Today the Houston Dynamo defeated the New England Revolution 2-1 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. to win their second consecutive MLS Cup. It is only the second time in the history of the league that a champion has held on to their crown (DC United did it in 1997).
It was a cracker of a match, with Houston, ironically, having the fewer chances but capitalizing when it counted — the exact opposite of their season where they would have tons of chances in a game but few finishes.
Typical of Houston (and the San Jose incarnation), they do it best through adversity, giving up a headed goal to Taylor Twellman early in the first half. But Houston was calm. After all, just a few weeks ago they were two goals down to Dallas in the playoffs and won that series 4-2. And who can forget last year’s immediate comeback against this same New England team in the final?
Houston’s been a second half team all season and this game was no exception. They kicked things up a notch in the second half, coming out with more aggression and determination and fixed some of the defensive lapses they showed in the first half. New England, it must be said, looked like they thought they’d already won (shades of last year’s Cup), and failed to be as aggressive as they could and scorned a few gorgeous opportunities.
The comeback for Houston started with a fabulous sequence of pressure by the Dynamo, getting the ball deep into New England’s box and creating several dangerous chances. A Houston corner kick was rejected, but aggressive play from Dynamo Captain Wade Barrett kept the ball in play at the near sideline and he managed to toe-poke the ball to teammate Brian Mullan who fed a long ball into the box. It skittered across to Dwayne DeRosario on the far side and he managed to cross it hard into the box. It was too hard for Jaqua who was crashing in but it fell gloriously to Joseph Ngwenya. But he flubbed his left-footed shot as the ball went through his legs. But the Revolution defense didn’t clear the ball and Joseph didn’t quit, taking a second swipe at the ball with his right and sliding it underneath Revs’ keeper Matt Reis to level the score.
No game is complete without controversy and this came in the 64th minute when Cano Smith and Craig Waibel clashed in the box. Smith wanted a penalty kick (it was shoulder contact, not a foul) but the ref waved it off. Smith and Waibel had words, however, and then Cano — a mere yard from the referee — out-and-out head-butted Waibel in the jaw! Shockingly, this outrageous display of temper and unsportsmanship — little different from Ricardo Clark’s kick to Carlos Ruiz that earned him a league-record nine-game suspension — was dealt with merely a yellow card by referee Alex Pruis. I don’t like to see red cards in finals, but that was deliberate and regardless of the amount of contact (Waibel dodged most of the blow), it should have been a red. It was no different from Zidane’s head-butt in the World Cup final. (That said, a red would have tainted the result and I’m perfectly happy with the final score.)
Late in the game New England had a couple opportunities but couldn’t capitalize. One of the best was a cross through the box with Twellman waiting at the back post for a certain tap-in goal, but Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad (my Man of the Match) flew in and got his fingertips to the ball to snare it with a fabulous saving play. Even better, the rebound was easily dealt with by the Dynamo defense and a counter-attack started.
Exactly forty seconds later, the Dynamo scored at the other end. Ngwenya’s good hold-up play on the right wing got the ball to Waibel who’d run up in support and he played it to a wide open Brad Davis just outside the box. Davis’ gifted left foot placed the ball perfectly in the box for De Rosario who snapped his head to the ball knocking it into the far corner past a helpless Reis. The defending champions were now leading with less than twenty minutes to go.
The final few minutes saw some tremendous pressure from New England and an unbelievable save from Onstad. In the 87th minute the Revs took a corner kick which eluded the Dynamo defense and reached Larentowicz who met it with a diving header just three yards out. It was bullet of a shot that should have been a goal — but Onstad was well-positioned and the ball ricocheted off his legs and was successfully cleared by Houston.
Amazing, and plays like that had to hit New England’s confidence where it hurts most. They never looked the same after that save, with Houston defending with authority and the Revs struggling. This was epitomized by play from DeRosario in the 91st minute when Jay Heaps twice tried to play a long cross to the box and both times DeRo leaped in front and blocked it with his back. If you can’t put in a simple cross from the half-field line with just one guy in front of you, what can you do? Disheartening, to say the least. The final play was a long feed from Reis that went right to his counter-part, Onstad, and the game ended without another chance for New England.
While I feel deep sympathy for the Revs — I’ve been a fan of theirs for years, since their underdog days (us long-term San Jose fans related to them), and I can’t imagine what it is like to lose three finals in a row — I have to give the Dynamo the win in this one. While they defended more than I preferred, their defense wobbled but didn’t break, and they pressured aggressively (even when the game was tied) and took two chances and converted. If you look at all the little things in the match — the way the forwards helped out on defense, the work rate, the relentless pressure, their calmness in the face of mistakes — Houston deserved this championship. Nowhere was this more evident than the reactions of each team when they gave up their first goal: the Houston players nodded, clapped each other on the back, and gritted their teeth, while the Revs cursed and moaned and looked at each other in bewilderment and frustration. And remember, Houston did this without two key players in Brian Ching and Ricardo Clark, which is the hallmark of a championship team.
Hat’s off to New England who fought hard, and played aggressive, attractive soccer. They have accomplished a lot: three straight finals and an Open Cup trophy is an amazing achievement. Their day will come.
Congratulations to the Houston Dynamo! You guys were wonderful all season. You battled through adversities, injuries, national team call-ups, trades, and the inevitable human error. In the end you’ve repeated as champions, which people who know sports say is always much harder than winning the first one.
Soccer’s a team sport, and Houston (going back to the San Jose days), is the embodiment of team spirit. I hope they never lose that. It’s what makes this group of rag-tag cast-offs from other teams greater than the sum of its parts.