business was fixing what was, at the time, the league's worst defense. He drafted Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza, and brought in Todd Dunivant to compliment 2008 rookie of the year Sean Franklin. He also added Mike Magee, Donovan Ricketts and Josh Saunders to bolster the team in the midfield and between the posts.
By 2009, Arena had fixed the chaos of the prior seasons, and the Galaxy made it to the MLS Cup final which they eventually lost to Real Salt Lake . But that was just the beginning of what would turn into one of the most successful runs in the history of the league.
With the addition of Brazilian midfielder Juninho in 2010, LA won the Supporters' Shield. Despite being knocked out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Final, it was a positive year in which the Galaxy was one of the best teams in the league; but Arena and Co. had dreams of winning it all.
Then, in 2011, it all fell into place.
With the signing of Robbie Keane, the Galaxy now had the strongest roster ever fielded by an MLS side. The Galaxy went undefeated at home, and won the Supporters' Shield for the second season in a row. The Galaxy would dispatch their rivals and move on to the final against the Dynamo.
It played out like a Hollywood movie. In front of a record home crowd, Beckham started the play in which Donovan scored the game-winner, sending The Home Depot Center into a frenzied euphoria. At last, four years after his highly-touted arrival, an MLS championship for Beckham and a capstone to a near-perfect season.
But LA wasn't quite done yet.
The 2012 Galaxy is largely unchanged from the previous squad. The only new addition was actually a familiar face - Arena brought back Edson Buddle after a year playing overseas.
And now, as the MLS Cup approaches, the scene is exactly the same. Except, it isn't.
The teams are the same, the venue is the same, but the implications are vastly different. It will be the last chapter of the up-and-down but ultimately wildly successful Beckham era, and it may be the final match for Donovan. But this team is more than the sum of its stars: this is one last hurrah for a coach and the squad he built. The Galaxy now have the chance to cap off the past four years, and go down as one of the greatest teams in MLS history.