2007 MLS Cup Preview

The Houston Dynamo beat the New England Revolution for the title last year on penalty kicks after the teams tied 1-1 with both goals being scored in overtime. However, this year’s matchup promises to be a much more lively affair if the Revoluton has finally learned their lesson that tentative play is not rewarded with trophies.

This will be the third straight trip to the MLS Cup for the New England, and their fourth trip of the last six title matches, however, the Revs have yet to raise the Cup itself in triumph. In fact last year’s overtime strike by Taylor Twellman is the only time they have even scored in the MLS Cup final.

The big reason for that ineptitude is the decidedly cautious play that the Revolution has displayed when it is playing for all the marbles. The Revs have consistently slowed the game down with their antics, played ultra conservatively on the rare occasions when they have the ball, and stack bodies in the defense when they don’t. There is some talk that the Revolution intends to take the game to the widely favored Dynamo this time around, but that remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, even in the unlikely event that such bold talk was followed up by their play on the field, it may well be a year too late as the defending champion Dynamo are a much stronger team overall – even without the injured Brian Ching, while the Revolution is not as good as they were last season.

With Ching out due to a calf strain suffered in their Western Conference final win over the Kansas City Wizards, Houston will no doubt turn to Nate Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya as the forward pairing. Both players were acquired this season in trades and have had breakout seasons, combining for 13 goals on the year. Ngwenya tied Ching with seven goals this season, while Jaqua tied with DeRosario for second at six goals on the year. Jaqua also scored the game-winning goal against KC to clinch this trip to the final, while Ngwenya’s speed and precision has led to some highlight reel goals including a candidate for goal of the year.

Backing them up is simply the best midfield in MLS. Former league MVP, Dwayne DeRosario is the playmaker with Brian Mullan and Brad Davis on either wing and Richard Mulrooney playing defensive midfield. There are some question marks about Mullan and Davis as each had a bit of a sub-par year, but Davis was injured for much of the season, yet has come on strong since returning to the lineup which has also taken a lot of the pressure off Mullan of late.

However, the root of Houston’s success this year been a remarkable defense that has only allowed a ridiculously low 23 goals on the season to set an MLS record that may well never be broken. With Ryan Cochrane and Eddie Robinson in the center, Craig Waibel on the right and team captain Wade Barrett on the left in front of goalie Pat Onstad, Houston has been virtually impenetrable all season. Yet, the Revolution were the only team to score more than two goals on them this year when they took advantage of a banged up Houston in Gillette Stadium with a 3-3 tie in their last meeting back in July.

New England on the other hand, is simply not in Houston’s class defensively, and without Clint Dempsey who left for Fulham after last season, their offense is not as good as it was last year either. Defensively, Heaps, Parkhurst, and Avery John rely heavily on Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz to run interference in front of them, and expect far too much from the assistant referees as the offside trap is their bread and butter play. Forced to play straight up against a smart team like Houston, they could be shredded unmercifully unless Reis chops Houston’s forwards out of the game with a few of patented “accidental” collisions.

Offensively, Taylor Twellman had a decent season with 16 goals, and Noonan chipped in 7 more, but Nichol has benched Andy Dorman and his 7 goals in favor of playing Steve Ralston in the playmaking role. Ralston did lead the league in assists with 14, but he has not made the deep runs, nor got into good positions in the box to unbalance their opponents nearly as good as Dorman was known to do. That could prove fatal against the exceedingly well balanced Dynamo.

Even worse for the Revolution, is that their wing play is no where near as good or consistent as Houston. Khano Smith has had a few brilliant moments this season, but has largely been outplayed in nearly every match he’s been in, while Ralston’s move into the center has led to rookie Wells Thompson to fill in on the right wing. He has some promising moments to be sure, but in general he’s been wildly inconsistent, and Cup finals are not the place to expect a lot from a rookie. Altogether, the pair have only added 3 goals and six assists on the year, which isn’t going to cut it if the Revolution expects to get the ball to Twellman and Noonan often enough to score.

Of course both teams will come out a bit cautious as it is a Cup final and no one wants an early mistake to put them behind the eight ball, but that should allow Houston to dominate the possession which will likely trigger New Englands’s natural tendency to bunker into a shell. Given that kind of time and near constant pressure, Houston’s playmakers should be able to find a way onto the score-sheet either through the run of play with their lovely quick passing game, or through crosses to Jaqua that he will either score or lay off to the shifty Ngwenya.

Even failing that, New England will give away free kick opportunities and Houston has the right guys to take advantage of that. NE just fouls way too often when put under pressure. Heaps and John simply can’t help themselves because they don’t have the skill to mark up competently without a grab or a hack, while Joseph and Larentowicz have apparently been taught from birth to chop down an attack as soon as they can get a stud close enough. Brad Davis or DeRo have as good a freekick as anyone in the league, and given enough cracks at it, they are bound to find a way into the back of the net.

Going the other way, the Revolution will surely look to counterattack, but unless Ralston suddenly becomes much more aggressive, or Thompson and Smith put up the game of their lives, its doubtful Houston’s defense will be troubled too much. Even a more aggressive Ralston will struggle against the savvy Mulrooney, and I’m not sure even on their worst days, Mullan and Davis will be outplayed by a giraffe and a rookie. If New Eng;and fails to get those guys going, Twellman and Noonan aren’t likely to see much of the ball and that will be the end of the line for the Revolution

It’s actually in New England’s best interests to come out blazing and take the game to Houston. Opening up the game will leave themselves exposed in the back for sure, but if the Revs can get a lead, then their usual lockdown strategy at least has a chance. Also, if New England would actually trust themselves to go for it for the entire game, they might actually win a shootout 4-3 or something like that. It certainly would make for a better game at any rate.

Sadly, I suspect the Revolution will continue their fine tradition of playing for the draw and hoping for the one goal to decide it. If that’s the case, look for Houston to win by at least a goal and extend the Revs Cup misery to their fourth loss in four tries.

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