Given that David Beckham has now announced the MLS Cup will be his last game as a member of the LA Galaxy, expect much of the build up to Major League Soccer’s championship match to be dominated by discussion on his six years in the league.
That said, there are other intriguing storylines to consider ahead of the MLS Cup final and one of them has a Canadian angle. If he makes an appearance in the big match on Dec. 1, Andre Hainault of the Houston Dynamo will take part in MLS’ championship match for the second year in a row. More importantly, an appearance in that game will also present the Canadian defender with an opportunity for a bit of redemption.
2012 has been an interesting year for the Canadian International, as the 26-year-old native of Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que., has experienced a number of highs and lows in his fourth season in MLS.
After being named Houston’s Defender of the Year in 2011, things kicked off in a promising fashion for Hainault in the current calendar year, with Montreal appearing desperate to acquire the services of a player who began his career with the Impact back in 2004. There were also rumours of interest from top European outfits – Ligue 1 side Bordeaux, Spanish team Mallorca, Portuguese club Braga and Belgian club Anderlecht – cementing his position as a player in demand.
Hainault then kicked off the MLS season by scoring a dramatic winning goal during stoppage time against Chivas USA in Houston’s campaign opener.
However, as the year progressed, it appeared that Hainault’s versatility might have been starting to work against him to certain degree. Able to play as a central defender and at both fullback positions, Hainault would eventually see Jermaine Taylor beat him out for the starting centre back position beside Bobby Boswell, and then watch lightning quick Kofi Sarkodie win the right back spot that had belonged to the Canadian for most of 2011.
Thus, while the usual raft of injuries that all MLS clubs endure enabled Hainault to maintain a decent amount of playing time, the 2012 season has ended up being one in which the likeable and professional defender was on the outside looking in with respect to being first choice in coach Dominic Kinnear’s starting 11.
After starting 31 games last season and starting all four playoff matches in an impressive playoff run all the way to the MLS Cup final, Hainault started only 24 of 34 regular season matches this year. And he only started two of the Dynamo’s last seven regular season games, with one start coming due to the fact that Kinnear elected to rest his starters to prepare for the playoffs.
A difficult club campaign was then punctuated by a disastrous loss at international level while representing Canada in World Cup qualifying. Needing only a draw to advance to the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, Canada was hammered 8-1 in Honduras. With the Canadian team in total disarray, Hainault suffered the ignominy of seeing one Honduran forward after another blowing by him as the home side potted goal after goal.
All of that adversity aside, 2012 has not been without plenty of moments in which Hainault has distinguished himself. For Canada, he was a stalwart and key part of a back line that earned clean sheets in four of six World Cup qualifying matches and a team defence that was all but impenetrable outside of Central America.
At the club level, Hainault demonstrated excellent professionalism and character in the face of adversity and has been a key player who has played a vital role in the Dynamo making it back to the MLS Cup for the second year in the row.
With starting Taylor injured in the first half of the opening leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Hainault took the place of the Jamaican International and was outstanding under major pressure against Sporting Kansas City, the team that finished first overall in the Eastern Conference.
He went on to start Houston’s next two playoff matches, delivering a fantastic defensive performance in the second leg, with Kansas City playing for their lives for the entire 90 minutes, and Hainault and Bobby Boswell combining to clear everything that was thrown at them.
Hainault then delivered another excellent two-way performance in the first leg of the Conference final against D.C. United and scored a vital goal to set Houston on their way to victory over the two legs and a return to the MLS Cup.
The fact that the Canadian defender scored against D.C. United this month should not come as a surprise to anyone that has followed his career over the last couple of years – he has shown a propensity to score goals in the matches that matter the most. Hainault scored two dramatic goals in Houston’s run to the final last year and was a key performer in his club’s late season run to qualify for the post-season.
Outside of MLS, another goal off a set piece by Hainault propelled Houston to the quarter-finals of CONCACAF Champions League with a 1-1 draw against Honduran side CD Olimpia.
Given that Taylor returned to fitness and played against D.C. United for the second leg of the Conference final, it is no sure thing that Hainault will see the pitch against Beckham, Donovan and company. That said, Kinnear has been quoted on many occasions as saying that he is fully confident in his only Canadian player, regardless of whether he slots him into the lineup at any of four spots on the back line.
Certainly, Hainault’s proven record of scoring in big games will give his coach plenty to think about as he decides upon a starting 11 that will be molded towards unseating the reigning MLS Cup champions.
While many will be looking at another Galaxy victory as the ideal scenario to close out Beckham’s MLS career, from a Canadian standpoint, having Hainault and the Dynamo emerge victorious as MLS Cup winners would be a much sweeter story. Such a win probably would not erase the bitterness of Canada’s loss to Honduras, but it would be a testament to Hainault’s character and his ability to bounce back from adversity.
Steve Bottjer is a Toronto-based writer, podcaster and editor for RedNation Online, on online magazine covering all aspects of Canadian soccer. Follow RedNation Online on Twitter.