For all the talent on the field for Sunday's Eastern Conference final, the winner was determined as much by the men working the sidelines as the players on the field.
Peter Nowak, the D.C. United coach who watched his team dominate and destroy Major League Soccer for the first half of the season, could only chew his gum as he failed to come up with a way to shake a goal out of his faltering squad. Instead of making a move that could jump-start D.C., Nowak made moves that sealed his team's fate.
Steve Nicol's Sunday afternoon went considerably better. The New England coach overcame the absences of Clint Dempsey and Steve Ralston and still fielded a team capable of winning a conference final. Nicol took risks with the lineup and formation he started with, and made the necessary moves during the match to help Taylor Twellman's fourth-minute goal stand up as the game winner in the Revolution's 1-0 victory.
Yes, D.C. dominated play in the first half with some beautiful soccer after Twellman's goal, but when things slowed down in the second half and the team needed some answers from its bench, none came. You can call D.C. unlucky to go down a goal so early, and unlucky not to equalize as it sent a handful of chances just wide of Matt Reis' goal in the first half, but you can also take issue with Nowak's response when his team failed to find an equalizer. Bringing in Argentine midfielder Matias Donnet was an obvious move for an offense in need of a spark, but Nowak's decision to replace Freddy Adu, one of United's best players in the first half, was truly mind-boggling.
At a moment when D.C. needed ideas, ingenuity and creativity, Nowak benched Adu, a player capable of delivering all those qualities, instead of Josh Gros, who is known far more for his hustle and determination than his skill. As sad as the sight was of watching Adu pout his way to the bench, you could understand why the 18-year-old was so frustrated to leave the match. He probably wondered why it was he, and not Gros, who was benched instead of manning the left flank late in the match. That question surely rang more loudly with every wayward cross the right-footed Gros launched too far and too high for anyone to work with.
|The Revolution advanced to MLS Cup 2006 with a 1-0 victory over D.C. United on a goal in the fourth minute by Taylor Twellman. It was a near duplicate of the Revs' victory in last season's Eastern Conference title game when they defeated the Fire, 1-0, on a goal in the fourth minute by Clint Dempsey.
In 2002, when the conference titles were decided by a series (not a single elimination match), New England won game 2 of its series against the Crew, 1-0, on a goal in the third minute by Jay Heaps.
Matt Reis lowered his career postseason goals-allowed average to 0.78, the second lowest in MLS history (minimum: five starts). The only better mark was posted by Reis's predecessor with the Revs, Adin Brown (0.66).
The mistakes that doomed D.C. to failure weren't limited to Sunday. Some were made when you would have least expected it, months ago when D.C. looked unbeatable. Whether it was because of the team's success early in the season, or because of a general lack of foresight, D.C. did not do enough to add depth to an attack that always was thin once you got past the likes of Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez. Yes, D.C. added a quality player in midseason in Donnet, but what they did not do was address the team's need for another forward, which ultimately proved to be the team's undoing on Sunday.
Consider Nowak's options late in the match, when he was forced to use midfielder Rod Dyachenko at forward in place of the ineffective and injury-slowed Alecko Eskandarian. As useless as Eskandarian was on Sunday, Dyachenko, a converted midfielder, was invisible.
Nowak's final move of the day was more head-scratcher than master stroke as he took out Gomez, the team's most influential and dangerous player, and replaced him with defensive midfielder Clyde Simms, whose nine minutes on the field were predictably uneventful. Gomez was clearly affected by cramps before coming out of the match but was he so debilitated by them that he couldn't simply stretch them out? Would it really have been a gamble for D.C. United to play with 10 men for a few minutes while its magic man worked out the kinks?
To give all the credit to D.C. United's mistakes would be a disservice to a New England team that showed its quality Sunday. With their most dangerous (Dempsey) and experienced (Ralston) players out of the lineup due to injuries, the Revs still played cohesive and disciplined soccer. No, that soccer did not result in a myriad of chances, but New England had enough confidence in its own strength and organization to stand firm even as D.C. pressed hard for an equalizer.
Did the early goal make for an ugly game? To some degree it did, but you cannot fault New England for never feeling a sense of urgency to expand its lead when United's attack, which has struggled for three months, continued to show an unsteadiness in the final touch.
When Twellman's goal found the net, the script was set for the rest of the match. New England was going to defend and pick its spots and D.C. was going to have to make the most of the possession that would come from that approach. United did enjoy some nice sequences in the attacking third but never once breached the Revs' defense close enough to goal to put a serious test on Reis. The host club delivered a number of longer-range shots that buzzed the posts, but ran out of ideas as Gomez and Moreno slowly ran out of gas.
New England's ability to stay composed was admirable, even in the face of serious first-half pressure, as defender Michael Parkhurst reminded us why he should be considered a serious candidate to earn U.S. national team caps next summer. Shalrie Joseph's work in central midfield was one of the keys to the victory as he did his best to limit the amount of time and space Gomez and Ben Olsen had to operate.
Then there was Twellman, who was criticized for struggling during last year's playoffs when the reality was that he was the victim of a lack of service. He has had no such problem this year. After netting the equalizer in last week's decisive match against Chicago, Twellman pounced on the first good pass to come his way.
As much as New England's victory was about the excellent efforts of standouts Twellman, Joseph, Parkhurst and Reis, it was more about the Revs' ability to play team soccer. There was a confidence to the way the Revs moved the ball around, never a sense that the team needed to get the ball to certain players. D.C. did not boast this same fluidity, with seemingly everyone but Adu choosing to defer to Moreno and Gomez on far too many occasions.
That confidence did not come overnight for New England. In fact, the Revs probably learned the same lesson D.C. learned on Sunday just a year ago at MLS Cup X, when injuries to Joseph and Ralston limited the team's offense and the rest of New England's players failed to find answers in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Los Angeles. New England was the league's best team last year, and probably would have been champion if healthy, but they learned then what D.C. learned on Sunday: a collective must be able to win a game when stars are not working their usual magic or when a team is beset by injuries.
New England's reward for learning that valuable lesson is a third MLS Cup appearance in five years. After two failed attempts at securing the club's first title, the Revs are as ready as ever to finally break through. Their star power, championship game experience and cohesiveness will make them the favorites against Houston. The Dynamo will be wise to learn what D.C. United learned on Sunday: It takes balanced team play, and not just a few stars, to win a title.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com