Steve Nicol was paying attention all those years. Performing for top coaches and having a successful playing career does not guarantee someone will be a competent coach. But Nicol is clearly a step ahead of most MLS coaches tactically and in his perception of the game.
This seemed like a radical move for Nicol, who was a defender for Liverpool FC and still thinks defense first. But Nicol's system has evolved steadily, and when Nicol is tempted to revert to conservatism, assistant coach Paul Mariner plays the part of his good conscience and encourages more attacking.
The three-back formation in front of goalkeeper Matt Reis is a bit like a high-wire balancing act. Especially when the key figure has been Michael Parkhurst, a 155-pound central defender who turned 22 a couple of months after last year's MLS Cup. But the Revolution led the MLS in goals-against average (1.09) this season and have surrendered just 77 goals in 71 regular-season and playoff games in two years.
So, Nicol believes there is enough security on the back line, is confident outside backs Jay Heaps and Avery John can handle themselves when isolated on MLS' best attacking players.
Again, though, Nicol is flexible enough to make changes. Nicol went back to the 4-4-2 for visits to D.C. United, and the change was key to a 2-1 win last month and a 1-0 victory in the Eastern Conference championship game Sunday. Heaps, freed up to advance on the right wing in the four-back setup, set the stage for Taylor Twellman's goal by finding Pat Noonan on the right side of the penalty area. Then, when the 4-4-2 had run its course of effectiveness, Nicol switched the Revolution back into a 3-5-2 midway through the first half. James Riley gave a credible imitation of Steve Ralston, who was out with a calf bruise. Andy Dorman filled in for Clint Dempsey. And, though the Revolution threatened only on counterattacks, they could have had a couple more goals.
But Nicol will have to go back to the drawing board in preparing for the Houston Dynamo.
If Dempsey and Ralston return, as expected, the Revolution likely will attempt to go straight at the Dynamo defense from the opening kickoff. Nicol believes that is the best way to keep the pressure off his own defenders, and the philosophy works because Shalrie Joseph is exceptional at starting the play and retreating into a holding role to keep opposing counterattacks at bay. Joseph will be a key against Houston, not only in the midfield duels with Dwayne De Rosario and Adrian Serioux but also as the Revolution's main force against set pieces.
In fact, although Nicol believes in attacking soccer, he is also the ultimate pragmatist. Nicol loads the lineup with defensive midfield types -- Joe Franchino, Daniel Hernandez, Jeff Larentowicz, Joseph -- as many as he can get onto the field. Dorman can play as a holding midfielder; even Dempsey initially was projected in the position when he joined the team three years ago.
The Revolution might be in a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 formation, but Nicol believes in covering their backs.
Coaches are continually confronting defining moments. Among the first of those in Nicol's coaching career was when he took over the Revolution on an interim basis for the final two games of the 1999 season. Then, former Revolution general manager Brian O'Donovan was trying to find a place for Nicol, who had been hired as a player-coach for the Boston Bulldogs, and made the move after Walter Zenga was fired. One of Nicol's first decisions was to place Paulo Dos Santos in the starting midfield, a tactical ploy that seemed "obvious" to him and to many observers. But Dos Santos was to be rejected by no fewer than four Revolution coaches -- three before Nicol's interim gig and one after -- before going on to a successful career in Norway, where he continues to perform.
Yes, Dos Santos was a defensive midfielder, but that is not necessarily why starting him was a defining moment for Nicol. Identifying Dos Santos revealed Nicol's eye for talent. Realizing how Dos Santos could help hold the team together showed Nicol's tactical instincts. The Revolution won and tied in Nicol's two games as interim coach; O'Donovan offered him the head coaching job on a full-time basis, but Nicol turned it down, believing he needed more experience. And that was another defining moment, one that stretched over two years of what could be considered football purgatory, coaching an unknown team with little future in Framingham. But Nicol knew he needed to learn more about managing a team and he had the patience to suffer through it.
Two years later, the Revolution made Nicol another offer, this time general manager Todd Smith bringing him in as an assistant to Fernando Clavijo. Nicol kept a low profile, soaked up Clavijo's considerable insider knowledge of the MLS. In May 2002, Clavijo was fired after a 5-2 loss at Colorado and Nicol installed as head coach. Six months later, Nicol had been named MLS Coach of the Year and the Revolution were playing in the MLS Cup.
Nicol noted this has been a good week for Scottish coaches because either he or Dominic Kinnear will win the MLS Cup and Alex Ferguson is celebrating his 20th anniversary at Manchester United. Nicol calls Ferguson among the best coaches ever, along with Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly -- he considers Jock Stein in a legendary category unto himself. Having learned from coaches such as these, plus his close friend Kenny Dalglish, Nicol certainly has a breadth of experience few in the U.S. can match.
Nicol might never come close to matching the accomplishments of the great Scottish coaches. But he has brought some of their soccer sense to a league that needed it. Nicol certainly has set standards for the MLS, getting the best out of players such as Dempsey, Dorman, John and Parkhurst and showing how to set up a team to peak for playoff runs.
This MLS Cup could be the last Revolution appearance for players such as Dempsey and Joseph, who will continue to be targets for European clubs. It is unlikely Nicol would leave the Revolution without winning the MLS Cup at least once, but should he accomplish this, the offers from Britain might start becoming too good to refuse.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.