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 deployShalrie Josephor 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" Ramirezscored 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 time around.
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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