If it's soccer in the United States, and it's a final, then it must be Houston and New England.
The intrepid pair, the domestic standard bearers in reliability and consistency over the last two years, has clashed in the last two MLS Cup finals. New England has participated in the last three MLS Cup finals and even played in the most recent U.S. Open Cup final.
Now, the Dynamo and Revs will decide the second version of SuperLiga, as both sides helped carve away the Mexican half of this eight-team midsummer competition.
Tuesday's final will have something of an unfamiliar ring for New England. The Revs have played in four championships over the last three years, but this will be the first at home on the FieldTurf of Gillette.
Each manager has important personnel choices ahead of Tuesday's kickoff, but Houston boss Dominic Kinnear has the more difficult preparation task. His side has an MLS match Saturday against Columbus, and the Dynamo's sluggish start to a 2008 title defense has not left Houston in a position of any comfort in the standings.
With versatile midfielder Richard Mulrooney and standout defender Eddie Robinson still injury-hobbled, and with Stuart Holden and Patrick Ianni away for Olympic action, Houston's first-team choices are limited. The Houston manager promised to attack the Columbus match all-out.
"Then we'll just try to get ready for Tuesday," said Kinnear, who briefly lamented the lack of forethought among MLS schedule makers. "It would have been nice to have this weekend off. But that's the schedule and we'll deal with it."
|2008 SuperLiga Final|
New England vs. Houston
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
8 p.m. ET
Kinnear should, at least, have a well-rested Dwayne De Rosario for Tuesday. The Dynamo's midfield dynamo is suspended from Saturday's MLS match due to yellow card accumulation. It was De Rosario who pierced New England hearts last November with the game-winner in MLS Cup 2007.
New England, meanwhile, does have weekend relief from MLS play. So while Kinnear et al follow Saturday night's match with a long flight to Boston on Sunday, Revs manager Steve Nicol can use a couple weekend training sessions to help sort his own lineup issues.
Jeff Larentowicz replaced U.S. Olympian Michael Parkhurst in the center of the Revolution's four-man back line as New England overcame Atlante in Wednesday's SuperLiga semifinal. But Nicol is stripped of the chance to deploy the same against Houston, as Jay Heaps was shown a costly red during the silly postgame donnybrook, one incited mostly by the Mexican visitors. Heaps was, officially, issued the red for abusive language, an offense all but impossible to appeal.
Nicol does have that luxury of extra sessions to work things out. "But at the end of the day, you're still taking a chance with something new," he said before Saturday morning's practice.
He should have Taylor Twellman available. The prolific striker, who has struggled with injuries all year and has yet to start a match in 2008, was available off the bench on Wednesday, although the level of physical play discouraged Nicol from calling on his prize forward.
The pointless postgame shenanigans -- similar after-match histrionics punctuated Houston's semifinal win -- are one of the less appealing SuperLiga subplots. The other is the ongoing player dissatisfaction with Soccer United Marketing, Major League Soccer's marketing arm and the tournament organizer. Players on either MLS team aren't happy that just $150,000 of the $1 million prize money gets divided among the roster.
"It's really disappointing," said Dynamo goalie Pat Onstad, also his team union representative. "The biggest issue is that they are trying to sell this as a $1 million tournament. That's not what it's about as far as we're concerned."
In Houston's case, club management was willing to negotiate a split more favorable to the players, but the league quashed that effort, citing the players' collective bargaining agreement.
Disenchantment over revenue division hasn't removed any competitive bite from these sides.
Houston announced its tournament presence immediately by hammering Atlante, 4-0, a result that provided a significant bump in confidence, according to Kinnear, to a side that had trouble gaining traction earlier this year. On Tuesday, goals by Corey Ashe and Bobby Boswell provided the margin in a 2-0 semifinal win over Pachuca, a team that has become quite the nasty international rival for Houston.
The Revs booked semifinal passage via 1-0 wins over Santos and Pachuca, combined with a 1-1 tie against Chivas USA in California. From there, it took Shalrie Joseph's unstoppable header and more good work from goalkeeper Matt Reis to take down Atlante on Wednesday.
Joseph was lucky to be standing after the highly combustible match. He was among the victims of Atlante's dangerous challenges as the evening unraveled.
"We're just glad to be playing a game now where each team has a mutual respect for the other's safety," Onstad said. "It will be a good test for us, and you're not going to see the cheap shots going on after the final whistle."
The last two finals between these teams were as cinch-wrap tight, and there's no reason to believe this one should be different. Houston bested New England in penalty kicks to claim the 2006 MLS championship at Pizza Hut Park outside Dallas. Last year, Houston rallied from a goal down to claim MLS Cup 2007 with a 2-1 win at RFK in Washington, D.C.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.