CARSON, CALIF – The confetti in the air and the rampant celebrations on the Home Depot Center field masked the pain felt in the Houston sideline.
It isn't easy to cope with a second consecutive MLS Cup defeat. But that is what had just happened to the Houston Dynamo . And the manner of the loss made it much, much harder.
"I think this year is different than last year," Houston coach Dominic Kinnear said after the match. "To be honest with you, I want to cry or throw up, one of the two."
Both reactions were justified after the Dynamo opened the game as the better side by quite some distance. The visitors weren't awed by the big occasion or the likes of David Beckham, Landon Donovan or Robbie Keane. They accepted the challenge ahead and pursued it with vigor. They chased and pressed in the early stages as if they entered this match as the heavy favorites.
"We didn't want to come here, sit back, give them a bunch of space and let them play," Houston midfielder Brad Davis said. "We did well in what we were trying to do: pressing high and not letting David get on the ball and play balls all over the field. We created some good chances and scored a very good goal."
Their deserved breakthrough came a minute before halftime, well after the Galaxy had fended off the Dynamo's early surge and the match evened out a bit. Calen Carr caught the Galaxy back four flat, sped past Tommy Meyer and tucked home past Josh Saunders. There was growing belief in the stands that the Dynamo could secure their third title in seven seasons.
Those grand hopes were dashed as the Galaxy gradually heaped more pressure onto a Dynamo side that uncharacteristically struggled to cope with crosses and set pieces. A couple of adverse decisions and a squandered chance or two didn't help the cause, but the game ultimately turned when Omar Gonzalez headed home after 61 minutes. Four minutes later, Donovan would roll home a penalty kick to seal the deal.
In the biggest match of the season, the Dynamo found itself undone, limited by the modest influence exerted by lynchpins Davis and Boniek Garcia. By the time the Dynamo managed to recover from the Galaxy's impressive surge, it was too late to rectify matters. The balance had shifted irrevocably.
"They made the most of their pressure and got some breaks," Kinnear said. "Unfortunately, we were off just enough to not get another goal [to respond]."
It wasn't for want of trying. Brian Ching climbed off the bench to add his experience to the cause. Will Bruin and Ricardo Clark both forced saves from Saunders in the final ten minutes as the Dynamo threw numbers forward. But an equalizer never really looked like it was arriving.
Robbie Keane's stoppage time penalty confirmed the Dynamo would once again leave this stadium disappointed. That their performance was vastly improved from a year ago meant little in the final accounting. The Dynamo are now left to figure out how and where their promising start came off the tracks.
The inquest might continue through the winter. Defeats like this one only fade with time. There are plenty of silver linings to take from another successful season and another determined run at a title for a side that coped with significant personnel changes during the season, but they won't salve the wounds inflicted by repeating last year's outcome on a day that promised so much more.
"I'm extremely proud of what this group of guys continues to do and what this club continues to do, but, without a doubt, it's difficult," Davis said. "It's very difficult. To say it's more difficult than last year, I don't know. It's hard no matter what it is."