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Even without Ching, Dynamo has edge up front
by Ridge Mahoney, November 14th, 2007 7AM
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[MLS CUP PREVIEW] In the first installment of our stories setting up the MLS championship game between New England and Houston at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney looks at the fowards.

As bikes go, it rates a very good, not an excellent, on style and execution. But like many of Taylor Twellman's goals, of which he scored more than 100 during six seasons in all competitions, his timing couldn't have been better.

 

Seven minutes before halftime of the conference final a time when fans and players of the home team get a bit nervous as the goalless minutes drag on, Twellman got his head on a deflected cross and as the ball dropped, he slashed it into the net with the most spectacular play in soccer. New England held that 1-0 lead to the end.

He scored 16 goals this season to bring his regular season total to 91 and the bike marked his ninth in all-time playoff competition. His gritty, selfless determination is an ideal complement to the wiles and finesse of frontline partner Pat Noonan, who totaled seven goals and four assists in 27 games (21 starts).

Says Revs coach Steve Nicol, "They're completely different players. Taylor's just a guy who wants the ball in the box and he'll get on the end of it. As far as matching up with who they have in the back, he's not bothered. He'll go through a brick wall to try to get on the end of a cross.

"With Pat Noonan, he'll come and show up and collect it just outside the box. He's one of the guys who looks to assist as much as score hisself. I think we match up pretty well."

Nicol can supplement that formidable pair of native St. Louisians with rookie Adam Cristman, who started a few games early in the season in place of Noonan. His production tailed off after a strong start, but he's strong on the ball and his passing has improved during the season. He finished with four goals and four assists while starting half of his 28 appearances.

Speaking of bikes ....

Last year, Brian Ching nailed a cross out of the air for a spectacular bike against D.C. United. In case you've forgotten, he also scored the overtime equalizer that matched a Twellman strike just a minute before in MLS Cup 2006, and hit a successful penalty kick in the shootout by which Houston claimed the title.

He broke a long scoreless drought - since Aug. 19 - with a pair of goals in Houston's 4-1 rout of FC Dallas in the conference semifinals, but a calf injury suffered during the Dynamo's 2-0 defeat of Kansas City last weekend will probably rule him out of the championship game.

Houston, though, has an even bigger target - 6-foot-3 Nate Jaqua - who tied for the team lead during the regular season with seven goals and buried a header for the winning goal in the 2-0 triumph over Kansas City in the conference final. He'll be paired by Joseph Ngwenya; both were acquired during the regular season, from Los Angeles and Columbus, respectively. Ngwenya finished tied with Ching for the team lead in goals. Jaqua was right behind with six.

"He runs the channels really well," says Ching of Ngwenya, who combines power and speed. "He's a good complement to either Nate or myself, or both of us."

Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has played Jaqua in midfield at times this season and started both he and Ching against Kansas City to exploit a height advantage. Ching's bad calf renders that strategy unusable, yet the coach believes Jaqua is more than just a tree to which balls can be lumped in the air. Matchups against Revs defender Michael Parkhurst (5-foot-11) could be productive.

"The tight confines of Robertson Stadium lend to Nate's game of attacking the ball in the box," says Kinnear. "That's not to say he only plays one way, he's very good with the ball at his feet."

Bottom line: Jaqua can replicate the Ching role of a good targetman, but having only one of them limits Kinnear's attacking substitutes. Stuart Holden, who can play midfield as well as up top, scored five goals and Chris Wondolowski netted once.

Twellman is one of the league's best forwards, Noonan's trickery and touch are troublesome, and their chemistry and cohesion usually find a way to get it done. But escaping Houston's fast, physical defense won't be easy.

Edge: Houston.

 



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