EDITOR'S NOTE: Every day at 8 pm ET, full-match replays of MLS Classics will be released in their entirety on YouTube, Facebook, MLSsoccer.com, and the official MLS app (check out the full schedule). Among the MLS Classics: The 2006 MLS Cup Final between the Houston Dynamo and New England Revolution and the PK attempt that lived on to this day.
From eight years starring in a Houston Dynamo jersey and six more in the front office of NWSL sister club Houston Dash, to his more recent role as proprietor of a soccer bar steps from BBVA Stadium, Brian Ching is the face of soccer in America’s fourth-largest city.
But he was still a stranger when he became its first MLS Cup hero.
Ching had spent but 11 months in Houston when he scored a stunning, extra-time equalizer in the MLS Cup 2006 to cancel out Taylor Twellman’s strike for the New England Revolution 71 seconds prior.
The Dynamo eventually won on penalties to cap a fairytale season that began with their move from San Jose, and an equally unfathomable year for the Hawaiian-born striker after a summer away at the World Cup and a postseason spent managing a chronic knee injury.
“The city was amazing in the sense that the people were very welcoming,” Ching recalled to MLSsoccer.com “We weren’t expecting that, and the way the game played out. It was pretty cool. But I was kind of in and out of the city. So it really didn’t feel like home at that point.
“Off the field, it was definitely a difficult year.”
At the same time, there was a feeling of fate for the 2006 Dynamo, who lifted their first trophy only a few hours away at the stadium then known as Pizza Hut Park, home of FC Dallas (now Toyota Stadium).
“There were so many things about that day, where you felt like, OK, this is our day,” Ching said.
"Sick to my stomach"
To equal end, the Revolution arrived in Texas with a subtly horrifying sense of deja-vu, taking the same pitch where 365 days prior they suffered a 2005 MLS Cup defeat to the LA Galaxy.
“I was sick to my stomach showing up at that Dallas stadium again,” Twellman admits now to MLSsoccer.com. “I think so many of us thought that. We’re like, ‘God, we’re back here again?’”
What else but the supernatural explains how Twellman was robbed of the signature moment his career so desperately deserved after two previous MLS Cup losses in 2002 and 2005?
Pat Onstad saved Twellman’s first-half header in one of the few quality chances in regulation. But the 10th-leading scorer in league history made no mistake on his best look of extra-time. With a deft first touch, he collected Khano Smith’s through ball off his right foot, then with his second, smashed a low left-footed strike inside the far post.
“There was this huge conversation in our world to say, ‘Wait a minute, is this guy ever going to deliver going into the final?’ And that was always part of, something of mine where, why am I scoring in every playoff game but the final?” Twellman said.
“When that ball hit the back of the net, there’s this sense of relief, and I think when the ball went in, first off we over-celebrated. … I remember the look on Shalrie (Joseph) and Steve Ralston, Jay Heaps, (Joey) Franchino. … Guys who had been there on the bench in ‘02, ‘05, you could sense it. ‘Thank the good lord.’ And if Ching didn’t score, we were going to win that 2-0 or 3-0.”
A little bit of luck
But Ching did score, helped by the attitude of a team that had weathered a season of upheaval.
“The air kind of gets out of you for a second,” Ching recalled. “And then you’re like, ‘OK, we’ve still got time, let’s do this.’”
Perhaps sensing a lapse in the Revs’ concentration, the Dynamo pushed forward quickly after the restart. Brian Mullan served up a long hopeful ball from the right flank that redirected off Jay Heaps and perfectly fell to Ching at the back post.
“We did get a bit of luck on it,” Ching said. “But I think that’s just kind of the team we were. You create your own luck in a lot of ways and you’ve got to fight to the end, and we did that.”
Twellman missed another chance at the title in 2007 at the hands of Houston at RFK Stadium, before injuries prematurely ended his career.
"Most difficult thing I've done"
While Ching became the face of soccer in Houston, Twellman is now the face of the American game on ESPN, where he’s been on the call for several more MLS Cups, including one more Revs loss to the Galaxy.
“Calling the Revolution in an MLS Cup Final in 2014 was easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Twellman said.
“It’s part of my career. It’s part of what happened. I’ve embraced it. I’ve owned it. But it doesn’t make it easier. The older you get, you become a little bit more — looking deeper at things and understanding what it meant. And I think I have a little bit more of a hollow spot in my heart for the Revolution fans and for what happened.”