Revolution head to MLS Cup at full speed
The New England Revolution are thinking this could be their year.
Not because the Revolution have improved this season -- they lost several key players from the 2005 and '06 squads which reached the MLS Cup -- but because they seem to be getting some breaks.
In sports, teams definitely make their own breaks. But sometimes, things just have to fall into place. Or, in the case of Taylor Twellman, the ball has to fall where you can bike it past two defenders and the goalkeeper.
The Revolution team which defeated the Chicago Fire, 1-0, for the Eastern Conference championship Thursday night on Twellman's 37th-minute goal was actually stronger than the one eliminated the Fire a year ago, both mentally and physically. Revolution players such as Clint Dempsey, Joe Franchino, Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston were noticeably below par, and Shalrie Joseph was serving a suspension in the playoffs last year. Now, nearly everyone is going at full speed, and the Revolution have more than a week to prepare for the Nov. 18 MLS Cup at RFK Stadium.
Then, there is the Revolution psyche.
From 2002 through '06, the Revolution lost in three MLS Cups. The first defeat had little carryover effect, since the Revolution had overachieved to reach the final and were forgiven by a huge crowd at Gillette Stadium. But the last two losses at Pizza Hut Park started leading to the Revolution being labeled underachievers or, worse yet, chokers.
There was a very real spectre hanging over the Revolution when they returned to Pizza Hut Park for the U.S. Open Cup final Oct. 3. This time, the Revolution took a 3-2 victory over FC Dallas. The Revolution celebrated that achievement but the euphoria did not extend much past the Dallas Tollway. But the Revolution did need to exorcise both the Pizza Hut ghosts and the U.S. Open Cup ghosts (they also lost in the '01 U.S. Open Cup final) to stop the pressure from building.
The Revolution are going to be asked many times in the next week about their inability to win the big one. They can now reply that they have at least won a little one and point to the Lamar Hunt Trophy. And, more importantly, the Revolution themselves know they made a breakthrough in Frisco last month.
The psychological barrier might have been impeding the Revolution more than anything. Compared to recent years, the Revolution are playing short-handed, but they seem better off. Nils Liedholm, a former Milan coach who died recently, used to say he hoped one of his players would be red-carded because the team always played better with 10 men.
In the Eastern Conference final, the Revolution could have used a Jose Cancela or Daniel Hernandez to settle things down, keep possession, maybe play a through ball on the counter. A Franchino could have added skill and strength. As for a Dempsey, the Revolution did not even try to replace him.
But Revolution coach Steve Nicol believes in consistency and simplicity. The Revolution went to a 3-5-2 setup a few years ago partly because the team was stacked with central midfielders. Now, the Revolution are so short on central midfielders they had to convert Ralston to a playmaking position, yet Nicol persisted with the 3-5-2 for consistency sake. The jury is still out on the revamped Revolution midfield, with Ralston's outside spot going to Wells Thompson, but the team has scored the first goal in every game but one (a 0-0 tie in New York) since the change was made for the U.S. Open Cup last month.
Nicol believes in fine-tuning, but mostly wants players to be familiar with their roles and their teammates. The game plan was simple for the Fire. The Revolution went directly forward, trying to find Khano Smith and Thompson on the wings, and played as quickly as possible. Free kicks were treated with exigence. Forget a Fire defensive wall; while protecting the lead early in the second half, the Revolution's Noonan took one free kick so quickly a teammate did not have time to avoid being hit in the back with the ball.
Every Revolution player has multiple responsibilities, but Twellman is encouraged to concentrate on one task only -- scoring goals. This one was his 100th goal in MLS games (91 in the regular season, nine in the playoffs) and it will remain a highlight, a symbol of the team's success, should the Revolution win the MLS Cup.
But, again, the Revolution capitalized on some breaks. Twellman was in position to score twice before that goal, once because of a misplay by Dasan Robinson, an indication Chicago coach Juan Carlos Osorio might have overdone the tactical scheme in this game.
Robinson had seemed secure in the D.C. United series, but his timing was off against the Revolution, and Osorio replaced him after halftime. Paulo Wanchope gave the Revolution defenders problems, but this seemed to have been a game for Calen Carr, who did not get into action until the 88th minute. And Justin Mapp, another second-half substitute, was clearly rusty after missing more than a month with an ankle injury.
Meanwhile, Nicol made the right moves. Actually, Nicol made the moves more than a month ago, giving Thompson time to become comfortable on the right wing. Thompson's battling and persistence in going forward distracted Wilman Conde from being a factor Thursday night. And it was Thompson's cross which set up Twellman for the goal. This was not a dominant performance by the Revolution, but the result did reflect their confidence, consistency and a flash of brilliance from Twellman.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.