New England hopes fourth time is a charm
WASHINGTON -- Three times the New England Revolution have played in the MLS Cup.
Three times, they've lost.
All three games went to overtime.
One even went to penalty kicks.
Needless to say, they are sick of losing.
"We've got to win this thing," midfielder Steve Ralston said. "It'd be a shame for this group of guys to go to four championships -- three in a row -- and not win one. There's a lot of pressure. We feel like we need to win."
The Revolution get their fourth shot at the MLS title Sunday, facing a group of Houston Dynamo players who know better than any how to win it all. The Dynamo have captured the trophy three times since 2001, counting the two titles won as the San Jose Earthquakes before the franchise relocated to Texas last year.
It's the team that always wins the big game vs. the one that never does.
"We know they're coming in with a chip on their shoulder," said Dynamo defender Eddie Robinson, who will be playing for his fourth championship ring. "And eventually the odds are going to catch up with them. And same for us -- we've been three times and won three times. That's not going to continue forever. We don't want to break that trend this weekend, for sure."
The Dynamo are attempting to become MLS' first repeat champions since D.C. United won the league's first two titles in 1996 and 1997. They'll have to do it by winning a rematch: Last year's game was tied 1-1 after overtime before Houston won 4-3 in the first-ever MLS Cup penalty kick shootout.
So is New England after revenge? Nah. After going 0-3, they don't care who they're playing.
"Obviously it's a rematch," said defender Jay Heaps, who will be starting in his fourth MLS Cup for the Revolution. "But that doesn't really weigh on us just because we've been to so many finals. Because we've been to three in a row, we're on our tippie-toes -- just ready to get at this game."
Perhaps this could be New England's year because, well, this is New England's year. The Red Sox won the World Series. The Patriots are 9-0. The Celtics are 8-0. Boston College was recently No. 2 in the college football rankings. Even the Bruins are off to a winning start.
"We know how important it is to bring back a championship on Sunday because all these teams are doing well -- the Pats, the Celtics and the Red Sox winning the World Series," New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph said. "We definitely want to be one of those sports teams in Boston that people talk about as a champion, too."
While the Revolution need all the attention they can get on the crowded New England sports scene, the Dynamo have already captured the hearts of Houston. Standing room only crowds of more than 30,000 watched their last three home games.
Amid the surge in popularity, coach Dominic Kinnear kept his team steady while attempting one of the most difficult of sports challenges: the repeat.
"We talked a little bit at the beginning of the season because we stumbled a little bit," Kinnear said. "'Hey, you know, guys, teams will be gunning for us, it's hard to repeat.' I think once we caught our stride and got good results, we left all that talk behind. I think it was the fact that we're not here to defend our championship, we're actually playing to win another championship."
The Dynamo will likely have to play without the MVP of last year's MLS Cup, Brian Ching, who strained his left calf in last week's Western Conference final. Houston television station KRIV reported Saturday that Ching sent a text message to the station in which he wrote "not going to play."
The best hope Kinnear could offer for Ching's availability was a shrug of the shoulders and the words: "Anything's possible."
Sunday's game wraps up a season in which MLS attracted unprecedented attention with the signing of English superstar David Beckham and other high-profile international players under the new designated player rule. However, neither the Dynamo nor the Revolution opted to sign a DP.
In fact, these two teams lead the league in roster stability. Houston-San Jose has used the fewest players -- 33 -- over the last three seasons, and New England has used second fewest with 37. Kinnear and New England's Steve Nicol are the longest-tenured active coaches in the league.
That's a major reason why these two teams have stayed near the top.
"When you chop and change all the time," Nicol said, "you're losing that atmosphere where everybody knows what's going on."
All that's left for Nicol is to figure out how to win the big one. Even as his players talked this week about the need to get the monkey off the back, the coach tried to ignore that it was even there.
"We're not looking back," Nicol said. "We're just looking straight ahead to the game on Sunday."