FRISCO, Texas -- It's become one of the more tried and true sports clichés, and almost without exception, you hear it invoked by players and coaches who have just won a championship. "We never gave up." Except that in the case of the Houston Dynamo, its application has been utterly appropriate all season long. And in the aftermath of their penalty kick shootout victory over the New England Revolution in Sunday's MLS Cup final, it is even more apt.
Houston, at some point, trailed at every stage of these MLS playoffs. In their first-round series against Chivas USA, the Dynamo were behind by two goals, only to come back and claim the series on Brian Ching's goal in stoppage time of the second leg. They found themselves down a goal early against Colorado in the Western Conference final and came roaring back in that match as well.
But with just seven minutes remaining in extra time of Sunday's final, Houston was facing the soccer equivalent of Mount Everest, trailing 1-0 after Taylor Twellman's cool finish had put New England ahead. So what did they do? They turned Everest into a speed bump, equalizing straight from the kickoff when Ching nodded home Brian Mullan's deflected cross.
Of course, the Dynamo still had plenty of work to do. Facing New England's penalty kick stopper extraordinaire, Matt Reis, in the shootout, the Dynamo wouldn't have been listed as favorites by too many neutrals. And when Brad Davis' effort in the fourth round was saved after a miss from the Rev's Pat Noonan, it looked like the Dynamo had lost momentum. But when Ching converted his own attempt, and Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad smothered Jay Heap's effort, Houston suddenly found itself free of obstacles and in possession of the MLS Cup.
For Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear, doing things the hard way wasn't by design.
"I think we'd like to steer clear of adversity, and I think sometimes we made things difficult," Kinnear said. "But the attitude of never giving up, it's always the mark of a champion and I think that's why we're sitting here. We get the kickoff and our first thought is to try and equalize. You look at Colorado last week when they scored against us; we've got three guys running into the net to get the ball so we could kick off again. It's an important aspect for us to have."
|The Dynamo beat the Revolution on penalty kicks to win the MLS Cup and to leave the Revs 0-for-3 in the MLS Cup Finals.
Let's consider MLS, the NHL, the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball: Nine other teams have lost each of their first three visits to the championship game or round.
The Galaxy, Pistons, Knicks, Patriots and Blues, like the Revolution, lost in each of their first three trips to the finals; the Tigers, Vikings and Broncos lost in each of their first four trips; and the Dodgers lost in each of their first seven visits to the World Series.
The season began with the team's gut-wrenching move from San Jose, but given the team's frenzied reception, as well as its quick start, it's tempting to think that it was smooth sailing from that point on. The reality was that the adjustment was a process that was as difficult as it was continuous, with off-field concerns proving just as demanding as their on-field counterparts.
"Spend a summer in Houston," said Kinnear. "You'll understand. It's a difficult proposition, especially with your children. If you don't have a swimming pool, you're struggling."
The low point on the field also came in those dog days of summer, when a flurry of red cards and poor results threatened to undercut the team's season. But Kinnear was able to steady the ship, and he used the experience to help forge his players' resolve.
"We could have bagged it in July and August," Kinnear said. "But I think even when we weren't winning games, we were still on top of teams and I think [the players'] attitude, for me, is their most important aspect."
But while the Dynamo embraced adversity like a favorite relative, New England wore prosperity like an anvil. The match began with the Revolution passing the ball like a Sunday pub team, and Houston appeared set to take advantage. But midfielders Shalrie Joseph and Daniel Hernandez eventually took control, enabling the Revs to patiently build their attack. Some quick combinations involving the likes of Joseph, Noonan, and Andy Dorman saw the Revs carve out some good openings. Chief among these was a near point-blank header from Twellman in the 25th minute that Onstad did well to save.
In fact, the Revs were becoming so dominant that Kinnear was forced to revert to a 3-5-2, sliding Davis from the flank into the center of midfield. This represented a sea change for Kinnear, who cut his coaching teeth worshipping at the shrine of Frank Yallop's 4-4-2. While the Dynamo coach had toyed with a three-back formation at various points during the season, that usually happened only if Houston was behind. This wasn't the case on Sunday, but given the Rev's surge in momentum, he felt he had no choice.
"It's not something I'm a huge fan of," Kinnear said of playing with three backs. "There are big gaps all over the field when we play 3-5-2. But it was something I thought we needed to do, to get guys forward as well."
While the switch didn't exactly signal a reversal in fortune, it did have the desired effect of stemming the tide. From that point, the Revs found it difficult to create many clear opportunities, and their window of opportunity looked to be closed.
That is, until Twellman appeared to win the match for New England with his strike in the 113th minute. But again, the Revs were unable to maintain their grip on the game. After needing 346 minutes to score an MLS Cup final goal, it took just one to cough up their lead. And while New England fans and players alike were cursing their luck given the deflected nature of Mullan's cross to Ching, it ignores the question of how Mullan gained that advanced a position so soon after the kick-off. It was a development New England head coach Steve Nicol was at a loss to explain.
"When you score, the one thing you expect is that you will be tight [at the back]," Nicol said.
While the Revs weren't tight on that play, they were that and more in the shootout. Noonan's shot skied high and glanced off the crossbar, and in the final round, Heaps appeared to scuff his effort right into the grateful hands of Onstad.
That the Dynamo keeper came out on top in his shootout duel with Reis was a surprise even to him. This from a man whose memorable penalty stop from Ante Razov helped seal the San Jose Earthquakes' MLS Cup triumph over the Chicago Fire in 2003. Onstad even recalled a shootout in the A-league playoffs with Rochester in which he failed to save even one of the nine penalties he faced. His success rate has been considerably better in MLS Cup finals.
"It seems like the only time I stop penalties is when there is something on the line," said Onstad.
That belief in the most pressure-packed of situations starts at the top, and is what Kinnear has brought to this year's side. And while Kinnear stopped short of saying that this ability was missing in years past, one gets the sense that prior disappointments have taught him much.
"I think I've brought a calm to the team," said Kinnear. "I didn't panic, and I don't know if that's from experience, but I had confidence in the guys. I give credit to them. They never give up. I have belief in them as players and as people."
And now they have an MLS championship as well.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.