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Oct 2, 2007

Revolution tries to break title jinx against FC Dallas

The New England Revolution know all about painful losses at Pizza Hut Park. The stadium in Frisco, Texas, has hosted the past two MLS Cups, and the Revs lost both times in heartbreaking fashion. The stadium's primary tenant, FC Dallas, hasn't fared much better since the building opened in 2005. The past two postseasons have ended in home defeats via the penalty-kick shootout.

Yet with both teams set to contest the 94th U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday night in Frisco, one of these sides will cast aside their past disappointments and walk away from the stadium with some championship memories for a change. The oldest cup competition in United States, the U.S. Open Cup is open to amateur and professional teams and runs concurrently with the MLS season.

For both teams, the historical anvil around their collective necks gets even heavier when you add in their other title defeats. The Revs fell short in the 2001 U.S. Open Cup final and the 2002 MLS Cup, and combined with their other losses, it's not a stretch to say the Revs are MLS' answer to the Buffalo Bills. Dallas also fell in the 2005 U.S. Open Cup final to Los Angeles, although their triumph in the 1997 version of the same tournament gives them a dose of comfort.

Yet even as each team's past lurks in the background, New England head coach Steve Nicol and Dallas counterpart Steve Morrow must cope with more pressing matters ahead of Wednesday's final.

For Nicol, it means finding a way to replace suspended midfielder Shalrie Joseph, who received a red card in the semifinal against the Carolina RailHawks and is perhaps the player New England could least afford to lose. Even with Taylor Twellman's goals and Michael Parkhurst's efficient defending, Joseph has long been the engine that makes the Revs go. His size and strength have provided a valuable defensive shield in front of an undersized back line, and Joseph's ability to get forward has made him a valuable two-way threat.

Adding to Nicol's dilemma is that with defender Avery John out injured, his options for replacing Joseph are limited. Parkhurst has filled the Grenadian's spot in the past, but with the Revs thin along the back line, combined with Parkhurst's shaky play in that role, that move seems unlikely. Another possible solution is that Andy Dorman will play alongside Jeff Larentowicz, with Steve Ralston assuming a more central position in Nicol's five-man midfield; in that case, rookie Wells Thompson would man the right flank, yet his suspect defending makes that choice risky. Another option is for another rookie, Gary Flood, to step straight into Joseph's spot, a position Flood played earlier in the season. That decision also has its drawbacks, but with the much-improved Larentowicz by Flood's side, the risk is mitigated. Add in Nicol's desire to keep things simple, and it points to the latter solution.

"We're not going to make radical changes," Nicol said. "We'll be doing exactly what we normally try and do, and the only difference will be a change in personnel."

Given the way New England smoked Dallas on the wings in its 4-2 victory on Sept. 15, Nicol's goal of tactical continuity is even more understandable. In that match, the pace of left midfielder Khano Smith proved too much for Dallas right back Drew Moor, and that confrontation will bear watching on Wednesday.

Unfortunately for Morrow, Dallas' defense has been so suspect this season that he'll need 10 sets of eyes just to keep track of all the trouble spots, especially against an attack featuring Twellman, Ralston and Pat Noonan. The Hoops have won just once in their past seven league matches, a stretch that includes two heavy home defeats: a 4-0 loss to D.C. United on Sept. 1 and Sunday's ill-tempered 3-0 setback to Houston. But Morrow expressed no concern about Dallas' recent form, nor was he troubled by the Hoops' two league defeats to New England earlier this season.

"A cup final, a championship game, is a one-off game," Morrow said. "We'll be doing all of the things that we normally do to prepare for that. I don't see past results having too much of an influence on this particular game."

Helping Morrow's cause will be forward Carlos Ruiz, who despite a red card in Sunday's match will be available for Wednesday's final. "El Pescadito" owns a formidable goal-scoring record in big matches, with 15 goals in 15 career playoff games -- a strike rate he has matched in this year's Open Cup with two goals in as many matches. Ruiz also scored twice against New England in September, and he'll be looking for more of the same on Wednesday.

"I know what it's like to play a final, and we have a couple of players who know what it's like to be a champion," Ruiz said. "We have our confidence for this game."

One of those champions is World Cup-winner Denilson of Brazil, and it will be up to him and Juan Toja to raise their respective games and provide Ruiz with the kind of service he needs. Toja provided an incisive midfield presence for the Hoops in the first half of the season, but a right ankle injury has limited his effectiveness of late.

Denilson has spent his first month in MLS sporting a "What have I gotten myself into?" look. He has struggled to adapt to the league's physical nature and to his new teammates. Against Houston, Denilson was paired up top with Ruiz, but a move back into midfield might serve Dallas better on Wednesday. Ruiz and Abe Thompson have looked to be a more cohesive tandem up front, and Denilson's runs out of midfield might serve to occupy whoever mans the right flank for New England.

The home crowd would love nothing better than for Denilson to deliver on his much-hyped ability and lead Dallas to victory. With eight of the past 11 Open Cup titles going to the home team, that is a distinct possibility, although New England's excellent form of late -- and Dallas' recent struggles -- would seem to cancel that out. As with most cup finals, the winner will be determined by the team with the bigger hearts and cooler heads.

"A team with a strong mentality definitely has an edge over the other team if they don't have such a strong mentality," Nicol said. "What's between the ears is huge in a cup competition."

The ability to buck history will help, as well.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.