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Gut Shots

Houston dug deep to score a late goal and then win the first MLS Cup decided by that most fickle of methods: penalty kicks

EVER SINCE his childhood in Hawaii, Brian Ching has had the same routine for penalty kicks: Take a short approach, stutter-step and bang the ball hard to the goalkeeper's left. He just never got the chance to use it in MLS. Not in 95 matches over five seasons had Ching taken a PK—until Sunday, that is, when the Dynamo forward buried the most important spot kick in the league's 11-year history. His fifth-round blast gave Houston the MLS Cup following a 1--1 tie with the New England Revolution, the first time the title had been settled by a shootout. "Penalties," said Ching, "aren't something I'm afraid of."

Good thing, because PKs may be the cruelest method for determining a champion. Just ask France, which fell to Italy on penalty kicks in the World Cup final in July, or New England defender Jay Heaps, whose scuffed fifth-round attempt was saved by Dynamo keeper Pat Onstad, setting off a wild celebration by orange-clad players and fans on the field of Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. "Penalties are all in your mind," said Houston coach Dominic Kinnear, who before the shootout had asked Ching if he wanted one of the five shots. "When someone's confident about it, you should give it to him."

To raise the Rothenberg Trophy, the Dynamo had to overcome several unusual obstacles. The first was ownership's decision 11 months ago to relocate the franchise from San Jose, displacing many players' families and splitting up others. (Ching's wife, Charisse, stayed in the Bay Area to finish her pharmacy degree.) Then came the controversial name change from Earthquakes to Houston 1836, which was aborted after Hispanic leaders protested its reference to the year the Mexicans were defeated in Texas. (The club was rechristened, and Latino support followed.)

And finally, there was the extra-time goal by New England forward Taylor Twellman with seven minutes left that seemed likely to give the Revs—MLS's answer to the Buffalo Bills—their first crown in three title-game appearances. But just 71 seconds later Ching, the Cup final MVP, scored the equalizer on a header in the soccer equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. "We don't give up," said Houston midfielder Dwayne De Rosario afterward. "When someone scores [in extra time], the other team usually rolls over and dies, but not us. I knew when we got the goal, we were going to win this game."

The triumph was especially sweet for De Rosario, the 28-year-old Divine Ponytail who has lit up MLS with world-class goals for five seasons. Born in the rough Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough to Guyanese immigrants, De Ro had to settle for runner-up league MVP honors in 2005 and '06, but on Sunday he won his third MLS ring and nailed the Dynamo's third PK. It was only the latest highlight for the Rastafarian vegetarian who has a predator's instinct, having produced two of the past three MLS Goals of the Year.

De Rosario has two years left on his contract, but he could move in the off-season to Europe or to Toronto FC, the MLS expansion team that begins play next spring. " It's no big secret that I'm from there," he says. "I just have to see if it's the right decision for me and my family." On Sunday, however, that choice could wait. In the champagne-soaked locker room De Ro sneaked up behind Kinnear and dumped a tub of agua fría on the coach's noggin. Everyone laughed. Judging from the ice water in Houston's veins, there was plenty more to go around.

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Adu to Man U?

This Saturday, D.C. United midfielder Freddy Adu leaves for a two-week training stint with Manchester United, which wants to take a close look at him. Is the 17-year-old, who had a promising but unspectacular third MLS season—two goals and a career-high eight assists in 32 games—good enough to play for the Red Devils? Says an optimistic Adu, "Hopefully this leads to an offer in January or in the summer transfer window next year."



DYNAMITE! De Rosario (14), Ching (7) & Co. revel after New England's decisive PK miss.