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Houston looks like a champ again
by Ridge Mahoney, July 30th, 2008 7:01AM
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[SUPERLIGA]For one night, at least, the two-time defending MLS Cup winner looked the part, and as a consequence, Houston has reached the SuperLiga final. Defender Bobby Boswell tucked away a flicked-on corner kick and Corey Ashe headed in a late clinching goal to carry the Dynamo past Pachuca, winner of the inaugural SuperLiga last year, 2-0, at Robertson Stadium. Houston will meet either New England or Atlante, which contest the other semifinal Wednesday night at Gillette Stadium (TV: Telefutura, 8 pm ET), in the final next week.

A blown offside call denied Pachuca what would have been a go-ahead goal in the 60th minute, when Gabriel Caballero steered a low cross from Juan Rojas past Houston keeper Pat Onstad. The chance followed back-to-back saves early in the second half on Leobardo Lopez by Onstad, who parried the first attempt away for a corner kick and on the restart blocked a Lopez shot from close range.

Up until halftime, most of the threats had come from Houston, but Pachuca goalie Miguel Calero tipped away a dipping volley from Dwayne DeRosario and snuffed the Canadian international again later in the first half when DeRosario raced into the penalty area from the left wing and ignored a pair of teammates in the middle to hit a hard, rising shot that Calero parried. Brian Ching also headed a cross right at Calero from about 12 yards out.

Seldom this season has the 2006 and 2007 league champion resembled the past two versions that relied on a stingy defense, potent midfield, and opportunistic attack to finish atop the MLS heap. A patchwork defense and sputtering attack have plagued Houston during MLS play, yet in its SuperLiga opener it thrashed Atlante, 4-0, and eventually finished atop Group A by beating D.C. United, 3-1, after it lost to Chivas Guadalajara, 1-0.

Houston coach Dominic Kinnearsent out lanky striker Nate Jaqua, who returned recently to MLS following a short stint in Austria, along with Ching and DeRosario as interchanging attackers. Brad Davis and Brian Mullan supplied width in midfield, with Geoff Cameron and Ricardo Clark assigned to anchor the middle in front of Craig Waibel, Boswell and Wade Barrett. Not available were reliable veterans Richard Mulrooney and Eddie Robinson because of injury.

Cameron and Clark worked doggedly to plug up the middle and rarely did Pachuca's famed combination play open up large gaps. Waibel and Barrett kept the corners secure and seldom allowed Pachuca a clearcut opportunity to hit a decisive cross. Houston took 12 shots, half of which hit the target, and took the lead with a set play typical of their efficiency in such situations.

Texas product Jose Francisco Torres, 19, started and played the first 82 minutes in the Pachuca midfield.

Boswell arrived at the far post to put away a glancing header from Waibel, who made a near-post run to meet a corner kick hit by DeRosario. The ball skipped through the goalmouth and Boswell didn't miss from well inside the goal area to give Houston a 1-0 lead in the 77th minute.

Shortly after the disallowed goal, Ashe had replaced Davis, who absorbed several harsh tackles and couldn't contribute much offensively. Houston held firm with the 1-0 lead and countered cautiously, but when Mullan got upfield with three minutes left in regulation and gained enough space to send over a cross that cleared the entire Pachuca back line, an unmarked Ashe leaped to nod it home just inside the base of the near post.

Orange-clad fans, especially those behind Calero's goal, jumped and danced in celebration as Ashe strutted almost defiantly and his joyous teammates chased and then embraced him.

Pachuca players and officials got into a brief scuffle with a few of their Houston counterparts following the final whistle. Referee Neil Brizan and his assistants took some abuse for the disallowed goal, but evident on the faces was the frustration of creating few chances and surrendering late goals 10 minutes apart.

Ashe's matter-of-fact salute suggested the confidence and swagger by which Houston claimed the last two league titles is back, and will be seen again in the next few months, regardless of venue, opposition, or occasion.



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