By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006
FRISCO, Tex., Nov. 12 -- At the end of a long day at sold-out Pizza Hut Park, after 90 minutes of regulation and another half-hour of overtime, the difference between Houston and New England in Sunday's MLS Cup was a poorly struck penalty kick by Jay Heaps and a simple save by Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad during a deciding tiebreaker.
The moment that changed the match, though, and propelled the Dynamo to the title in its first season since relocating from San Jose last winter occurred about 20 minutes earlier and tied the game at 1-1.
Houston had fallen behind with seven minutes left in overtime on Taylor Twellman's strike, the first goal by the Revolution in three dreary championship appearances. The answer came 71 seconds later on Brian Ching's header -- a goal so sudden that Houston Coach Dominic Kinnear did not react.
"I was in a state of disbelief," he said. "The path that led me from despair to elation was too fast, and my mind couldn't catch up to it. . . . People were jumping on the bench when we scored, and I wasn't jumping because I couldn't believe it."
The shootout was much easier, but just as satisfying, for Kinnear to absorb.
After each club converted three of its first four attempts, Ching beat goalkeeper Matt Reis and Onstad smothered Heaps's meek attempt, triggering an orange-tinted celebration among thousands of Houston supporters who had formed a 250-car, eight-bus convoy along I-45 to comprise a large portion of the 22,427 in attendance.
Thus ended a game that began with so much promise but, like last year when New England and Los Angeles stumbled through a scoreless regulation at this same location, concluded with a fizzle.
Penalty kicks seemed inevitable, but the way they came about was anything but predictable.
Twellman, the former Maryland Terrapin who had beaten D.C. United in the Eastern Conference final with an early goal, was the beneficiary of reserve Khano Smith's courageous run. After one touch into the box, Twellman tucked a 12-yard shot just inside the far post, ending the Revolution's scoreless streak in title games at 346 minutes.
In the past, that would have ended it. But FIFA, the sport's governing body, dumped its golden goal experiment a few years ago and again directed teams to play out the entire overtime.
"When you score so late in the game, the one thing you expect is to be solid and tight," said Revolution Coach Steve Nicol, a former Liverpool defender.
Said Reis: "We just weren't mentally tough to see the game through."
Shortly after the restart, Brian Mullan's cross skipped off a New England defender and took flight into the penalty area. With a step and several inches on Heaps, Ching directed an eight-yard header into the lower left corner.
"As soon as they scored, we just went for it," he said. "We were fortunate to get a little deflection. I was just in the box, and that's what makes me a goal scorer -- being in the box. The ball fell right to me."
In the fifth round of the shootout, Onstad said he had planned to commit to his left, then changed his mind at the last instant.
Heaps, an outside defender not known for a threatening shot, was thrust into the spotlight in the tiebreaker because of lingering injury concerns to some teammates, including star midfielder Clint Dempsey. And when Heaps made contact, the correctly guessing Onstad had no trouble handling it.
"To be honest, I didn't have a clue what he was going to do," said Onstad, a Canadian who won titles with San Jose in 2001 and 2003. "It's tough to explain [why he decided to dive the other direction]. Maybe it was my experience."
"They're warriors," Ching said of his teammates. "I think you saw that tonight -- as soon as they scored we fought back. We weren't going to lose today."
MLS Notes: United's Troy Perkins, Bobby Boswell, Christian Gomez and Jaime Moreno were named to the Best XI all-league team. They were joined by Kansas City's Jose Burciaga Jr. and Jimmy Conrad, Houston's Dwayne De Rosario and Ricardo Clark, New England's Clint Dempsey, Chicago's Justin Mapp and Real Salt Lake's Jeff Cunningham.
Moreno became the third player in league history to be named five times, joining Chris Armas and Robin Fraser. . . .
United assistant Tom Soehn has interviewed for both the Kansas City and Dallas head coaching jobs, sources close to the searches confirmed. Curt Onalfo, a onetime United and U.S. national team assistant, is a finalist for the Kansas City position. Dallas plans to narrow its choices this week to about five and make a decision in a few weeks. . . .
The league announced that each team will play 30 regular season games next season, a reduction of two. It also decided to place expansion Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference, creating an imbalance between the two divisions.
Every team will play the other 12 teams twice. The remaining six games for each team will be played within the conference, with Western clubs also playing an extra game against a regional rival.