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Nov 12, 2007

Dynamo and Revs are models of stability

Major League Soccer is no different than other pro sports in its highly transient ways. Coaches come and go. Players shuffle in and out the door like it's 8 a.m. at Starbucks.

And in MLS, coaches do so enjoy tinkering with their systems. Meanwhile, the GMs and club presidents rack up frequent flier miles hoping to turn over the next big signing, the final-piece solution.

Most of them, anyway. Two franchises in particular seem less enamored with the power signing, and far more concerned with roster accord. In fact, they are models of stability, with little sense of the personnel and tactical wanderlust that smites other clubs.

New England and Houston prefer a steady course. While others look for a killing on the latest hedge fund, Houston coach Dominic Kinnear and New England boss Steve Nicol are hoarding up the good, safe government bonds.

It obviously works. These masters at plotting a sure course and staying it with conviction are meeting yet again to decide an MLS championship. This is Major League Soccer's first consecutive-year rematch in the MLS Cup final.

If the Orange prevails, MLS will have its first two-time defending champion since D.C. United in 1997. Despite a disquieting franchise relocation, on the field and in the training ground the Dynamo has done things essentially the same way for seven years. They've used the same straightforward 4-4-2 system under Frank Yallop going back to 2001.

Kinnear inherited the side in 2004. So players come into preseason to get fit and sharp, never wasting time or energy learning new roles, responsibilities and expectations. Then the season just hums along.

"So you're not always doing a lot coaching," Kinnear said Sunday, with barely a voice after an evening of shouting instructions above the fever pitch of jam-packed Robertson Stadium. "Mostly, you're just preparing."

Kinnear emphasizes knowing exactly who he's putting on the roster. Major League Soccer is a small world. So there's never really an excuse for getting stuck with a bad apple, character-wise, because somebody knows somebody who knows somebody, etc. They prefer to swap with clubs in the Western Conference, teams they face often. Familiarity subtracts mystery; they know which dogs to avoid.

A healthy chunk of the roster was picked up from the bargain bin or trades, often when things didn't work out elsewhere. That's how they got Brad Davis from Dallas and the suspended Ricardo Clark from New York. Pat Onstad was rescued from the A-League and Craig Waibel was collected in a waiver draft. Nate Jaqua, Richard Mulrooney and Joseph Ngwenya were additions via trade this year.

Once in place, there aren't any secret formulas to the Dynamo system, although there are ample demands in effort expenditure. Kinnear keeps the team on a pretty tight wind, and players keep each other accountable. The best defense ever in MLS (23 goals conceded in 30 matches) depends on people being precisely where they need to be, when they absolutely must be there.

"We don't have a lot of team rules," Kinnear said. Mostly, show up on time and work hard. Good locker rooms, in any sport, police themselves.

Doing things properly hardly requires foreign flair. Nine Americans and two Canadians filled out Houston's starting lineup in the 2-0 league semifinal win over Kansas City. That's pretty much the same lineup Kinnear has used all year. In fact, nine of Saturday's starters were in the lineup in the 2006 championship win. Six of them played in the 2003 MLS Cup triumph over Chicago.

Neither Houston nor New England spent much time this year chasing a designated player. Each team kicked the tires on a few options. But Kinnear figured he'd have to trade or release three players to squeeze in a designated-player salary, and he wasn't keen on gutting the roster.

Nicol said New England put one DP offer on the table. But the Revs' roster stability creates bargaining leverage. A reasonable offer was turned down, so they moved on. "If you've built a good, deep squad, you don't have to dive in and take some chance on it," Nicol said Sunday.

There were five designated-player signings this season in MLS, including David Beckham's record-setting contract with the L.A. Galaxy (the Galaxy missed the playoffs after a late-season surge fell short).

Best evidence of club stability: Nicol will soon begin his seventh season at Gillette Stadium. Only one other MLS manager has seen seven seasons at one address, Bob Gansler, who lasted eight at Kansas City (from 1999-2006).

Seven Revolution starters who fell to Los Angeles in the 2005 championship were in Nicol's lineup last Thursday. And his team is largely built through MLS drafts (including college, supplemental and dispersal drafts). Shalrie Joseph, Pat Noonan, Michael Parkhurst, Steve Ralston, James Riley, Taylor Twellman, Andy Dorman, Jeff Larentowicz, Adam Cristman and Wells Thompson were all collected thusly.

Only Twellman was a blue-ribbon, highly sought pick. Eight teams passed on Parkhurst, the league's smartest defender. Same with Noonan a couple of years earlier. Joseph was a second-round pick. Clint Dempsey, now at Fulham, was a No. 8 overall selection.

Nicol chuckles at suggestions that he has some secret formula in rating college talent. He does the usual homework, makes his pick and hopes for the best.

"You still don't know," he said. "And if anybody tells you any different, they're lying."

So why does Nicol seem to get double value from the college draft? It all goes back to stability in the organization, he said. "If you've got a settled environment, with good people who want to win, that makes it easy for anybody, particularly a younger player, to come in and get some of that."

Nicol's teams are always the same. He's a 3-5-2 guy. They keep things simple. Keep the ball moving. Get it wide. Get into good spots in front of goal.

They defend in zones on corner kicks, just like Liverpool, where Nicol made 467 appearances as a defender or midfielder. Mostly what he learned at Anfield was that some fellows had bags full of skill, but couldn't exploit it due to deficient steel or tenacity.

"Because if they don't have that desire, that's what it takes to succeed, and at a higher level," Nicol said. "You need more than ability. You need a strong mentality and desire."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.