Both teams needed overtime to dispatch USL opponents by 2-1 scores in the semifinals Sept. 4. New England beat Carolina with goals by Jeff Larentowicz and Pat Noonan; FC Dallas knocked off Seattle thanks to Carlos Ruiz and Abe Thompson, and in spite of Brazilian Denilson, who played a fairly anonymous match before being replaced in overtime.
Denilson's arrival, in fact, has coincided with a four-game winless skid, which began Sept. 15 when the Revs thumped Dallas, 4-2, at Gillette Stadium despite two goals by Ruiz. Since then, it has tied Chicago at home (1-1), lost at Los Angeles (2-1), and had its butt kicked at PHP by Houston (3-0) last Sunday.
So far Coach Steve Morrow hasn't been able to find the right midfield balance despite a rich vein of talents and abilities: Dax McCarty, Juan Toja, Arturo Alvarez, Pablo Richetti and Denilson.
"I think they've made their team worse," says an executive from another MLS team. "Look at the players they're going to have on the field at the same time and think how you organize them defensively; Denilson, Alvarez, Toja, Ruiz, Richetti. Toja works hard but he's very undisciplined defensively, he runs all over the field. How many of those guys can you count on to pressure the other team or manage a game, not even 90 minutes, but for 20 minutes at a time?"
Toja missed the Sept. 15 game with an ankle injury but has played every minute of the three league games since then. His presence and the absence of Shalrie Joseph -- ejected in the aftermath of a scuffle in the Carolina game -- may help Dallas establish a foothold in midfield, assuming it can play combination passes and interchange positions fluidly.
"Dallas can come from a couple different angles," says Revs defender Jay Heaps, who has played in all four finals. "Defensively, it's important that we match up and really just play smart and keep everything in front of us."
In his first season with the Galaxy, Ruiz scored the sudden-death goal at Gillette Stadium that beat the Revs, 1-0, in MLS Cup 2002. He and Taylor Twellman combined for 47 league goals that year, a feat that no two players have equalled since then.
Ruiz leads Dallas this year in Open Cup scoring with two goals, and even if Dallas is struggling offensively, he has that knack - as does Twellman - of snatching up the half-chance. Twellman has scored three Open Cup goals this season and netted in last year's MLS Cup before Houston equalized and went on to win the title on penalties.
"I know what it is to win a final, and we have a couple players who know what it is to be a champion so we have confidence for this game," Ruiz says.
The Revs also won this year's league meeting at Pizza Hut Park, downing FCD, 1-0, on a goal by Twellman. Thompson nearly equalized in stoppage time, but with keeper Matt Reis felled by a challenge from counterpart Shaka Hislop on a corner kick, he hit the side netting.
Cup tradition, regardless of the specific competition or country, suggests league form can have little or no relevance, especially in the ultimate game. Both Morrow and Revs coach Steve Nicol, who played dozens of domestic cup matches - and won a few trophies -- during their careers in Britain, know the drill. In addition to their ace goalscorers, both teams have any number of players who could decide the match.
"I think we've had two very close competitive games against New England so far - a defeat here at home which was a very competitive game and the loss in New England was a close game too," said Morrow.
"Like I said before, a Cup final, a championship game is a one-off game and we'll be doing all the things we normally do to prepare for that. I don't see past results as having too much of an influence on this particular game."