“It will be a fun game,” Houston Dynamo defender Corey Ashe told FIFA.com, mischief in his voice, ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup against LA Galaxy. A replay of last year’s one-off decider, which Houston lost 1-0, the game pits the league’s glamour boys, David Beckham’s Galaxy, against its most determined and difficult team to beat – Dynamo.
“We’re just a group of guys that don’t like to lose,” said Ashe, short in stature for a left back, but combative and dogged, a player who best defines the blue-collar ethos of this Texas outfit. “We are all competitive, on the field and off. We work hard, we have some talent, but not a lot of flash. Every one of us puts in a hard shift every time we get on the field.”
The contrast between Houston and their opponents couldn’t be sharper, either. LA have two players in this year’s just-released MLS Best XI, while the Dynamo – who prefer a collective approach – have none. “We’ve been the best team in MLS since the summer,” LA’s outspoken coach Bruce Arena touted recently. Cocky as it may sound, it would be a difficult point to argue, and Ashe knows it.
The super-team from Hollywood
“LA’s a very talented group. Landon [Donovan] and [Robbie] Keane have been on a tear and Becks [David Beckham] is playing great; he can put a pass anywhere,” said the 26-year-old defender, who can also deputise wide-left in midfield. “They have all the flashy names. It will be a battle, and we like to battle hard.”
Ashe embodies the system that Dynamo boss Dominic Kinnear has painstakingly put in place over his seven seasons at the helm. Drafted into the side in 2007, one year after the club’s founding, Ashe was far from a known or particularly desired quantity around the league. He captained a USA juniors (U-17) side at the world finals in Finland in 2003, but he didn’t seem destined for big things. His diminutive size was likely to be a stumbling block in MLS, too, despite his successful University career.
Kinnear, a former US national team stalwart, saw something in this clever, hard-working player who had courage to spare. “Dom [Kinnear] knew I would work hard on and off the ball and I knew what was expected of me,” said Ashe, who has an almost preternatural knack for pulling off high-risk tackles and flinging himself about. “I watched the guys in the team when I first arrived in 07, the veterans, and the lessons were clear: work rate is important. I did my all to leave it all on the line and Dom was receptive to that.”
Houston turned out to be the perfect fit for Ashe. And just like the team itself, he’s gotten better with each season. He started only a handful of games in his first and second year, but now he’s firmly a team leader, a regular starter and a suitable standard bearer for Kinnear’s rough-and-tumble philosophy. “The coach gave me a chance,” said Ashe. “I earned his trust and he believes in me.”
The Dynamo, despite reaching the play-offs in all but one of their seasons in MLS, and winning two titles, don’t always get the respect their record demands. They are dismissed, frequently, as too direct and too physical. The Dynamo players wear this criticism like a badge.
“We’re not afraid of playing away from home,” added Ashe, discussing the fact that Saturday’s big game will take place in Los Angeles, just as it did last season. “It doesn’t matter where we play,” he said, settling into the role of underdog comfortably. “This is what we work hard for all year and maybe there’s a little advantage for them – they don’t have to travel, they get to play in front of their fans – but for us, it doesn’t matter. We’re happy to play at their house.”
If Ashe has any sour memories of last year’s final, which LA won via a lone second-half goal from Galaxy and US Soccer golden-boy Donovan, he doesn’t let them show. He chooses, instead, to look ahead. “There’s going to be a lot of hype, with it being Beckham’s last game, and them wanting to send him off right, but that’s OK,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be an open game,” he went on, his voice a little detached, almost impatient. “A game where we lay it on the line for 90 minutes with the emotions high.”