Despite expansion into Canada, the addition of high-profile designated players, the Beckhamania of Cirque du LA, and probably the most exciting regular season in league history, the MLS Cup final is painted in some familiar shades. It's interesting to note that with all of the foreign talent coming into the league in the form of Beckham, Blanco, Angel, Emilio, et al; the two teams that wind up in the cup final rematch are basically "Made in the USA" and boast the same core of players that got them to this point last year.
Conference Finals Rehash . . .
The Revolution ground out a victory in the Eastern Conference final, as is their wont, over a hot, hot Chicago side that was mysteriously driven into the rocks by their own manager. Just a week after tactically outwitting Tom Soehn and DC United, Osorio sabotaged the Fire's chances of an unlikely run to the final with the boneheaded re-insertion of Wanchope into the starting lineup. Even more ridiculous was leaving the big Costa Rican on the field until almost the final whistle despite his negligible contributions. Regardless, the Revs took advantage, grabbed their goal, and made it stand up to book their place in yet another final in which they'll inevitably thug it up, strangle the midfield, and leave ABC and MLS HQ cursing Steve Nicol and his band of bruisers one more time.
Out west, the Dynamo and Wizards played a more open, and somewhat surprisingly more brutal, contest. The Wizards had a few chances, and if EJ had managed to snatch that early volley chance, they may even have made a run at it, but this is a Houston side that does not look like it is in the mood to be denied. Even missing Ricardo Clark through suspension, Houston prove they are the deepest and best organized team in the league, limiting the Wizards to half-chances and free-kicks. They'll have worries over Ching's availability for the final after he limped off in the second half, but if any team has the depth and strength of character to overcome an injury crisis, it's the Dynamo.
So, after some early struggles in the prognostication department for the playoffs, I'm two for two this week. Chicago were a bit more forward-thinking than I initially thought they would be and KC did make a game of it early, but in the end, the results pretty much fell how I thought they would. Does that lend me any extra credence heading into the final weekend? Pshaw!
Predictions for the Final. . .
I think it's very likely that we'll see a cagey opening. This is a cup final after all, and I think that both sides will be loathe to surrender an early goal. Of the two, Houston can more afford to concede first, but I think that neutrals will be pulling for Houston to draw first blood so that Nicol's crew have to open the floodgates a bit and push the game.
History and current form favor Houston and I'm not going to rock that particular boat. The battle in the center of midfield will be fierce, and I don't doubt the Revs' ability to wear down DeRo, but the difference for Houston may come from the wings. Davis and Mullan will force the wide players in the Revs' midfield to hang back, isolating Twellman, Noonan, and the trailing Ralston against a Dynamo back line that will muscle them off the ball and pump it back into the attack.
Prediction? Houston wins 2-0 with the Revs having a handful of chances, but the tight Houston defense only gives them one or two clear looks that they can't convert on. After getting the first, Houston rips open the Revs on the counter, with ultra-thug keeper Matt Reis managing to keep the scoreline respectable. At least that's what I'm saying now. We'll take a second look as we get closer to the weekend and also start to reflect on what should be a particularly busy offseason for MLS.