Revolution will remain a force
The New England Revolution were a discouraged, frustrated group Sunday evening. But the Revolution, though they are not designated as MLS champions, won most of the matches they needed to win this year. The MLS regular season provides essential parts of the soccer structure -- entertainment for fans, a chance for players and teams to evolve, a vehicle for promoting soccer and generating revenue. But, reduced to its essentials, the MLS regular season is conducted to determine the eight playoff teams. And the playoffs are held to qualify two MLS teams for the CONCACAF Champions Cup. The Revolution had more than enough victories (17) to qualify for postseason play, then really needed to win only twice -- against the MetroStars and Chicago Fire in the Eastern Conference playoffs. If the Revolution had gained another victory in the MLS Cup, instead of losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy, the team would have felt more fulfilled, and some sporting justice would have prevailed, since the Revolution had demonstrated a consistently uninhibited attacking style of play all year. But the tangible rewards for the MLS Cup winner and loser are not significantly different. The reason is that both the Galaxy and Revolution qualified for the CONCACAF Champions Cup by winning their conference championship games. Both teams remain in the continuum. They are attached to the soccer wheel which continues to turn every day of the year, one competition attached to the next, each domestic league and national federation attached to the continental confederation, all the way to the top at FIFA headquarters. They say soccer players play the game for trophies, and that is a facile, though not entirely inaccurate, explanation of their motivations. Besides the money, soccer players play the game so they can continue to play the game. They want to be able to look forward to the next challenge. One competition ends and another begins. All MLS teams will have an 0-0-0 record starting the 2006 season and the season-openers will not likely be nearly as important as the final game in October. Only the Galaxy and Revolution are anticipating their next game knowing they are involved in the stakes of an elimination tournament -- the Champions Cup, starting in March. One of the great things about soccer is that the game is full of errors, losses, slip-ups, etc.; but it also allows players and teams a chance to compensate for their failings and mistakes almost immediately, or at least within a few days. And that is because there is always another match just around the corner. There really is not much room or time for complacency. The Galaxy will rest easier than the rest of the MLS for a few weeks. Every other team will be driven by a burning desire for compensation; the difference between the Revolution and the other 10 MLS teams being that the Revolution will be able to do something about their frustrations relatively soon. They do not have to wait until next October's playoffs, for the MLS games that count the most. But this means the Revolution will have to start planning right away. Again, the Revolution players are going to feel discouraged, they are exhausted mentally and physically. But they are young and will recover soon. Meanwhile, Revolution administrators and coaches are focusing on the near future. Preseason training trips have been set up for Bermuda and Costa Rica, far from the New England winter, and likely close to their Champions Cup opponents. So, are the Galaxy and Revolution prepared for the next game? Last season, D.C. United won the MLS Cup but lost defender Ryan Nelsen and also fell victim to the league's long offseason, lacking the necessary edge against UNAM in the Champions Cup. But United benefited from the experience and gave a better showing against Universidad Catolica in the Copa Sudamericana. Both the Galaxy and Revolution should be able to avoid losing key players. Both MLS Cup finalists were built around players who were either U.S.-born or -naturalized. The foreigners played either bit or low-profile parts. They are complementary players, though it should be noted that of all the effort expended and willingness to advance and shoot by the U.S. players in the final, there were only three really world-class attempts on goal -- the game-decider by Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez and two skillful tries by the Revolution's Jose "Pepe" Cancela, one saved by Kevin Hartman, the other cleared by Ugo Ihemelu. The other important Galaxy foreigner, Paulo Nagamura, will never be called to the Brazilian national team. Four Revolution substitutes -- Avery John (Trinidad & Tobago), Tony Lochhead (New Zealand), Ricardo Phillips (Panama) and Khano Smith (Bermuda) -- start for their national teams. Cancela, an Uruguayan, is the only high-profile Revolution foreigner, and is also not a prospect for international duty. This lack of emphasis on foreign players could be a trend for the MLS. For the Revolution, a team based on U.S. players means that there is room in the salary cap. Most of the key Revolution players are earning in the range of $100,000 to $150,000. Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhust, the most deserving of contract renegotiating candidates, are not likely to re-sign for more years; they are young enough to play out their contracts and take their chances in Europe within a couple years, Parkhurst in an especially advantageous position because of his Irish passport. The Revolution do not have time to find reinforcements for the CONCACAF Champions League and upcoming MLS season. But neither the Galaxy nor Revolution have to make major moves. Nor are these teams going to fall victim of the stripping down syndrome of salary cap restrictions which has often weakened MLS teams -- especially D.C. United -- in the past. Both MLS Cup finalists seem like they are here to stay.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com.