It takes a lot to kill the buzz of an MLS playoff victory, but amid the celebrations following Houston's 2-0 win over Kansas City last weekend, the sight of Brian Ching hobbling off the field with an injured left calf did plenty to sour the Dynamo's mood. And with their sights now fixed on this weekend's MLS Cup final, the question of how Houston will cope without the U.S. international takes center stage.
As of now, everyone in the Houston camp is saying that an 11th-hour revival is still possible. During Tuesday's conference call with reporters, head coach Dominic Kinnear mentioned that Ching was "working with our trainer, Bruce Morgan, three times a day," and that no decision would be made about his availability until Sunday.
But the most likely scenario is one where Ching doesn't play at all, and it's a circumstance with which Kinnear is plenty familiar. Between injuries and national team call-ups, the Hawaiian can usually be counted on to miss about one third of the MLS season, which is exactly what happened this year. For that reason, a forward tandem of Joseph Ngwenya and Nate Jaqua is one that has the confidence of teammates and coaches alike, as well as a healthy respect from the opposition.
"If Ching doesn't play, we won't be too unhappy," Revs head coach Steve Nicol said. "But at the same time, Jaqua and Ngwenya are capable of hurting us."
There's no doubting that Ching will be missed. His size, hold-up play and prowess in the air have made him the prototypical MLS target man. He's also shown a penchant for delivering in the clutch, and his five playoff goals in the past two years have been matched by only New England's Taylor Twellman.
|MLS Cup Final|
|New England vs. Houston|
But in Jaqua, Houston has perhaps as ready-made a replacement as it could hope for. Granted, Jaqua can't hold the ball up as well as his teammate, and this is where the loss of Ching will be most keenly felt. But Jaqua's skill on the ball is a touch better, and at 6-foot-3, his height still provides the Dynamo with enough of an aerial presence to pounce on any crosses that Brad Davis and Brian Mullan will provide from the wings.
Ngwenya has started only one of the Dynamo's three playoff games, as Kinnear has shown a preference for a twin tower alignment up top. But his presence in the lineup gives Houston more variety in attack, with his speed and slashing runs allowing him to get behind defenses. That was the case on July 22, when he used his pace to set up Ching for Houston's second goal in a wild 3-3 tie with the Revs, and you can bet New England hasn't forgotten.
Yet while an Ngwenya-Jaqua partnership will help soften the blow of Ching's expected absence, it does have the effect of limiting Kinnear's options off the bench. In previous playoff rounds, the insertion of either player gave the Dynamo a different look without moving other players out of position. If Kinnear finds himself on Sunday needing to make a change up top, his forward choices are limited to the inexperienced Chris Wondolowski and the still ailing Paul Dalglish, who hasn't played a minute since July.
A more likely scenario is one where Stuart Holden enters the match, Dwayne De Rosario moves up top, while Davis slides into the center of midfield. It's an approach that doesn't sacrifice quality but does serve to pull players out of their comfort zone. Then again, De Rosario scored the winning goal as a forward in the 2001 MLS Cup final, so it's a role where he should be somewhat comfortable, and it will also allow him to evade the attentions of New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph. If De Rosario -- as well as Jaqua and Ngwenya -- can conjure up similar heroics this weekend, the buzz that disappeared last Saturday will no doubt return.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.