If proof ever was needed that regular-season success against a team means little in the playoffs, one need only look at the matchup between the Houston Dynamo and the New England Revolution. The Dynamo have never beaten the Revs in five regular-season meetings, including a 3-0 beatdown on March 29. MLS Cups have been a different matter entirely however, with the Dynamo claiming the last two titles at the Revs' expense.
Each side insists that such history will mean little when the two teams meet this week on "MLS Primetime Thursday," and there is some validity to that sentiment. Both sides are among the league's hottest teams, as each sits atop its respective conference, and a win on Thursday will ensure that they stay there. But you have to believe that for New England a victory will resonate a bit deeper than a win against any other league side.
Five story lines to follow
1. Déjà vu all over again
In 2007, Houston stumbled to a 2-5-1 start before righting itself and finishing with a 15-8-7 mark. 2008 has seen more of the same, with the Dynamo going winless in the first six games. But since then Houston has gone 4-1-1, which has allowed the team to climb into a first-place tie in the Western Conference.
"Both last year and this year, we had some games where we were playing good enough to win," said Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear. "We just weren't winning games. Now we're scoring goals, and I think our game overall is good."
|MLS Primetime Thursday|
New England at Houston
9 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)
2. New England's stealthy rise
The first month of the season, the buzz around MLS was all about the Columbus Crew's hot start. In May, the Chicago Fire grabbed the headlines. But as the MLS season heads deeper into June, it is New England that has surged to the top of the Eastern Conference, opening up a four-point gap on second-place Chicago, albeit with two games in hand. Head coach Steve Nicol isn't about to let that development get to his team's head.
"The attitude and the commitment have just been outstanding for me," said Nicol. "But that's not going to get us there every week for a season. We need to be better at other things as well, especially keeping the ball and not turning it over so easily and so regularly."
3. Missing internationals
World Cup qualifying is in full swing in many parts of the globe, and both New England and Houston will be missing important performers on Thursday as a result. New England is without forward Kenny Mansally, as well as midfielders Khano Smith and Shalrie Joseph, who will represent The Gambia, Bermuda and Grenada, respectively. For Houston, goalkeeper Pat Onstad and attacker Dwayne De Rosario will be away with the Canadian national team, while forward Brian Ching is set to join up with the U.S. ahead of this weekend's qualifier with Barbados.
4. Forward progress
With the Revs' star forward Taylor Twellman still recovering from a right ankle sprain, and with Mansally away, Nicol has had to rely on the duo of Adam Cristman and Kheli Dube to get the job done up front. There have been times where the pair's inexperience has showed, but lately they've begun to find their form, with Cristman netting the opening goal in last week's 2-1 win over FC Dallas.
"They now realize the importance of being able to hold the ball so we can get out defensively," said Nicol of his forward tandem. "They're learning all the time and gaining experience by playing, which is the only way to do it."
5. The tactical battle
There were plot twists aplenty during the MLS Cup finals that involved the two teams. But perhaps the most interesting involved the tactical switches made by Houston. On both occasions, the strong play of New England's five-man midfield caused the Dynamo to abandon their normal four-man alignment and play five in the middle as well. The adjustments tilted the game in the Dynamo's favor, and allowed Houston to prevail both times. Whether Kinnear will need to adjust again will be determined by factors beyond just the play of each team's midfield.
"The first key for us is to have our outside backs attacking, jumping into space," said Kinnear. "The second key is to switch the ball quickly. If you do that, then you give [New England] problems. If you sit back too far, and let them pressure you in your end with their numbers, then you can't really get out."
Five players to watch
1. Steve Ralston, M, New England
New England's climb up the Eastern Conference standings coincided with Ralston's return from injury, and with the Revs' front line struggling at times, it has been the league's all-time leader in appearances and assists who has picked up the slack.
"Ralston has been there and pretty much done it," said Nicol. "So he's one of the guys you're relying on to have a bit of consistency."
2. Stuart Holden, M, Houston
With De Rosario seeing more time up front, it has been left to Holden to assume the attacking midfield role, and the early returns have been promising, with the U.S. U-23 international providing solid play on both sides of the ball.
"[Holden] has looked pretty comfortable in the middle of the park," said Kinnear. "He's been good on the ball, his work rate is excellent, and he pressures people in their half of the field."
3. Sainey Nyassi, M, New England
One interesting matchup will see the speedy Nyassi going up against Houston's wily veteran defender, Craig Waibel. Nyassi has the speed to give Waibel plenty of trouble, but Waibel's experience has seen him fare well in recent weeks against other pacy attackers like New York's Dane Richards and Toronto's Rohan Ricketts. But Nicol is hopeful that the progress the young speedster has shown will allow him to get the upper hand.
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"It's fantastic seeing him run at people with the ball at his feet," said Nicol of Nyassi. "But there are a lot of other things he has to do, and he's learning all the time: when to close people down, when to lay off, just all the wee things that go unnoticed most of the time."
4. Tony Caig, G, Houston
With Onstad away on international duty, it will once again be left to Caig to deputize for his absent teammate. The Scot's early performances were far from convincing, as he let in several soft goals. But Caig's play has steadily improved, with his shutout performance against Kansas City back on April 12 doing much to turn his season around.
"We always knew he was a good goalkeeper," said Kinnear of Caig. "He makes good saves, his distribution is good, and his communication is excellent. You hate to see a goalkeeper go on international duty, but you feel very comfortable knowing Tony is going to be playing."
5. Matt Reis, G, New England
Reis has been another of Nicol's veterans who have helped steady the ship, and his performance last week against Dallas, one that saw him pull several spectacular saves, saved the team's collective bacon. Reis has been among the league's top goalkeepers for several years now, yet has never won the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. Perhaps this season the Revs' keeper will finally get his due.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.