By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007
The Houston Dynamo arrived at RFK Stadium on a crisp Sunday morning with its star forward not available to play because of a calf injury and a standout midfielder serving the final match of a long suspension.
By the time the second half of MLS Cup started, things had gotten worse. The defending champion was a goal behind the New England Revolution and playing without the cohesion and vibrancy that had defined the club in winning trophies first in San Jose and then in Texas after the organization relocated two years ago.
"We actually looked a little tentative, we looked a little nervous, which really surprised me because of the type of guys we have," goalkeeper Pat Onstad said.
But with a formation change, a second-chance equalizer and another dramatic strike by veteran Dwayne De Rosario -- this time with his head, not his foot -- the Dynamo rediscovered its stride in the second half and secured a 2-1 victory before a spirited crowd of 39,859.
Houston became the first team since D.C. United in 1996-97 to repeat as champion. Officially it's the franchise's second title since moving from San Jose, though a core group of players can claim it as their fourth league championship in seven years.
The San Jose Earthquakes franchise -- which will return next season -- retains its 2001 and 2003 championships.
For New England, it meant a fourth runner-up finish in six seasons and the second straight year the club had relinquished a lead to the Dynamo. Last November, the Revolution went ahead in overtime only to concede a tying goal and lose in a penalty kick tiebreaker.
"Again, we proved how strong of a will our team has," said De Rosario, who scored the winning goal in overtime to win the 2001 crown and yesterday collected his second MLS Cup MVP award. "We never give up -- dedication and determination."
Taylor Twellman's third goal of the postseason provided the Revolution with a 20th-minute lead, but after New England failed to stretch its advantage, the Dynamo drew even on Joseph Ngwenya's shot in the 61st and moved ahead on De Rosario's 13-yard header 13 minutes later.
Onstad, who like De Rosario is a member of Canada's national team, preserved the lead with a remarkable leg save on Jeff Larentowicz's close header in the 87th minute. When referee Alex Prus's final whistle sounded, the Dynamo and hundreds of its orange-clad supporters celebrated an outcome that less than an hour earlier was uncertain.
"A lot of teams that get up on us let down their guard," midfielder Brian Mullan said in a champagne-sprayed locker room. "Our team just keeps going. We showed it last year and we showed it this year."
The Revolution was determined to end its MLS Cup misery, and for a half, the club appeared to have found the formula. New England's defense did not have to worry about Houston forward Brian Ching, the hero of last year's final and a spectator yesterday because of a calf injury suffered in the Western Conference final.
Nor did the Revolution have to contend with midfielder Ricardo Clark, suspended late in the regular season for intentionally kicking Dallas's Carlos Ruiz.
Twellman, a former Maryland Terrapin, was at it again in the 20th minute. Steve Ralston chased down Shalrie Joseph's pass just outside the penalty area and a few feet off the end line.
The sequence developed so quickly, the Dynamo barely had time to react properly, and Ralston, a natural right winger who had moved into a central role late in the season, was perfectly comfortable one-timing a cross into the box. Twellman was clinical with his finish, snapping an eight-yarder into the lower right corner.
The Revolution continued to threaten. In the 33rd minute, Khano Smith beat three defenders into the left side of the box and set up Twellman, who did not strike the ball with authority.
Pat Noonan missed a header wide late in the half, and a minute after intermission, his running touch was stopped by Onstad.
"We were guilty of not taking our chances and that's why we lost the game," New England Coach Steve Nicol said. "You don't leave a team lying around at one goal. . . . We could've scored three or four" over the course of the match.
Down a goal, Dynamo Coach Dominic Kinnear made a key strategic move, abandoning his four-defender, four-midfielder arrangement by moving a backline player into the midfield and pushing De Rosario into an advanced role.
Ineffective in the first half, De Rosario began to find space in attack. Two minutes after Noonan smashed a 16-yard volley over the crossbar, De Rosario collected Mullan's pass on the left side of the box and placed a low cross to Ngwenya.
The Zimbabwe native barely made contact on his first attempt, but reacted quickly enough to tuck the second chance under advancing goalkeeper Matt Reis.
"The ball spun right back to my other foot," said Ngwenya, an early-season acquisition from Columbus. "It was just luck."
With the momentum shifted, the Revolution began to lose its composure and Smith, so influential in the first half, was fortunate to receive just a yellow card for attempting to head-butt Craig Waibel a few steps from Prus.
Meantime, with his team even, Kinnear was prepared to return to his more defensive 4-4-2 formation. The players, though, insisted things stay the way they were. "We were comfortable in the 3-5-2."
"There were a lot of hand signals being used toward the bench," Mullan said, raising three fingers and then five fingers to demonstrate how the players communicated with Kinnear.
The players' instincts paid off as Brad Davis served the ball to De Rosario for a powerful header into the right corner. De Rosario has been a consistent goal scorer since entering the league six years ago, but rarely has he been successful on a header. "Usually I try to bicycle it or volley it," De Rosario said, smiling.
"I've seen great goals in some big games," Revolution defender Jay Heaps said, "but I thought that was pretty big."