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May 12, 2005

5-0-1 start atypical for Revs

The New England Revolution have it all backwards this year.

Steve Nicol's side is supposed to start off the year reflecting the abysmal weather that hits the Boston area nearly through Memorial Day each spring, dwell around the cellar of the Eastern Conference for most of the regular season and then start turning it up for a playoff run just in time for the leaves to start turning colors in Foxborough.

At least that's been the team's M.O. the previous three seasons, spanning the length of Nicol's tenure as manager. Storming out of the gates with an MLS-best 5-0-1 mark simply isn't the way it is normally done by the Revs, or actually for any of the teams around a league that, with a mantra that could read "On Any Given Saturday Night," is known for its extreme parity.

Then again, this is hardly the same Revolution side of years past. While many of the names on the back of the shirts haven't changed, the song is much different.

Historically, this was a side that was viewed as a gritty, overachieving team that would clamp down on defense, play its hearts out for their famous Scottish coach, and pray that Taylor Twellman would knock one home to grind out a result. To say the Revs played boring soccer would be like saying Eva Longoria is attractive.

However, nothing could be further from the truth in Year 10 of Major League Soccer. Not only are the Revolution beating everyone in their paths and leading the league in goals scored (15) and fewest allowed (5), they are doing it in style.

No team in the league is playing as attractive a brand of attacking soccer and injecting some much-needed excitement into each weekend's slate of matches. And at this point, the collective star power of Twellman, Pat Noonan and Clint Dempsey (everyone's favorite athlete from Nacogdoches, Texas) dwarfs that of any threesome in MLS.

Add in 10-year veteran Steve Ralston and Shalrie Joseph, and you have what amounts to a nightmare for opposing teams hoping the match up with the Revs' "Big Five."

"They are a team that has matured," said U.S. Under-20 National Team head coach Sigi Schmid, whose 2002 Los Angeles Galaxy side beat the Revolution to win the franchise's only MLS Cup. "There's Joseph, Twellman, Noonan and now Dempsey [who] can change the pace really well. Add into this mix Ralston, too. The combination of this maturity and pace-changing style of play makes them the best team early in this MLS season."

The pace Schmid is talking about is one that never seems to slow down. With Dempsey, they have a workhorse type of player who is able to have a freer role in the team's 3-5-2 system. With Joseph in a holding position behind him and Jose "Pepe" Cancela or Andy Dorman playing in front of him in the midfield triangle, the 22-year-old is able to freely move into the attack when needed and seemingly break up plays all over the field when on defense.

Dempsey has wowed so many people by scoring five goals and registering four assists along with his all-around excellence in the center of the park that it's practically forcing onlookers to notice Joseph, who has quietly become one of the best midfielders in MLS over the past two-and-a-half seasons.

"A huge part of Dempsey's success is Shalrie (Joseph)," said Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt, whose side lost 2-0 to the Revolution last Saturday at Gillette Stadium. "He is so important for them because he does the dirty work that allows the others to attack and be creative. Plus, he always seems to be the one to win a tackle, and then quickly get the ball forward to start a counterattack, which this team is very dangerous on."

Others around the league have spoken about their ability to counter and get forward, yet one of the first things mentioned when asked about the Revolution is the way the players work for each other and the level of commitment to playing within Nicol's system.

"They all seem to defend and they all seem to attack," said Dave Kasper, D.C. United's technical director. "Even a guy like Marshall Leonard (left midfielder) is getting forward now and utilizing his speed and ability to serve balls in. It just makes them so dangerous going forward because you have to respect them all over the field. And you have to mark very tightly."

The team defending of this side stands out, as it starts up top with Twellman and Noonan from the moment possession is lost.

"Those two are both such hard workers," said Wilt. "In addition to that, they are opportunistic and talented. They kind of set the tone for a team that you can tell is well-coached and has now had its key components together for awhile."

