Celebration takes many forms in a championship locker room, and such was the case as the Houston Dynamo gave vent to the emotions of a second straight title.
Goals by Joseph Ngwenya and MLS Cup MVP Dwayne De Rosario in MLS Cup 2007 had wiped out a 1-0 deficit imposed by a Taylor Twellman header and for the second straight year, the Revs were in their locker room staring at the floor while the Dynamo organization went a bit berserk.
Beer and champagne gushed and fizzed, soaking and spraying players and coaches and fans and reporters. Plastic sheeting protected the contents of dressing cubicles but everything else and everybody present were fair game. The obligatory coolers full of ice were duly dumped on unsuspecting victims and a Houston beat writer came out of a scrum thoroughly drenched as delirious players chanted his name.
All of this would be standard fare if not for wistful and nostalgic looks on many faces. Dating back to 2001, the year that former coach Frank Yallop took over the second version of the San Jose Earthquakes, this franchise had won four titles in seven seasons, having survived ownership indifference, aborted stadium proposals and eventually a forced march to Houston two years ago.
"Maybe a little bit of the reason we've done so well is we got used to dealing with that," said defender Eddie Robinson, who played one game as a rookie in 2001 and has since developed into the league's fiercest defender. But at this moment, he stood off to one side as delirium ran rampant, a beatific look on his face as he savored the scene.
"We figured out how to put it out of our minds and just do our job on the field, and really enjoy and love what we're doing on the field," Robinson said. "This team we've had the last few years, our passion and mental toughness and desire has overcome a lot of things that other teams don't have to deal with."
Coach Dominic Kinnear upgraded his 2006 championship team through shrewd trades that added depth on the field and, trite though it sounds, spirit in the locker room. Houston finished 11-8-13 last year; in 2007, it posted a 15-8-7 mark and smashed the league record for goals allowed by conceding only 23 in 30 games. (Kansas City set the previous standard in 2000 - 29 goals in 32 games. Not coincidentally, the Wizards won their only MLS Cup that season.)
From Yallop, Kinnear learned two important principles: a) MLS teams can be improved with players from within the league, and b) character is just as important as ability.
"The locker room is so important because we're such a tight group of guys," said assistant coach John Spencer, a former Scottish international who played four seasons in MLS. "Talent is everything in the game, for sure, but if you don't bring hard work, enthusiasm and desire - them old cliché words - to practice every single day, you're not going to play for this club."
That character carried Houston through player absences, the usual run of injuries to important players, added burdens of the CONCACAF Champions Cup and SuperLiga, and a potentially backbreaking nine-game suspension meted out to midfielder Ricardo Clark for kicking Carlos Ruiz in the shoulder. That incident occurred Sept. 30, just in time for the playoffs.
Kinnear simply slotted in former Quake Richard Mulrooney, who had been acquired from Toronto in late April and filled in at right back as well as midfield for Clark and DeRosario. In the last three regular-season games and four postseason matches, Mulrooney played every minute.
"For me, and I know Dom doesn't like to point at guys, he's been our MVP this season," says Spencer. "That's only my opinion, but I think he's a fantastic soccer player. He's been a great, great pickup for us."
When a calf injury sidelined forward Brian Ching in the conference final, Kinnear fielded two other acquisitions, Nate Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya, in MLS Cup. He'd used all three of them at times during the season, with Ngwenya playing up top as well as in midfield. Other times, one of the three - usually either Jaqua or Ngwenya - wouldn't start.
In the regular season, Ching and Ngwenya led the team with seven goals, Jaqua finished with six. Among field players, Mulrooney finished third in minutes played (2,341) and contributed five assists. But Kinnear knew the true value of his three newcomers would be confirmed in the playoffs. He plans ahead.
"We had a little chat in Colorado [a 1-0 loss Aug. 11]," said Kinnear, "and told Nate, Joe and Richard one reason we brought them here was to try and win a championship again."
They would do just that.
HISTORY LESSONS. There are parallels between the 2006 and 2007 teams. In both seasons Houston finished second in the Western Conference, but through good fortune of the conference regular-season winner stumbling in the playoffs, hosted - and won - the conference final.
In both seasons, Houston fell behind in the conference semifinals by two goals and rallied strongly to win the home leg. Keeper Pat Onstad vividly recalls the team's reaction to conceding a second goal at Home Depot Center that left it down, 2-0, to Chivas USA in the 2006 conference semifinals.
"We knew we had to get a goal in that game, that we couldn't go back home down by two goals," said Onstad. "We remembered what had happened the year before we left San Jose."
In 2005, San Jose trailed Los Angeles, 2-1, at HDC in the first leg of the conference semifinals when ex-Quake Landon Donovan broke away to score a very late, crushing third goal. The Galaxy came north for the second leg and held out for a 1-1 tie to knock out the Earthquakes on aggregate, 4-2. A month later, Anschutz Entertainment Group pulled out of San Jose forever and headed for Houston.
In 2006, Ching scored with 15 minutes left and the first leg against Chivas USA ended, 2-1. A crowd of 17,440 came to Robertson Stadium for the second leg, Brad Davis converted a penalty kick in the second half to tie the aggregate, 2-2, and in the third minute of stoppage time, Ching scored again to win the series.
In the conference final, attended by 23,107 fans, Colorado took a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute on a penalty kick before being blown away by three straight Houston goals. MLS Cup 2006 ended goalless in regulation, and 71 seconds after Twellman scored in overtime, Ching headed home a deflected cross. The game ended, 1-1, and Houston won the title on penalty kicks, 4-3.
