FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The situation may have changed for perennial powers New England and Houston ahead of Sunday night's clash, but the relationship between the two sides has not.
Both traditional heavyweights have fallen on hard times this season as the inevitable life cycle of professional sports caught up to perhaps the two most consistently successful MLS clubs of the past decade.
Even though both clubs have chopped and changed much of their personnel since the glory days, the two sides still compete with an earnestness that betrays their epic MLS Cup tussles in 2006 and 2007.
“I think it'll be there for a while,” Revolution midfielder Pat Phelan told MLSsoccer.com. “Until this organization wins a MLS Cup, we're going to look back and be like, 'Well, Houston is one of those teams that we really don't like.' I don't think that's going to go away any time soon.”
[inline_node:309217]It certainly won't dissipate by the time these two teams meet in Texas to conclude the weekend Sunday night. New England have never lost at Robertson Stadium (3-0-1) and won't stomach losing that perfect record in Houston, despite the match's lack of tangible impact on the table.
“[Houston coach Dominic Kinnear]'s similar to myself: When he plays, he wants to win,” Revolution coach Steve Nicol said. “What the name on the back of the shirt says is somewhat immaterial.
"But, at the same time, we want to go out there and give our best all of the time. When both teams do that, that's what you end up with. At the very least, you'll have a hard-fought game.
Commitment isn't a concern for Nicol after watching his side go toe-to-toe with three of the league's top sides in recent weeks. The fine performances against FC Dallas, Columbus and Real Salt Lake yielded only two points, but the determined efforts show the Revs haven't quite packed up for the offseason just yet.
“Our attitude going into these games has been great, even though there's really nothing on the line. We just have to keep doing that,” New England goalkeeper Matt Reis said. “It's going to be tough because we don't have any [healthy] players, really.”
[inline_node:307743]A rash of absences and injuries will leave the Revs with a meager 15 players in the matchday squad. Kevin Alston (hamstring) leads the list of absentees, while Gambian internationals Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi will also miss out after spending the week in Belgium for a training camp prior to Saturday's critical Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Burkina Faso on Saturday.
It isn't all bad news though, as Cory Gibbs looks set to return to the squad. Gibbs watched last Saturday's 2-1 defeat to Real Salt Lake from the sidelines as he battled an infection in his hip, but he trained with his teammates this week and could vie for a place in the starting XI.
While Revolution boss Nicol will have one of his veteran defenders back in the fold, he knows the considerable list of unavailable players will make the task in Houston more difficult.
“At this stage, we're used to it,” Nicol said. “We've been battling it all season. It's nothing new. Again, all we'll be doing is when we go out on the field, we'll be representing New England and we'll be doing the best we can.”