While Ralston came to the Revolution in 2002 by way of the Allocation/Dispersal Draft once his previous club, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, and the Miami Fusion were contracted, all one has to do to see how the others were acquired was look back at the team's last four drafts.

Twellman and Joseph were the team's first two selections in 2002. Noonan was selected ninth overall in 2003. Dempsey went eighth in 2004. And Michael Parkhurst, the side's starting centerback, was the ninth pick of this past January's MLS SuperDraft.

That sort of informed scouting and foresight has turned the side into one that can play one- and two-touch soccer and combine freely in the attacking third with skill and flair compared to the direct style of play that was seen out of Nicol's first two teams in '02 and '03.

What has also aided their early-season success this year is the fact that Twellman, Noonan, Ralston and Dempsey all saw time with the U.S. National Team over the winter.

"At a time when many players are still finding their way at this point of the season, those guys are already sharp and in-form," said former Revolution teammate and current real Salt Lake defender Rusty Pierce. "Being with the National Team has helped every one of those players and has to be considered one of the reasons the team is doing so well this early on."

Then again, no one worried about whether or not the Revolution would score goals this year. That was a given. The question mark was the defense. Around the league, opposing coaches and players quietly wondered if they'd be able to simply outscore teams, believing that many matches would end up high-scoring affairs because the Revs were starting a 21-year-old rookie and hadn't picked up any veterans to replace the departed Pierce and, later, Carlos Llamosa.

"Teams probably thought their defense would be suspect," said Wilt. "But instead of being a failing point or a weakness, it's been very strong. Obviously, time will tell how it works out in the back, but with that group you can't just look at the back three. It's their team defense and overall balance that is quite impressive."

Kasper said that he, for one, isn't surprised at the success of Parkhurst because of the players around him.

"We're in a similar situation with (rookie) Bobby Boswell starting in the middle for us," he said. "But when we have (Mike) Petke and a healthy (Bryan) Namoff with him, he has veterans to lean on. It's the same with Parkhurst. Jay Heaps is a veteran in this league now and he's a very smart player to have in the back. Then you have Avery John, who I think is very underrated. Having Shalrie (Joseph) in front of him makes it a much better situation for a rookie to walk into too.

"Steve (Nicol) knows what he's doing."

Goalkeeper Matt Reis has to be included in this equation, as well. After spending most of his seven years in MLS as a backup or part-time starter, the former Galaxy standout has played magnificently. His 0.83 goals-against-average leads all goalkeepers in MLS.

That backline surely will be tested this coming weekend when the reigning MLS Cup champion D.C. United comes to Foxborough on Saturday (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET). The Revolution held off Peter Nowak's side with a 4-3 victory on a rainy night at RFK Stadium back on April 23, but the visitors seem to have a little jump in their step coming into this game coming off a 3-1 victory over Columbus last Saturday. In that match, Freddy Adu had an eye-opening all-around performance, tallying a goal and two assists and, with a little luck, could have scored again (ringing one off the post) and assisted on three more.

Where this match will get interesting is in the midfield, as both sides play the same 3-5-2 system. In addition to Adu, Nowak will likely trot out Christian Gomez, Ben Olsen, Joshua Gros and Clyde Simms. Gros scored the MLS Goal of the Week with a superb diving header over the weekend and is playing very well of late, while a source has told ESPN.com that Simms has done well enough in his five appearances (three starts) to earn a call up to the U.S. National Team for the friendly against England on May 28.

The six-game unbeaten streak has to end sometime for the Revs. Whether it does come this weekend or not, it's clear that this isn't the same New England Revolution you're used to. Already closing in on the eight wins it amassed for the entire 2004 season, Nicol's side appears to be anything other than a early-season pretender and no longer a team that will need to make a furious run to the finish come October.

"They have what it takes to be there at the end of the season," said Wilt. "They are not a shallow team as far as depth, which a lot of the others teams are. They'll be able to absorb losing players to the National Team as well as anyone. It's a very complete team that really deserves to be where it is right now."

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.