When Andy Dorman's corner kick in second-half stoppage time sailed over Richard Mulrooney's head into the mayhem of crowded players in the penalty area, the Houston Dynamo midfielder looked at the net to see if it rippled. But when it didn't, his thoughts went skyward. "Thank god, Christmas came early," he thought.
Goalkeeper Pat Onstad's brilliant reaction save on Jeff Larentowicz's close-range header off that corner kick sealed Dynamo's second consecutive MLS Cup, a 2-1 come-from-behind win against New England at RFK Stadium.
"Unbelievable," Mulrooney said about Onstad's save. "The ball went over my head, I turned and (saw) a big group and it went through them and all of a sudden I heard it hit somebody's head and you always expect to see the net ripple. And then I heard it hit Pat's hands, he's some of the best hands in the league and then I saw it cleared."
"The game's over," defender Craig Waibel said he thought immediately after Onstad's effort. "Your goalkeeper's job is to make one save that saves the game and he did it."
Onstad's save was the capper to a sensational late-game defensive performance as the Revolution sent waves forward in hopes of getting the equalizer.
"When we went up 2-1, I said, 'OK, now it's your time.' And a guy came for a cross right after and I got hit pretty good and I said, 'OK, you're into it' and I'm just glad I got to contribute to it,' said the 39-year-old Vancouver native. "It seems every MLS Cup I have one big save I have to pull out that makes the difference."
In last year's final, not only did Onstad save the final kick in the penalty shootout from Jay Heaps, he deflected a point-blank shot from Taylor Twellman in the 26th minute.
This year's key save, however, was pure reaction to a ball coming from the panicked New England attack.
"Somebody told me it was my leg but honestly I couldn't tell you," said Onstad. "He's in tight so I know he really can't put in the corners, so I tried to stay big and hope it hits you. My biggest concern was the rebound because I knew I wouldn't have time to react to the rebound and fortunately it got by the first wave of attackers and it was cleared."
Added Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear: "The reaction was great but his eyes were always on the ball and he was always keeping his eyes out for anything else because it was a crowded penalty area."
Houston ultimately relied on Onstad and a defensive effort that was their calling card all season.
After the Revolution's Shalrie Joseph controlled much of the ball in the first half, Kinnear decided to change to a 3-5-2 formation, pushing defender Wade Barrett into a wide midfield role, freeing Dwayne DeRosario to push more forward.
"I think Jeff and Shalrie were getting a little bit too much time on the ball and spraying it and playing it up top and Pat Noonan could come off the front and sit in a good area and he's a very dangerous player," said Onstad about New England's first-half success.
"I thought the service was too easy but once we snuffed that out we made it a lot more difficult for them. I think there only options in attack were to knock the ball wide and have Wells (Thompson) and Khano (Smith) knock it in."
"Good players find the ball and I thought he had a very, very good game today spreading the ball but we kept him away from the dangerous parts, which is in front of our goal," added Mulrooney. "I thought we did a good job of creating a field in front of our goal that they didn't really have a lot of great opportunities in terms of shooting and dribbling in there."
With less room in the midfield, Joseph was collecting the ball in far less threatening spots.
"Higher pressure," Kinnear said was his tactical adjustment for Joseph along with the formation change. "It was hard for either team to move the ball because the field was sticky. We told Dwayne to step more on Shalrie Joseph to take him away from the game and I thought our forwards were more active when the ball turned over.
"When you go to a 3-5-2, you rely on your back three and Richard to keep the game close and I thought Ryan (Cochrane) and Eddie (Robinson) and Craig and Richard back there and Pat organizing them did a really good job. Pat Noonan was a thorn all day with his movement," Kinnear added.
Houston defended proficiently all season, allowing just 23 goals in 30 regular-season games, by far an MLS record, also setting a record with a 76 scoreless-minute streak along the way.
"It's challenging to deal with their attack the whole game because they have a bunch of good players," said Barrett. "But we had guys who were committed to get behind the ball and committed to defending and we didn't limit all of their chances and they had a great chance in the 90th minute where Pat Onstad makes an unbelievable save. That's what wins championships -- it's those individual plays."
Chris Snear is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.