Big games, like cup finals and most other matches as well, are won and lost in the middle of the field. Yet mano-a-mano skirmishes are just one facet of the overall battle, so the duels of Dynamo Dwayne De Rosario and Rev Shalrie Joseph will be fascinating but not necessarily definitive as to which team wins.
Players and coaches from the MLS Cup 2007 participants may differ on several points regarding Sunday's match but most of them do agree that last year's final, won by Houston on penalties following a 1-1 tie during 120 minutes of play, has little bearing on this year's encounter.
"The fact that it's Houston is immaterial to us," says Revs coach Steve Nicol, who has led the Revs to three finals and lost all of them. He and his players want to beat somebody, anybody and just win the damn thing.
"We're just approaching the game concentrating on what's going to be good for us and what we need to concentrate on. If we do that, whether it's Houston or anybody else, we're going to make it difficult for them."
Nowhere is that more true in midfield. The casts have changed. Houston lacks the mobile and edgy Ricardo Clark, who is serving a nine-game suspension for kicking FC Dallas striker Carlos Ruiz in a regular-season game. New England features significant changes on the wings from last year's team and one recent position switch.
The intriguing wrinkle that the Revs play five in midfield and Houston four adds raw mathematical possibilities to myriad issues like combination play, control of the flanks, interchanging of positions, and ultimately, winning.
"On the defensive side of things," says Houston offensive catalyst De Rosario, "we know they play with five in the midfield so we know there's going to be one floating midfielder in there, so we do have to make the proper adjustments. We have the guys who work hard for each other."
While much attention will be focused on whether Rev Joseph can shut down DeRosario (six goals, four assists), and vice versa, it is on the flanks where both teams have other potential game-breakers. The Houston duo of Brad Davis (left) and Brian Mullan (right) is a main supply line of scoring chances, and has been since the team was in San Jose (it moved east prior to the 2006 season). Nothing new there. Davis is a classic bender of crosses and set pieces; Mullan is the quintessential slasher who loves to run at people. Stuart Holden, who scored five goals and logged as many assists, has been a spark off the bench.
For the Revs, the fast and powerful Khano Smith has taken over the left side from Joe Franchino, and rookie Wells Thompson, quick and clever on the ball, has earned the starting spot on the right, which has moved veteran Steve Ralston inside at the expense of Andy Dorman. But perhaps the most important change is the transformation of Jeff Larentowicz from part-time starter to full-time irreplaceable.
"In terms of Larentowicz I think he's definitely one of the best midfielders in the league," says Joseph, who himself has no peer among the central set. "From where he came in and where he's at right now playing alongside him, he's done a great job. He allows me that freedom to get forward in the attack and go win balls in different areas of the park.
"Having Jeff alongside me I think is great for my game."
What's great for Joseph is bad for the opposition. Houston must somehow control Joseph, who can cover more ground and win tougher tackles than anybody in the league, while also blunting the dribbles and serves of Smith and Thompson, not to mention monitoring the pesky and precise Ralston, who topped MLS this season with 14 assists.
Holding the Houston midfield together is the task of former Quake Richard Mulrooney, named Comeback Player of the Year in 2006 after recovering from a torn ACL that limited him to just seven games in 2005. He was traded by FC Dallas in March, 2007 but his wife couldn't work because she isn't licensed to practice medicine in Canada, so he requested a trade and Toronto FC sent him to Houston a month later.
If he lacks the range of Clark, he compensates with experience and extensive knowledge of the system preached by Coach Dominic Kinnear that has taken the team through more than 40 competitive games this season in MLS regular season, playoffs, CONCACAF, SuperLiga, and U.S. Open Cup.
"I'm not nervous about having our team not show up, because we showed up for 30-plus games this year, if you ask me," says Mulrooney, who played 28 games and logged five assists in league play. "We've played on two days' rest, we've played Mexican teams, we've won on the road. The season prepares you for these types of moments and I think we've been through all of them this year."
Bottom line: New England's varied midfield weapons can force Houston to spend much of its time chasing the ball and the Revs will win if Joseph, Ralston and either Smith or Thompson exploit that possession. Yet Mullan and DeRosario are dangerous on the break, Davis is one of the league's best on dead balls, and Mulrooney has been known to hit a killer pass or two. Holden is the wild card.
Edge: New England