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Nov 18, 2007

Dynamo prove their championship mettle

WASHINGTON -- As the halftime whistle blew in Sunday's MLS Cup final, a sea change appeared to be in the making. Perennial bridesmaid New England was up 1-0 and dominating the proceedings. Houston looked completely out of sync. But though the first half dared to be different, the end result proved to be the same as it ever was. The Dynamo fashioned one of their patented comebacks to win a second straight championship, 2-1, and condemn the Revolution to yet another winter of muttering under their breath.

As they have so many times in the past, the Dynamo found a way to win when little was going right for them. They were already without star forward Brian Ching, as well as suspended midfielder Ricardo Clark. But compounding the situation was the team's sloppy play early in the match, when several passes went straight to the opposition.

"In the first half … we actually looked a little tentative, a little nervous, which is really surprising given the [experienced] guys we have," goalkeeper Pat Onstad said.

New England meanwhile appeared set to turn its fourth MLS Cup final appearance into a runaway. Taylor Twellman deservedly put the Revs up 1-0 in the 20th minute, and he nearly added a second in the 33rd. With New England's tandem of Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz bossing the midfield, there didn't appear to be a way back for Houston.

But this is the Dynamo we are talking about, a team that seems to welcome pressure rather than fear it. And rather than give his team the hair dryer treatment at halftime, coach Dominic Kinnear calmly plotted his team's revival.

"I told the guys that if they would just pick up their play about 5 to 10 percent, the team would be in good shape," Kinnear said.

The change was as immediate as the instructions were simple. In the second half, Houston's passing was cleaner; Richard Mulrooney began to win more of the second balls in midfield; and the diagonal runs of forward Joseph Ngwenya began to stretch the Revs' defense.

Pro Sports Franchise History
Most championship appearances without a title (W-L)

MLS -- Revolution 0-4
NFL -- Vikings, Bills 0-4 (Super Bowl era)
WNBA -- Liberty 0-4
NHL -- Blues 0-3
NBA -- Suns, Nets, Jazz 0-2
MLB -- Padres 0-2

-- Michael Jackson, ESPN Research

But what tipped the match in the Dynamo's favor was a tactical switch to a 3-5-2 in the 60th minute. The move was identical to the one Kinnear made in last year's MLS Cup final, and on that occasion it had the effect of killing the game. This time, though, it galvanized the Houston attack by moving MVP Dwayne De Rosario closer to goal, where he could go up against the Revs' undersized back line rather than the midfield wall erected by Joseph and Larentowicz.

The payoff was nearly immediate. In the 61st minute, De Rosario managed to get behind the New England defense, and his centering feed eventually was scrambled home by Ngwenya after he had fanned on his initial attempt. It was at this point that Kinnear's conservative tendencies kicked into gear.

"I wanted to switch back to a 4-4-2," Kinnear said. "But the guys wanted to keep playing 3-5-2 because they thought we were controlling the game and playing better, so we stayed that way."

The players' instincts proved to be prophetic. In the 74th minute, De Rosario's snap header from Brad Davis' cross broke the deadlock.

Yet for all the talk of how the Dynamo's tactics rescued the match, Houston owed much of its victory to Onstad's stellar goalkeeping. The Canadian delivered two spectacular saves in the second half, first denying Pat Noonan when Matt Reis' punt sprang the Revs forward on a clear breakaway, then kicking away Larentowicz's point-blank header in the 87th minute.

Such heroics are nothing new for Onstad. His penalty save from Ante Razov helped win the 2003 title for San Jose. And a similar effort in last year's shootout saw him help the Dynamo win their first title in Houston.

"You can argue that [Onstad] has won three championships for us with pretty big saves," defender Eddie Robinson said. "Anyone who wants to say that Pat can't do it anymore should watch those three games. He's the best goalkeeper in the league. He comes up big in big situations."

Of course, what one team calls stellar goalkeeping, another will call profligate finishing, and that was the message an ashen-faced Steve Nicol delivered afterward.

"If you'd told me before the game the [kind of] chances we would make in the game, I'd be happy," the New England coach said. "It's real simple for me. If you don't take your chances, you leave a team hanging around, it comes back and bites you, and that's exactly what happened today."

There were other reasons for Nicol's somber mood, the biggest being that the stars never have been aligned as perfectly for the Revs as they were in this game. New England was healthy, peaking at the right time and had its foot on the throat of a wounded Houston team.

But perhaps in the end, that killer instinct is what separates a team such as Houston, the core of which has won four championships in seven years, and a talented side such as New England that has yet to win an MLS Cup final in four attempts. Kinnear certainly wouldn't trade his team's self-belief for any other.

"I'm just proud of the guys in our locker room, because for us to be here after the start we got off to shows how steely and determined our players were," Kinnear said.

And those are traits that aren't likely to change any time soon.

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