Anyone looking for a reason the outcome of this year’s MLS Cup final will be different than last year’s need look no further than the four players in orange jerseys lining up across the midfield.
Holding midfielder Adam Moffat, the lone holdover in the Houston Dynamo lineup from last season, is joined by three international-caliber players who were unavailable at MLS Cup 2011. That skilled and experienced trio gives Houston hope of keeping LA Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders far busier than last year, when he only had to make one save en route to a championship shutout.
“The midfield has a little bit more creativity right now,” Moffat said. “They’re smart players, and they’ve been involved in a lot of goals this second half of the season. I’m confident we can create a lot of opportunities, a lot more than we did last year, and we’ve got guys up top who have been taking them.”
A simple résumé check reiterates the pedigree of the new group, with the Dynamo expected to start Brad Davis (five caps for US national team, four straight seasons with at least 12 assists), Ricardo Clark (34 caps for the US), and Boniek García (more than 70 caps for Honduras) in front of Moffat. Davis, who just turned 31, is the oldest, putting all three near the prime of their respective careers.
“I definitely think we’re a bit more dynamic,” Davis said. “The additions of Ricardo and [García] to our midfield has brought nothing but confidence to our team right now. It’s been a lot of fun to play, and hopefully we can keep it going in the last game.”
The absence of Davis, of course, was the biggest story of last year’s final game. The runner-up for the league’s MVP award and the league leader in assists with 16, Davis tore a quad muscle in the 2011 Eastern Conference Championship.
Missing their offensive catalyst both from the run of play and on free kicks, Houston rarely looked dangerous in front of goal against the Galaxy last November. Their best chance actually came, ironically enough, on a Moffat header that he sent wide. This year’s group expects to have more possession and do more with it.
“[They have] enabled us to play a different way from last year,” Houston forward Calen Carr said. “If you look at the possession statistics from last season to this year, we keep the ball a lot better. We’ve been one of the better teams in the league as far as our possession goes, which I think goes a little bit unnoticed.
"We can still be dangerous on set pieces, and we didn’t have that option as much without Brad’s service last year.”
Davis free kicks are a trademark of Houston’s success, but they have hardly been the only key to the Dynamo’s postseason run this year. Last year, three of the Dynamo’s five postseason goals came from free kicks, and a fourth came on the counter-attack after a free-kick goal gave Houston the lead.
This year, the Dynamo have scored just one of their eight playoff goals on a headed restart (Will Bruin’s opener at Chicago) and have added another via a quick free kick. Most tallies have come from attacking movement in the final third, and when talented substitutes Luiz Camargo and Giles Barnes are factored in, Houston midfielders have played key parts in seven of the Dynamo’s eight playoff tallies.
“[Davis and García] are crafty, and they can make magic on the field; It’s a different chemistry altogether than [my first stint],” said Clark, who rejoined the team in August after playing almost three years in Germany. “I think it’s a little better, because we have more attacking-minded players, which helps our forwards and helps us be creative around goal.”