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Nov 16, 2007

Expect another nail-biter in this year's MLS Cup

WASHINGTON -- As the 2007 MLS Cup approaches, the mantra you will hear is, "It's New England's year," the assumption being that after three previous title-game failures, it's simply the Revolution's turn to win. Alas, it will take more than mere sentiment for New England to achieve its long-awaited breakthrough, especially with the defending champion Houston Dynamo standing in its way.

The conventional wisdom is that a team needs to lose a final before it can win one, and New England certainly has the losing part down. Extra-time defeats in 2002 and 2005 were painful enough, but last year's penalty shootout loss to Houston, one in which the Revs coughed up a lead in extra time, cut through muscle and went right to the bone. Overcoming that kind of karma will take some doing, although the last time a three-time MLS Cup loser was in the final, the Los Angeles Galaxy finally prevailed. Of course, that came in 2002, at New England's expense.

Houston will be looking to buck a different kind of history Sunday. Not since the D.C. United team of 1997 has an MLS Cup winner successfully defended its crown. And the Dynamo's attempt at a repeat will be hampered by a left calf injury to forward Brian Ching, as well as Ricardo Clark's suspension. But this is a team that has made championship pressure its friend, winning two titles in San Jose before last year's triumph in Houston. The depth and resilience of Dominic Kinnear's side will make the Dynamo tenacious foes Sunday.

Goalkeepers

Both New England's Matt Reis and opposite number Pat Onstad are All-Star performers, with Reis the more athletic of the two. But Onstad has forged a reputation as a keeper who delivers when the stakes are at their highest. Not only did he prevail in last year's shootout, but his penalty save off Ante Razov in the 2003 MLS Cup was perhaps the key play in San Jose's 4-2 triumph over Chicago.

Edge: Even

Defense

Houston set a record this year for the fewest goals allowed in the regular season, and it has been nearly as tough in the playoffs, with just two goals conceded in three matches. The Dynamo are a cohesive yet physical group, with Eddie Robinson and Ryan Cochrane anchoring the middle, while Craig Waibel and the underrated Wade Barrett man the flanks. Waibel is considered the weak link here, and his matchup against pacy New England midfielder Khano Smith will be one to watch.

MLS Cup
New England vs. Houston

Sunday
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
Noon ET, ABC

New England's defense has been in lock-down mode during the postseason, with three clean sheets in a row, and one reason for its success has been the elegant play of Michael Parkhurst. The Wake Forest product lacks the bulk of most central defenders, but he more than compensates with impeccable anticipation. Jay Heaps and Avery John provide more of the muscle, with John in particular taking on the more physical assignments.

If the back line has one weakness, it is that the players are a bit undersized height-wise. The likes of Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz typically help out on set pieces, but assistance from the run of play will be tougher to provide, especially against Houston target man Nate Jaqua.

Edge: Houston

Midfield

In the middle, the New England trio of Larentowicz, Joseph, and Steve Ralston appears to have the edge over the Houston duo of Dwayne De Rosario and Richard Mulrooney. Joseph kept De Rosario very quiet in last year's final, and such was New England's edge in midfield that Kinnear was forced to go to a five-man alignment to combat the Rev's numerical advantage.

Out wide, it's a different story. Smith will have to contend with Houston livewire Brian Mullan, while on the opposite flank, rookie Wells Thompson will go up against Brad Davis. Earlier in the season, neither Smith nor Thompson was considered a defensive stopper, but their play has improved considerably in that area. Houston still will look to feed Mullan and Davis as much as possible in the hope that New England's wide players will spend most of their time defending, and the Rev's forwards will be starved of service as a result.

Edge: Even

Forwards

Few forward pairings have as telepathic a relationship as New England's duo of Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan. Neither player is particularly quick, but the combination of Noonan's guile and Twellman's lethal finishing has tormented MLS defenses for years. There are some doubts about Noonan's ability to last the entire match, but in Adam Cristman, the Revolution have a physical forward off the bench who has shown he can cause problems late in a match.

The likely absence of Ching means that less of an understanding will exist for Houston starters Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya. But Jaqua's aerial ability should prove a good complement to Ngwenya's pace, and with both players at least 6 feet tall, their height will provide a challenge for New England's back line.

Edge: New England

Bench

The loss of Ching cuts deep into Kinnear's attacking options off the bench, meaning Houston likely will rely on Stuart Holden and Corey Ashe for an offensive spark. The versatile Patrick Ianni can help out as a holding midfielder or in the center of defense.

While Cristman will be counted on to bolster the Rev's attack, James Riley is the first option in midfield and defense. A possible wild card is midfielder Andy Dorman, who seems to have fallen completely out of favor with Revolution coach Steve Nicol, but who has the attacking skills to change a game.

Edge: New England

Intangibles

The Revs come into this match healthier than in either of the past two years. Joseph especially looks free of the ailments that limited him in 2005, and the loss of Ching puts Houston at a disadvantage. Playing closer to home also should give the Revs an edge in terms of crowd support.

But the ghost of past failures looms large for New England. Even though its U.S. Open Cup triumph six weeks ago saw the team win its first trophy, it will be facing a Houston side well-versed in pressure situations. Given the team's championship pedigree, the Dynamo's self-belief will be a notch higher.

Edge: Houston

Outcome

Unless an early goal occurs, expect another nail-biter. Both teams have shown extraordinary discipline in the postseason, and given the caution that pervades most finals, another close match is in the offing.

For New England to prevail, it will need its midfield to put their stamp on the game, something a healthy Joseph is more than capable of doing, but the Revs also will need solid defensive performances out of their flank players.

With Ching probably unavailable, Houston will need Mullan and Davis to be active out wide. De Rosario, whose knack for the unexpected can see him win a match on his own, will need to have a greater impact on the game than he did a year ago.

Prediction: Houston to win 1-0.

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