Defense to decide MLS Cup?

[MLS CUP 2007 PREVIEW] New England and Houston played a spectacular 3-3 tie during the regular season. In their other match, the Revs won, 1-0. How the defenders and goalkeepers will fare in this year's final is the topic of our third and final analysis leading up to MLS Cup 2007 (following up on previews of the midfield and frontline matchups).

New England conceded more than twice as many goals, 43, than did Houston while it set a league mark by allowing just 23. Yet Revs defender Michael Parkhurst won honors as Defender of the Year, and the Revs haven't allowed a goal in three playoff games.


Positioning, formation, timing, and cohesion are all vital elements of defending. Houston plays with four in the back, New England employs a trio. But nothing is more important than mindset, and after posting just four shutouts in 15 regular-season games during the second half of the season, the Revs got together for a chat.

"When we get to the playoffs we had a good discussion and a great meeting where everybody talked about what we needed to do and how we need to come together and start playing offensively and defensively great soccer," says midfielder Shalrie Joseph, who anchors midfield in front of the Revs three defenders and goalie Matt Reis.

"That we've given up zero goals is a credit to Matt and the back three in general. These guys have been solid for us all year. It's probably only going to take one goal, and we want to stay strong defensively and just don't give up a goal."

Parkhurst mans the middle. Somewhat small (5-foot-11, 160) for a central defender, in three MLS seasons the clever, quick, product of Wake Forest has won Rookie of the Year (2005) and Defender of the Year. The athletic Jay Heaps plays on the right, the Trinidad & Tobago international Avery John takes the right side when head coach Steve Nicol doesn't prefer James Riley. John is two inches taller and has international experience. Riley is better on the ball.

Houston pairs Eddie Robinson and Ryan Cochrane in the middle, with captain Wade Barrett the left back and the rugged Craig Waibel on the right. The Dynamo, led by the combative Robinson (70 fouls), prefers to battle and press. Only 36 times were opponents called offside.

New England foes were caught offside 96 times and Parkhurst committed an astoundingly low five fouls. Yet Joseph and central partner Jeff Larentowicz fouled 116 times between them, so DeRosario may have to slug his way through midfield.

Houston 's backline is tough to penetrate and represents experience in a system that goes back to when the team was in San Jose. It moved prior to the 2006 season; two years after former assistant coach Dominic Kinnear took over from Frank Yallop.

Keeper Pat Onstad faced only 107 shots and saved 85, the lowest totals among goalkeepers who played at least 20 games. The players credit Kinnear and his assistant, the former Scottish international and MLS veteran John Spencer.

"We just have a great structure," said Waibel, who surprised Kansas City in the conference final by intercepting a ball in midfield and sliding it for DeRosario to score the clinching second goal. "We're coached well. We work on it a lot. No matter what lineup they put on the field, they're working with us defensively throughout the week so we don't give up a goal."

Keepers Onstad and Reis are quite different in physique, style and temperament. Both are excellent, capable of the spectacular and seldom guilty of gaffes. Good range, safe hands, reliable distributors of the ball, quick and brave dealing with shots and crosses; they are much closer in ability than shown by statistics: a gap of more than half a goal a game in goals conceded (Onstad 0.82; Reis 1.43).

The prospect of penalties favors neither team as far as goalkeeping.

"The big thing you would like to have is a goalkeeper that has a habit of saving penalties and quite frankly both teams have a goalkeeper who's done that in the past," said Nicol.

Onstad bested Reis in the shootout showdown of last year's final won by Houston, 4-3.

There's also the prospect of scoreless regulation, as in last year's final. In 2005, New England lost in overtime to Los Angeles after 90 minutes of zero.

"But last year I don't think both teams went out and tried to play a 0-0 game," says Kinnear. "There wasn't a ton of chances to go around but I think both teams tried to attack and score goals. I just think it was one of those days where good goalkeeping, and sometimes a lack of finishing and good defending led to no goals being scored."

In Nicol's years at Liverpool players took pride, as teammates and individuals, in stopping the other team. He sees some of those same traits in players on both teams.

"I think defenders take it personally when they lose a challenge or somebody beats them or something like that," said Nicol, who can appreciate that tenacity in any team, even the foe against which it can erase a run of three straight losses (2002, 2005, 2006) in the final, and beat it last year on the last kick of the ball.

"They've got four guys across the back who take it personally when they lose the challenge," says Nicol. "That's the first thing. The other thing is their shape. The four guys in the back keep great shape so it limits the holes that we can have players running into.

"When you have great shape, you have somebody near the ball who can close it down and make a challenge. That's the biggest reasons behind their defensive success this year."

There's firepower enough on both teams to keep the backlines busy, but a cat-and-mouse encounter is more likely than back-and-forth. Finals are like that, and for defenders, that works.

"Soccer's a cruel game sometimes," says Waibel. "Sometimes you can nick a goal, sometimes you don't, but you definitely can't lose if you don't give one up and that's the way we look at it."

Spoken like a true defender.

EDGE. Even.


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