In the midst of talking X's and O's, MLS coaches invariably return to the intangible factors that can contribute to a team's fortunes. Whether they refer to confidence, self-belief, or poise, a team's psyche is often what can separate the winners from the losers in the parity-driven world of MLS.
This week's edition of MLS Primetime Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) sees a matchup of two teams at opposite ends of the confidence spectrum. On one end, you have the New York Red Bulls, who made it look easy during the season's first two months, before a 1-3-1 stretch brought them down to Earth. And after coach Bruce Arena released or traded four defenders in a 24-hour period last week, it's safe to say no one in the New York locker room is feeling too secure these days.
Meanwhile, down in Texas, defending champion Houston is flying high after struggling early, having fashioned a six-game unbeaten streak that includes five wins. The fact that the Dynamo were missing several players to international duty during this revival has Dominic Kinnear's squad believing a repeat championship, not to mention a victory on Thursday, is a real possibility.
Five story lines to follow
1. New York's struggles
If there was one factor that has contributed the most to the Red Bulls' woes, it's a defense that after being impregnable early in the season has looked very suspect in recent weeks. Injuries to outside backs Hunter Freeman and the since-departed Todd Dunivant were partly to blame, but the aforementioned spate of player moves has shown Arena was not satisfied with his back line's performance.
Fortunately, some help has arrived. After a two-month layoff, Freeman returned to the lineup in last week's 1-0 loss to Columbus, and while showing some rust, he coped well. And with the acquisition of left back Kevin Goldthwaite, the hope is the Red Bulls will now be able to regain some stability and consistency in the back.
2. Houston streaking
Earlier in the season, the Dynamo struggled mightily in front of the net, and their latest burst of 11 goals in five games has certainly played a significant role in their resurgence. But an even bigger factor has been the team's stingy defense. Houston has allowed just three goals in its last six games, and has recorded three shutouts in a row, all while having to shuffle personnel.
3. Trade winds are blowing
In a bid to strengthen their rosters, both teams in the last week have obtained former All-Star attackers whose luster has dimmed considerably. New York acquired former teenage prodigy Santino Quaranta to bolster its attack, while Houston added midfielder/forward Nate Jaqua. While both teams will be looking to these players to contribute immediately, the acquisition of Jaqua is timely given that wide midfielder Brad Davis, who was just rounding into form, suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee during practice this week.
4. International absences
While the Gold Cup is done, the international calendar rages on, with both teams missing a key player. For New York, that's forward Jozy Altidore, who not only scored for the U.S. U-20 team in Tuesday's 6-1 demolition of Poland, but also scored the lone goal the last time the Red Bulls and Dynamo met back on April 21.
Houston will be missing rangy midfielder Ricardo Clark, who is with the U.S. team at the Copa America, and scored the Americans' lone goal in their 3-1 defeat to Paraguay.
5. Not so happy returns?
When Houston lost the likes of Clark, Brian Ching and Dwayne De Rosario to Gold Cup duty, it appeared its struggling attack would be even more compromised. Instead, players like Joseph Ngwenya and Brian Mullan picked up the slack and the Dynamo went on their run. Ironically, now that Ching and De Rosario have returned, Houston's offense is sputtering again. The Dynamo attack struggled in a 1-0 victory at Kansas City and a 0-0 tie at Dallas. Home cooking, and some additional time to get reacquainted, could see the offense return to form, but it's a development that will bear watching.
Five players to watch
1. Claudio Reyna, M, New York
When times get tough, teams often rely on their veteran leadership to see them through, and with the Red Bulls scuffling a bit, they'll need an excellent game from their captain if they are to break out of their funk. Reyna's penchant for sitting deep in midfield has long sparked arguments among fans about his effectiveness, but with New York playing on the road, Reyna's ability to help keep possession may be just the thing that his team needs.
2. Richard Mulrooney, M, Houston
Ever since his days in San Jose, Mulrooney has been one of those unsung heroes who doesn't get a lot of ink. He's not going to make a lot of fancy plays or even score a lot of goals. But a big reason Houston has been able to survive the continued absence of Clark is due to Mulrooney's unselfish and hard-working play. A continuation of that form could see Houston extend its unbeaten streak.
3. Juan Pablo Angel, F, New York
Angel's form has cooled just a bit of late, but his strike rate of nine goals in eight games is still one that most teams would die for. The 6-foot-1 Colombian combines a big frame with a predatory instinct in front of goal, and with Houston's resident tough guy Eddie Robinson suspended for the match, Angel may find the going a bit easier than he might have otherwise.
4. Patrick Ianni, D, Houston
The man filling in for Robinson will be Ianni, who after enduring an injury-plagued rookie season last year, has begun to show the ability that made him the eighth pick overall in the 2006 draft. Like Robinson, Ianni combines good size with rugged tackling, and has even shown the ability to contribute on set pieces, as witnessed by his game-winning goal against Kansas City on June 24.
5. Kevin Goldthwaite, D, New York
Goldthwaite has been leading a nomadic existence this year. He started the season with Houston, and then played in nine games for Toronto, before arriving in New York. During his time in Toronto, Goldthwaite showed a willingness to get into the attack, and his lethal left foot makes his delivery on set pieces a real weapon for the Red Bulls. Given that he was part of Houston's championship run last year, motivation shouldn't be a problem for the Notre Dame product.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.