Revs underachieve again on the big stage
The words stung Taylor Twellman badly, so much that he couldn't help but react.
When asked how it felt to finally score a goal in an MLS Cup final after going goalless for 346 minutes, Twellman snapped, insisting that journalists would always find a way to criticize him. "This is a team game," he blustered, no doubt angry at the notion that New England's third MLS Cup loss in three tries was somehow his fault.
Twellman is right. It is a team game, and for the third straight cup final, the Revs lost as a team. New England lost on Sunday because its offense could not produce consistent chances against a Houston defense that wasn't exactly applying heavy pressure. The Revs lost because, as a team, they were just too tentative, and too content to play uninspired and overly safe soccer. They lost because their coach ran out of answers just a week after having so many good ones.
If anything, Twellman deserved to be angry because after 346 frustrating minutes of MLS Cup Final failure, he created a moment of brilliance and delivered what should have been the game-winner. Instead of savoring redemption, Twellman watched in disgust as Brian Ching stole the hero's cape from him in the span of 71 seconds.
Twellman isn't blameless, though. He had his chance to change the game early on when Joe Franchino delivered the type of cross he dreams of hitting, but instead of heading the chance into the net, Twellman put it right into Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad.
|The Dynamo beat the Revolution on penalty kicks to win the MLS Cup and to leave the Revs 0-for-3 in the MLS Cup Finals.
Let's consider MLS, the NHL, the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball: Nine other teams have lost each of their first three visits to the championship game or round.
The Galaxy, Pistons, Knicks, Patriots and Blues, like the Revolution, lost in each of their first three trips to the finals; the Tigers, Vikings and Broncos lost in each of their first four trips; and the Dodgers lost in each of their first seven visits to the World Series.
That missed opportunity stood out because New England did little else in an ugly match that must have had some fans in Pizza Hut Park wondering how this team got to the final. Playing a bad match in the final is one thing, but doing it for a third straight time leaves you to wonder whether this team is doomed. In 2002, the Revs overachieved on their way to the final and eventually fell to a superior Los Angeles Galaxy team. In last year's loss, New England was battered, bruised and physically incapable of playing the exciting attacking soccer the Revs played all year.
At least that is what we were led to believe. After Sunday's yawner you are left wondering if maybe, just maybe, this collection of talented players has a problem dealing with the heat of the final. Consider Houston, which might have a new name, new colors and new history but still has a roster with championship experience gleaned in San Jose. The Dynamo played like a team that wanted to win rather than like a team afraid to lose. The same couldn't be said for the Revolution.
Things changed for New England in the second half, thanks to the inclusion of super sub Khano Smith, whose rampaging runs down the left flank rejuvenated a faltering attack, but there was still something missing, something keeping the Revs from scoring goals even as Houston gave them space to operate.
This leads us to Steve Nicol, who made the easy moves of inserting Clint Dempsey and Smith. Dempsey had an impact despite being limited by an ankle injury, including delivering a goal-bound header that Dynamo captain Wade Barrett cleared off the line, and Smith did his part. Nicol had one last move to make but rather than bolster his faltering attack, he replaced Daniel Hernandez with Jeff Larentowicz. The move seemed to work when Twellman scored two minutes later, but it wound up putting the Revs in a serious bind after Ching delivered the equalizer.
Rather than have Hernandez as a reliable penalty taker, or even having attack-minded replacements Jose Cancela or Jose Manuel Abundis as options, Nicol's decision to insert Larentowicz forced him to use Jay Heaps as his fifth penalty-kicker when Heaps would probably be regarded as the team's ninth- or 10th-best penalty taker. Nicol couldn't be blamed completely if he didn't want to go with a completely attack-minded substitution when the game was still tied, but by ignoring the likelihood of penalty kicks, he set the stage for Heaps' painful failure.
Now, instead of capping a memorable run of success with an elusive title, New England is left to ponder how such a talented team could fail to win a single championship. How could a team with Twellman, Dempsey, Pat Noonan, Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston, Matt Reis and Michael Parkhurst not lift the trophy even once? You can write off one loss to bad luck, maybe even two, but when a team fails to deliver in the championship game on three different occasions, it is tough to blame it on just bad luck.
This wasn't simply a case of fate, an unlucky bounce or the soccer gods being cruel to the Revs one more time. New England, as a team, just didn't have the championship spirit that helps a winning team seize the moment. That sounds like a tough verdict for this collection of talent, but the history books offer evidence that will never fade away.
Perhaps the breakup of this Revs group isn't that bad a fate after all. Maybe some new blood and the departure of some familiar faces will help New England shake off the stigma of being regarded as the Buffalo Bills of Major League Soccer. Whoever does remain will have yet another offseason to stare at an empty trophy case and wonder what went wrong. Hopefully those Revs won't spend the offseason believing the notion that Sunday's outcome, and the team's previous two MLS Cup losses, were a product of anything other than their own shortcomings.
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.