Of the myriad factors to be in play Sunday when New England plays Houston in MLS
Cup 2006 (3:30 pm ET on ABC), these may be the most compelling:
STRIKE FORCES. One of the matchups favoring Houston is Brian Ching
against just about anyone on the Revs. They can deploy Shalrie Joseph or
even Taylor Twellman on set plays to match Ching (6-foot-2) in the air
but during the run of play Ching is bigger and stronger than defenders Avery
John, Michael Parkhurst and Jay Heaps.
Houston also has something of a secret weapon in Paul Dalglish, who
joined the team during the summer and didn't make his debut until Sept. 10. He
scored two goals in six regular season games, and hit two more against Colorado
in the conference final won by the Dynamo, 3-1. He didn't play in either of the
1-1 ties played by the teams in the regular season.
"He gives us a different look," says Coach Dominic Kinnear of Dalglish,
the son of legendary Scottish international Kenny Dalglish. "He likes to
run along that offside line so he can get in behind. A lot of teams haven't seen
him so he's a little bit of surprise. I like the way he tries to stretch the
defense a little bit and sometimes that opens up space for someone like
Dwayne [De Rosario] coming through late."
Revs coach Steve Nicol has almost too many attacking options. The sore
right ankle of Clint Dempsey has drawn great attention, yet the key
attacker will be Pat Noonan, who should be much fitter than he was last
week against D.C. United.
Noonan, recovering from sports hernia surgery performed last month, set up a
goal in the fourth minute and hit the wall after about an hour, but did play the
entire 90 minutes. If and Twellman are in sync, and Andy Dorman and
Steve Ralston are sliding into the attack from midfield, New England won't
need a lot of magic from Dempsey. There will be scoring chances.
FLANK FACTS. Theoretically, a team playing 3-5-2 (New England) against a
team in a 4-4-2 (Houston) would have a numerical edge in midfield. The Dynamo,
though, not only have DeRosario, they have vastly different wide players in
Brad Davis on the left and Brian Mullan on the right. Controlling the
flanks loads pressure on the outside defenders and pulls the central midfielders
out of the middle.
"They aren't alike at all, really," says Heaps, who hopes to contain Davis so
Ralston can get into the attack as much as possible. "Davis likes to come
inside, so Michael and I will have to be communicating to keep track of him. And
he can hit good balls from there, he doesn't have to be real wide.
Says keeper Matt Reis, "Houston does a good job of getting the ball to
the flanks with Davis and Mullan and they give good service to Brian Ching, and
if he gets good service he's a deadly finisher."
In recent games, Mullan has been flying up the flanks and driving in balls much
as he did during San Jose's championship run in 2003. Mullan set up a goal for
Dalglish against the Rapids by knocking back a Davis cross and slammed in the
third goal himself.
"He just gets forward and whips balls in there," says Ching, "and I just have to
get my head on it."
They did just that to score in the first leg of the conference semifinals
against Chivas USA. The goal halved its deficit to 2-1 and gave Houston a vital
psychological boost despite losing by that score.
REDEMPTION. That goal by Ching was vital, as it came just seven minutes
after Chivas had increased its lead to 2-0.
"As soon as that ball went in, we knew we needed to score," says Ching.
"Everybody remembered what happened last year, when the Galaxy scored their
third goal and we went back to San Jose down two goals [3-1 on aggregate]." San
Jose could only tie, 1-1, at home, and the No. 4 Galaxy advanced at the expense
of the Western Conference regular-season champion, and went on to beat New
England, 1-0, in the final.
New England has lived with that defeat for a year. After rolling through the
2005 regular season, the banged-up and fatigued Revs sputtered and were stunned
in overtime when Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez scored the second and last
goal of his brief MLS career.
This season, Parkhurst missed the start of the season with an injury, Dempsey
has missed time because of the World Cup and two separate suspensions, Noonan
was sidelined for more than a month, and the list goes on. The Revs are sharper
and fitter than they were at this stage a year ago, athough Dempsey, Ralston and
Daniel Hernandez are dinged up going into the final.
"The last two seasons have been totally contrast," says Nicol. "Last year we had
no problems, no injuries, no suspensions, no nothing. We had a settled team and
kind of ran out of juice toward the end.
"This year we've had injury problems, suspensions, the World Cup - people going,
people not being taken - so we've had quite a few disruptions through the year."
BOTTOM LINE. The year could end with one of the best, if not the best,
title games in league history, yet the onus is on New England. It has the
players to pierce the Dynamo, especially with Houston midfield fulcrum
Ricardo Clark suspended, but nervousness and tentativeness, along with
fatigue, cost it dearly in last year's final. Tired legs won't be an excuse this
If the Revs fall behind and have to chase the game, Houston's resilient back
line and counterattacking speed could finish them off. Houston rallied in both
of its playoff series; New England held off D.C. for 86 minutes after taking the
lead last weekend and may have used up its bunkering luck in that match.
The Soccer America MLS Preview predictions forecast that New England would meet,
and beat, Houston in MLS Cup 2006. That prediction stands.
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