By Simon Evans
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The David Beckham era comes to an end in Major League Soccer on Saturday when the L.A. Galaxy face the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup final, aiming to defend their crown.
With Beckham their star attraction for the past six seasons, the Galaxy have been by far MLS's highest profile team, with Ireland's Robbie Keane leading their line and the U.S.'s all-time top scorer Landon Donovan as their main creative force.
The salaries of the Galaxy's 'Big Three' are more than some entire MLS squads, and the chances are that more money is to be splashed on a high-profile foreign replacement for Beckham.
But Saturday's opponents, at L.A.'s Home Depot Center, are proof that success in North American soccer can also come from astute use of limited resources.
Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has proved that point twice before with MLS Cup triumphs in 2006 and 2007 and he took his team to the final last year - where they lost to the Galaxy.
Kinnear, who moved to the U.S. from Scotland as a small child, has managed to produce well-organized, tactically-disciplined and hard-working teams that crucially hit peak form just in time for the MLS play-offs.
It may puzzle outside observers that the Dynamo finished ninth out of 19 teams in the regular season standings but are now 90 minutes away from being declared champions.
However, with MLS following the tried and tested approach of North American sports leagues, rather than the traditions of international soccer, Kinnear has again played it smart.
Because once you are in the play-offs, no-one cares what you did during the seven month long regular season.
The Dynamo secured a single game 'play in' win at the Chicago Fire and that followed up with two-leg victories over the top seeds from the Eastern Conference - Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United.
While it is Houston's overall effectiveness as a unit that makes them a threat to Galaxy, they are not without talent themselves.
In midfield, crafty American Brad Davis will get a chance on the big stage after missing last year's final with injury and his intelligent passing will be invaluable.
Honduran Oscar Boniek Garcia, who is named after the great Polish attacker Zbigniew Boniek, has been in outstanding form in the play-offs on the right-flank, and his ability to run at defenders will be a worry for a sometimes shaky Galaxy back-line.
Certainly Houston, with those two ingredients added, look a stronger proposition than a year ago, when they lost by a single goal in the final.
"In Brad they have an outstanding passer who has great service on set pieces. In Garcia you have a player that's different. He's creative and dynamic with the ball at his feet. He's a threat to both score goals and set up goals," said Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena.
"Those are two very good attacking players to add to group who scores goals on set pieces, who has a goal scorer in Will Bruin."
But the Galaxy, coached by the experienced, former U.S. national team coach appearing in his sixth MLS Cup final, start as clear favorites.
In the Western Conference final, Galaxy crushed Seattle Sounders 3-0 at the Home Depot and Dynamo keeper Tally Hall says that shows L.A. are in prime form.
"Watching their playoff run, they're firing on all cylinders. They have good one-twos and effective attacks. I look at them and think that's a team that's on the same page. But I want to beat them and I want to beat them at their best".
(Reporting By Simon Evans; Editing by Julian Linden)