FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – On the face of it, the New England Revolution and Houston Dynamo are two teams headed in opposite directions.
The Revs are currently one of Major League Soccer’s hottest teams, having gone unbeaten in their last three league games (2-0-1) and their last seven games in all competitions (5-0-2), including a run to the SuperLiga 2010 final. Meanwhile, Houston is winless since May 22 and has gone nine league games (0-5-4) without a victory.
But despite the gulf in current form, the Revs (5-9-3, 18 pts.) and Dynamo (5-9-5, 20 pts.) will meet on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium in remarkably similar situations. Both clubs are currently on the outside looking in on the playoff picture – the Revs occupy sixth place in the Eastern Conference and the Dynamo seventh in the Western Conference – and with the 2010 regular season nearing the stretch run, neither team can afford anything less than victory.
“Both teams still desperately need points,” said central midfielder Pat Phelan, who scored his first career goal in the Revolution’s 1-0 win over D.C. United last weekend. “They’re on the opposite kind of [run] that we’re on – they haven’t won in a few games and we haven’t lost in a few games. I think it’s going to be a pretty tight game and I think both teams are going to be pretty hungry for points.”
Any meeting between two clubs desperate for points is almost certain to be a battle, but the history between the Revs and Dynamo adds an extra dose of intrigue every time these teams come face to face. New England and Houston met in title games for three consecutive years – MLS Cup 2006, MLS Cup 2007, SuperLiga 2008 – with the Dynamo claiming both MLS Cup titles before the Revs earned a measure of revenge in the SuperLiga championship.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the return of former Revolution midfielder Steve Ralston, who now serves as an assistant coach with the Dynamo. Ralston played in New England for nine years (2002-10) and set MLS records for minutes played (33,143), games played (378), games started (372) and assists (135) before retiring just a few weeks ago to take a coaching position in Houston. He’ll be honored for his exemplary playing career in a pregame ceremony on Saturday night.
“We played in two MLS Cup finals [against Houston] and we know a lot is on the line,” said Shalrie Joseph, who was named captain of the Revs this past offseason after Ralston wore the armband for two years. “They’re in the (same) predicament we’re in where we need points. They’re going to come out firing on Saturday and we know we’re going to have to match their intensity, bring the game to them, get that first goal and then take it from there.”
The Revs are likely to have a new-look attack this weekend after Kenny Mansally and Zack Schilawski were the starting forwards last Saturday against D.C. United. With Marko Perovic returning from a calf strain and 31-year-old forward Ilija Stolica set to make his first start since arriving in the U.S. last Friday, the Revolution could deploy an all-Serbian strike force against the Dynamo.
Stolica made his debut with the Revs as a substitute last Saturday against D.C., but played only 17 minutes after stepping off the plane from Europe approximately 24 hours earlier. With a week of training under his belt, Stolica has slowly but surely adjusted to the time change.
“Every day it’s getting better,” Stolica said after training on Wednesday. “The problem was of course the first day I’d just arrived from [Europe] and I jumped in on the pitch. It was, for me, a first-time experience. Now it’s getting better and I think every day is going to be better and better.”
While the additions of Perovic and Stolica will rearrange New England’s front line, the club will likely look the same in the back. After missing last weekend’s game against D.C. with a left hamstring strain, Kevin Alston looked ready to make his return against Houston, but suffered a setback in training on Thursday. The speedy right back is listed as questionable on the most recent injury report and head coach Steve Nicol said on Friday there’s still a slight chance Alston could be ready to face Houston. If Alston is unavailable, the Revs will most likely use the same back four of Darrius Barnes, Cory Gibbs, Emmanuel Osei and Chris Tierney which faced D.C. last weekend.
Houston is dealing with injury concerns of its own with starting goalkeeper Pat Onstad (abdominal strain), defender Adrian Serioux (hamstring strain) and midfielder Brad Davis (L quad strain) all unavailable. The loss of Davis – who suffered a left quad strain last Sunday against Seattle Sounders FC – is a massive blow to the Dynamo, which has struggled to generate scoring chances even with one of its most dangerous attacking weapons. Houston will also be without Mike Chabala (suspension), while fellow defender Ryan Cochrane (L adductor strain) is doubtful.
Even considering the Dynamo’s injury predicament and current poor run of form, the Revs are well aware they’ll need an improved performance this week if they hope to emerge with another three points.
“Every team’s got room for improvement – we’ve got a lot of room for improvement, and we know that – but the fact is, we still got points (against D.C.),” said Phelan. “We know the ‘gutsy’ performances are going to come and we’re going to put that effort in every week regardless, so it’s nice to know we can get three points out of that. But against some of the other teams in the league – and that’s not a knock on D.C. – it’s going to be a lot tougher, so we’re going to have to play a lot better.”