The Houston Dynamo and New England Revolution are the first teams to face each other in consecutive MLS Cup finals, and this poses two main questions.
Will the Revs ride the wave of Boston's sports renaissance and finally break through in their third consecutive MLS Cup appearance?
Or will the Dynamo become only the second team in MLS history to win two straight MLS Cups and see their dynasty take hold? Ironically, this year's final is in RFK Stadium, home of D.C. United, the only franchise to accomplish the feat.
On the condition they remained anonymous, a past MLS Cup winner (as a player) and an MLS Cup-winning head coach both gave me their candid thoughts and scouting reports on the two teams.
In the trenches: A player's perspective
"What I like about this game the most is both teams play their own style. Even though we can sit here and predict exactly what's that's going to be, both teams are still very successful and good at what they do.
"A big key for success for the Revs will be to get in some early crosses and get the ball back in behind Eddie [Robinson] and [Ryan] Cochrane, something New England has done pretty consistently over the years. You have to force Houston to make decisions as opposed to playing right in front of them where they can attack defensively. It's going to be interesting to see how Houston counters.
"You wouldn't think it at the start of the game because they're not the two biggest names; however, one of the key matchups will be Khano Smith against Craig Waibel. Smith has got a ton of speed, and if he can get around the corner, I think New England will have lots of success. If Houston can contain Smith with [Brian] Mullan covering for Waibel, they can make Smith very predictable.
|MLS Cup Final|
|New England vs. Houston|
"It's such a classic matchup of formations, the Revs' 3-5-2 versus the Dynamo's 4-4-2. That plus-one-man advantage in the midfield for New England is a big deal. If [Steve] Ralston can get a lot of the ball -- and I thought he was quiet in the Eastern Conference championship game -- New England will be dangerous. If Ralston can see the ball and be effective, you force one of the Houston center backs to step up, or Richard Mulrooney is going to have to defend two guys, which is going to be very tough.
"It's hard to know who to give the edge to defensively. Both teams are solid and work very hard on both sides of the ball. What I also like about both teams is they defend from the forwards back,;everyone defends and everybody accepts responsibility and does their role.
"Houston is more aggressive, experienced and has been together for a long time. If something breaks down, it's pretty incredible how efficient they are at covering for each other.
"With New England, there are always gaps created because they play in a 3-5-2. [Michael] Parkhurst has had a great year and does an amazing job sweeping. His marking backs [Avery John and Jay Heaps] don't get enough credit because they make his job easier, and I am sure he would say as much.
"Whether [Brian] Ching plays or not is a big factor. As a defender, knowing you're dead tired in the 60th minute and [Joseph] Ngwenya comes on fresh is a huge factor and advantage for Houston. If Ngwenya starts the game and Ching isn't fit or available, it will make a big difference and help New England.
"Having said all that, it will come down to the midfield in this game. It comes down to if Ralston can find the gaps and make Houston make decisions -- and if Dwayne [De Rosario] can find space and get away from Shalrie [Joseph] and [Jeff] Larentowicz and get service to the other guys. Whichever midfield wins the battle will more than likely win MLS Cup."
The general's plan: A coach's vantage point
"Obviously, if Ching is injured and can't play, that's a big blow to Houston. I am sure they'll do whatever they can to get his calf to a point where they can get him on the field because he has a big impact on their game.
"The main thing with New England -- and they did this against Chicago -- is they tighten up a bit in the playoffs. They play free-flowing during the regular season but then they tighten up in the postseason.
"Steve [Nicol] has done a great job and I wouldn't second-guess him, but Wells Thompson may not be the right solution. I don't know if it's better to have Thompson outside and Ralston inside or Ralston outside with Andy Dorman inside. He sees them everyday in training, so he knows what works best.
"If the Revs play free in their minds, they got a great shot at it. They forced Houston to make some changes in last year's final as Houston changed out of their 4-4-2 to match up better with New England. If they can force them to do it again, I think that's a good sign for New England.
"I thought Smith, Thompson and Joseph had nightmares against Chicago and will need to have much better games to beat Houston. Joseph also needs to have a better game than he did in last year's final, as I don't think he had a great game at all.
"Last year, the Revs used Daniel Hernandez inside and that changed Shalrie's role. Hernandez sat deep and Shalrie was forced to push forward more. I think Joseph and Larentowicz play better in tandem than Joseph and Hernandez did. Larentowicz will be charged with keeping tabs on De Rosario, who is a different attacking midfielder in the sense he likes to run through as much as he can. He will sit in midfield and play-make a little bit, but what he wants to do is run and attack more than create. Larentowicz will have to make sure to run with him to neutralize him.
"If Houston stays in a 4-4-2, then New England should have an advantage in center midfield with the extra player, and that's going to be Dominic's challenge [referring to Houston coach Dominic Kinnear].
"Wade Barrett can handle Thompson, and we'll see if Smith gets a chance to run at Waibel. The game is won or lost in the midfield, New England's trio essentially against De Rosario.
"I think the impact of [Ricardo] Clark's suspension reveals itself more and more as the games go on and especially in a game like this. It didn't show itself against Kansas City because they were dealing with [Kurt] Morsink and [Carlos] Marinelli, so Mulrooney didn't have to do too much other than just sit in that spot. Now, with Ralston it becomes a bit more difficult with basically a three versus two advantage in midfield for New England.
"I thought Houston played very well against the Wizards and played with a lot of energy in that game. But I feel being away from home and not playing in front of their home crowd, the weather a little colder, gives a slight edge to New England, who is hoping the third time is the charm. Ching and Cochrane being limited could really hurt. New England got through a tougher test in Chicago than Houston did in Kansas City. Houston's confidence could be a little false because I just didn't think Kansas City was good in the Western Conference championship.
"Dealing with pressure of past failures could actually become an issue during the game for New England. Before the game you talk with your team and staff about it and get it out of your mind, and you usually do a good job of it. And then you step on the field and the game starts happening, and if Houston scores New England might start thinking, 'Here we go again!' That's when it becomes an issue in the game, something else to overcome.
"I don't think New England feels the pressure of playing Houston, but they may feel the pressure of trying to win a final. If that doesn't overcome them and they just play and don't suffer a setback in the first 60 minutes of the game, I think they'll win it."
Allen Hopkins covers Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer for ESPN, and he has patrolled the sideline for "MLS Primetime Thursday." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.