Back in April, the odds that both Richard Mulrooney and Nate Jaqua would be playing in this year's MLS Cup final were long indeed. Heck, Paris Hilton winning an Oscar was a safer bet.
At the season's outset, Mulrooney was plying his trade with expansion side Toronto FC while Jaqua was laboring with the Los Angeles Galaxy. But a couple of trades brought both players to the Houston Dynamo, and oh how the long shots have paid off. Houston's 2-0 victory over the Kansas City Wizards in Saturday's Western Conference final earned the Dynamo a return trip to MLS' championship game. Mulrooney and Jaqua both played pivotal roles in the win.
The two players combined for the game's first goal in the 35th minute, when Jaqua nodded home Mulrooney's corner kick, yet their respective contributions went even deeper. Jaqua was tireless up front, winning numerous aerial duels and taking pressure off running mate Brian Ching. Mulrooney's play in midfield was just as tenacious; he broke up countless plays and helped solidify the center when the Wizards' attempted a second-half rally.
Such performances have been typical of both players since their respective arrivals, although when each was acquired, playing opportunities seemed limited. In Jaqua's case, the team already had Ching and another midseason acquisition, Joseph Ngwenya, playing up front. In midfield, there was no way Mulrooney was going to supplant either Dwayne De Rosario or Ricardo Clark.
Given what has transpired since then, the moves have made head coach Dominic Kinnear look like a genius. Injuries gave Jaqua plenty of playing time and helped Houston navigate a crowded summer schedule. Mulrooney meanwhile found a home at right back.
But an even bigger payoff came later when Clark was suspended in October for the rest of the season following his set-to with Dallas' Carlos Ruiz. Rather than face a huge drop-off in quality, Mulrooney provided the Dynamo with a ready made stand-in, one with the experience of having won two championships in San Jose.
Now fast-forward to Saturday's game. Without Jaqua and especially Mulrooney, Kinnear would have been forced into mad scientist mode, moving his personnel this way and that in order plug the gaps. Instead, the Dynamo were able to carry on as they had all season, especially on the defensive end.
"When the ball turned over, our reaction, our responsibility to defend was almost automatic, and you can't ask for anything better than that," Kinnear told MLSNet.com.
The Dynamo also got an improved performance from De Rosario, who for much of this season has looked far short of the player who was twice a finalist for MVP honors. But on this night, a DeRo resembling last year's vintage version showed up. Not only was the Canadian active and around the ball, but his defensive effort was notable as well, and his goal on a worm-burner in the 81st minute iced the match for the home side.
In many ways, Kansas City also reverted to type during the match, much to the consternation of Wizards' head coach Curt Onalfo. A team that had struggled to possess the ball all through the playoffs did so again in the first half, and if not for some desperate defending, the match might have been over by halftime.
Defending set pieces has also been an issue this season for Kansas City. It was an illness that Onalfo thought he had cured, but his side looked vulnerable on nearly every corner kick, due in no small part to Jaqua's presence.
"The moment we saw Jaqua on the field, we knew [Houston] had a serious height advantage," Onalfo said. "The thing there is you have to make sure you get a body on a guy, and be little bit sharper [on set pieces], but we knew they were going to be extremely tough on those occasions."
The introduction of Carlos Marinelli at halftime allowed the Wizards to make a game of it; Kansas City finally developed some semblance of a possession game. But in a match in which referee Jair Marrufo was reluctant to make any game-changing decisions, it was going to take something special from Kansas City's forward tandem of Eddie Johnson and Scott Sealy to pierce Houston's defense, and it wasn't forthcoming. Johnson will especially rue his miss in the 12th minute, when a wide-open look at goal saw his thumping volley from 12 yards go inches too high.
"The objective all along was always to try and score a goal early, and if you do, it totally changes the nature of the game," Onalfo said.
Instead, it was Houston that carried the play for the rest of the half, and when Jaqua finally broke through for his second career playoff goal, the rest of the script was predictable, with the Wizards taking more risks, and Houston looking for counterattacks.
The lone deviation was the left calf injury sustained by Ching midway through the second half. Word has it that the Houston forward felt a pop when he crumpled to the turf, raising significant doubts as to whether he'll play in next weekend's MLS Cup final rematch against New England. If that's the case, it will be left to a front line of Jaqua and Ngwenya to get the goals for Houston. And it will be another chance for the Dynamo's midseason deals to pay some dividends.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.