This year's playoffs unfolded much the same way, except Robertson could barely contain the numbers and noise as waves of orange-clad fans swarmed into the stadium. A record crowd of 30,088 packed the place for the conference semifinal second leg against FC Dallas, a 1-0 winner at home in the first leg. Just as it had done last year, Houston conceded an early goal, this time by Carlos Ruiz in the 14th minute, to fall behind two goals on aggregate.
"We've been behind," said Onstad, the starter in goal since being acquired from Rochester prior to the 2003 season. "In the SuperLiga [semifinal] against Pachuca, we were down a goal and down to 10 men, and fought them off. We came back to tie that one but, unfortunately, lost on penalty kicks. We have a belief in ourselves and a great group of guys in this locker room."
The Dynamo got going once Arturo Alvarez left the game, red-carded for kneeing Brad Davis. Kinnear immediately brought on midfielder Stuart Holden, who scored five goals and assisted on five others in the regular season, in place of right back Craig Waibel, and changed to a three-man back line.
About 20 minutes after coming on, Holden scored to cut the deficit in half. Ching tallied five minutes later and despite not getting another goal in regulation, Houston stormed through the fatigued Dallas team to score twice in three minutes of overtime to win by a 4-2 score. It beat Kansas City, 2-0, with another record crowd of 30,972 nearly boiling over the stadium walls in the conference final to set up a rematch with the Revs.
FINAL TEST. New England came into the final seething over its heartbreaking loss last year, and knowing it had tied (3-3) and beaten (1-0) Houston during the regular season. Of course, it also hadn't lost to Houston during the 2006 regular season, either, but still lost in the final.
In the 2006 final, Kinnear deviated from his adherence to the 4-4-2 formation, just as he did when Dallas went down to 10 men. His move last year had been prompted by a need to contain New England in midfield, but regardless of reasoning, you'd think the Revs had been given ample warning things might change during an MLS Cup. After Twellman's goal punctuated their first-half superiority, they faltered when Houston came out of the locker room buzzing.
"I thought we were just soft a little bit," said Kinnear of a first half marked by Twellman's accurate dispatch of a Steve Ralston cross, and a Ngwenya header from a sublime serve by Davis that flashed narrowly wide of the far post. Keepers Matt Reis and Onstad had seldom been called upon.
The defending champs were down a goal. Again.
Trailing is nothing new to this team. The entire season represented a comeback for the Dynamo. A bleak 2-5-1 start to the MLS schedule culminated May 26 with a 2-1 loss to D.C. United at RFK, and after the match a meeting of nearly an hour ensued.
Few team powwows have been more productive. Houston reeled off five straight wins, posted a league record 826-minute shutout streak, set a league mark for fewest goals allowed, and returned to the final.
"It was like that against Dallas - if we could get one, we felt the rest would come," said Onstad. "Today after our performance in the first half, I thought if we could get one we'd starting rolling again.
Down, 1-0, in the visitor's locker room - just as had been the case in May - Houston talked it out.
"Pat made a good point, saying we were tentative, and I thought so too," said Kinnear, who elected not to make any changes at halftime other than increase his team's tempo and crispness. "We weren't attacking with speed like we normally do."
His tactical shift would come later, but still, the second half started radically unlike the first. Possession, territorial advantage, and flat-out tenacity shifted to the other side. "We said everything we wanted to do at halftime and it's just unfortunate we didn't come out and play in the second half," said Twellman, who scored all three of New England's postseason goals and is one of three Revs to play on the losing teams in the 2002, 2005, 2006, and 2007 finals.
"It's a tale of two halves. You have to give Houston credit, we outplayed them in the first half and had quality chances. The second half, we came out, bunkered in, and just didn't get the job done. The first five minutes I don't think we crossed half-field other than the ball over the top for Pat [Noonan]. We said we're going to come out fine, and it's unfortunate we just didn't do it."
Noonan nearly scored on that ball over the top, but Onstad rushed out to block the shot. Then Ralston crossed for Noonan, who struck his left-footed volley well and a foot over the crossbar.
"I'm sure New England feels hard done by," said the 39-year-old Onstad, whose sharp play during the season earned an emergency call-up to the Canadian national team for the Gold Cup. "They had a couple of good chances and if they put one of those away, it's 2-0 and it's all over. It's a low-scoring game, it's a game of mistakes, and it's a game of taking your opportunities."
At about the hour mark, Davis moved inside from the left flank, and left back Wade Barrett pushed higher upfield. Such moves are common for a team trailing - in the 1996 final, United's amazing comeback was triggered by a shift to three in the back - and they aren't always successful, but Houston has more than tactics in its arsenal. It has a winning pedigree.
Ngwenya scuffed his first-time effort to put away a low cross from De Rosario, but it bounced right back to him and he drilled it under Reis desperate lunge.
"The first goal Ngwenya miskicks the ball, it hits off our defender and goes right back to him," said midfielder Khano Smith, who blew past Mullan and Ryan Cochrane on a 50-yard dribble in the first half. "How lucky can they get, really?"
De Rosario provided the winner by nailing a snap header from another precise ball from Davis, who'd received the ball from Waibel. A characteristic of Houston's game is control of the flanks, and both goals came on balls delivered from the right side. Ngwenya's goal came after a driven Davis ball skimmed off a defender to De Rosario, who put it back in the mixer.
Onstad tipped over a Twellman header to set up a final blow to the Revs' hopes. Substitute Andy Dorman's inswinging corner kick fell for Jeff Larentowicz, darting into the goalmouth unmarked, to drill a pulverizing header on frame, but it thudded off Onstad's left leg, and Houston cleared.
"It's not the first time for this franchise to be down a goal and come back to win," says Waibel, who has won three titles since being acquired, like several teammates, from Los Angeles. "It's a great example of how to have heart and how to get stuff done."
(This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)