Mullan and Davis combine to shred the Rapids
It has been said that soccer matches are won in the center of the park, where the team that wins the 50-50 battles often carries the day. Another school of thought states that games are decided in each team's penalty area, where the more ruthless side in front of the goal usually prevails. While there is truth in both theories, the Houston Dynamo -- who have often been described as predictable -- flout both conventions. When the Dynamo dominate the flanks, as they did in their 3-1 triumph over Colorado in Sunday's Western Conference final, they are nearly unbeatable.
Certainly the artistry of Dwayne De Rosario, the industry of Ricardo Clark and the power of Brian Ching are all vital cogs in Houston's game. And one can't forget the barely controlled nastiness of Eddie Robinson and the solid goalkeeping of Pat Onstad at the defensive end of the field. But the play of wide midfielders Brad Davis and Brian Mullan is what kicks Houston's attack into overdrive.
As flank players go, each offers something different. Davis is the team's designated dead-ball specialist and the more cultured passer of the two. His 11 assists on the season are proof of his ability to deliver the final, killer ball. Mullan's game is all about energy and his ability to exploit one-on-one situations off the dribble. Add in his ferocious work ethic, and it's clear that he is an important piece of Houston's game plan, both in defense and attack.
Case in point was Paul Dalglish's game-winning goal in the 21st minute. Davis would probably be the first one to tell you that his cross from the left wing was not his best, as it sailed well beyond the far post. That's where Mullan's never-say-die attitude came into play. Initially the ball looked to be headed out of bounds, but Mullan managed to redirect the ball back across goal, where an embarrassingly open Dalglish nodded home perhaps the easiest goal of his career.
But if that goal was the product of Mullan's grit, his 71st-minute strike could trace its beginnings to Davis' imagination. Seemingly hemmed in on the left sideline by Colorado defender Dan Gargan and forward Jovan Kirovski, Davis' deft pass split both players, allowing Alejandro Moreno to find Mullan at the far post, where his volley left Rapids keeper Joe Cannon with no chance.
And if you're still not convinced of the importance of Mullan and Davis, then check out the game tape of the Dynamo's first-round, second-leg match against Chivas USA. In that game, Chivas head coach Bob Bradley utilized five fullbacks in an attempt to negate Houston's flank play.
The Dynamo faced nothing of the sort Sunday, as Colorado head coach Fernando Clavijo elected to play them straight up. While no one is suggesting that the Rapids' coach should have used five fullbacks, his decision to defend high up the field is questionable, especially given the speed of Dalglish and the back line's relative lack of pace. Granted, Dalglish's first goal looked as if it were fractionally offside, but given the relative ease with which Houston carved open Colorado's defense, it's hard to imagine the result being any different.
Yet Clavijo's choice of defensive tactics is just one of several issues facing Colorado as it heads into its offseason, another being the disappointment of losing in the conference finals for the second year in a row. Last year's loss at home to Los Angeles will no doubt rank as the bigger frustration, since such opportunities rarely come around. But the fact that the Rapids had a 1-0 lead after a cozy three minutes, only to concede two goals in quick succession, has to rank right up there.
As much as this result will stick in the Rapids' collective craw this winter, the fact remains that Sunday's match was a case of a team reverting to type. Say what you will about how meaningless the regular season is, but the Colorado side that was on display Sunday looked much like the team that struggled for most of the year. The Rapids possess some interesting attacking talent, with Nico Hernandez and the injured Terry Cooke among their brighter lights. They also possess a rugged midfield and must be encouraged with the progress of Kyle Beckerman, who is emerging as a consistent two-way force in this league.
Yet this Rapids team will be remembered more for two things: the lack of production from some of its higher-priced stars and its defensive frailty. The latter issue is even more glaring given that Colorado has a goalkeeper in Cannon who is among the best in MLS.
The Rapids were especially vulnerable on the road this season, where they conceded the most goals in the league, and they seemed hell-bent on continuing that trend Sunday. Aitor Karanka, he of the La Liga pedigree, was nowhere to be found on Dalglish's game-winner, and if Cannon had not saved his team's collective bacon with several splendid saves, the match would have been settled by halftime. As it stands, revamping Colorado's back line would appear to be Clavijo's highest offseason priority.
A close second will be deciding what to do with forwards Kirovski and Clint Mathis. Both players had their moments this postseason, with Mathis' epic goal against Dallas the biggest highlight. But taken together, the two eat up over 20 percent of the Rapids' salary-cap space, and Clavijo will need to decide if their combined regular-season production of seven goals and three assists is a sufficient return on the team's investment. Odds are he won't.
As for Houston coach Dominic Kinnear, his biggest concern will be finding a way to replace Clark, whose second yellow card in as many matches will see him suspended for Sunday's final. Fortunately for Kinnear, doing without key personnel in a cup final is something with which he is quite familiar. In 2001, with Kinnear assisting Frank Yallop in San Jose, the Quakes were forced to do without injured midfielder Manny Lagos, who had enjoyed an All-Star-caliber season. Two years later, the team carried on without starting midfielder Ramiro Corrales and Ching, who were both injured. That San Jose emerged victorious on both occasions was a testament to the team's depth.
Given that Adrian Serioux is the logical choice to replace Clark, victory is far from a sure thing this time. The Canadian seems good for at least one howler per game, and it was his hand ball that led to Kirovski's early penalty. Eliminating those kinds of mistakes will certainly be important against New England, but as long as Houston's wings take flight, it might not matter.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.