FRISCO, Texas -- Start talking to New England manager Steve Nicol about the hoodoo of psychological entanglements and you may as well be talking about the latest Britney Spears shenanigan.
He doesn't pay much attention to either of them.
No one would have blamed Nicol for changing things up a bit on his team's latest trip to Dallas for championship matters. Pizza Hut Park had not been kind to the Revs, crunched in the '05 and '06 MLS Cup finals on the same suburban Dallas pitch.
So, truly, who could disparage Nicol for shaking up the Etch-a-Sketch and drawing up a varied pregame plan for this year's U.S. Open Cup final? Maybe take a different route to the stadium. Hold the day-before practice at an alternate site. Hamburgers instead of hot dogs. Anything. Why not help his players cross the street to avoid strolling past all the obvious memory markers, the mental snapshots from previous visits that went awry?
Well, here's why: because Nicol dismisses all that as "rubbish." What makes a difference in a final is "what's between the ears," he said. Strong athletes with hardy mentalities aren't bothered by such trivialities, to his way of thinking.
Yes, the Revs finished on the wrong end of four previous finals, the pair at Pizza Hut Park, one other MLS Cup setback and one previous loss in a U.S. Open Cup decider. But so what? If anything, there were some valuable and practical lessons gained.
And that's exactly as it played out in an entertaining match Wednesday night, as the Revs finally tore off the title-winning seal. FC Dallas committed a couple of defensive errors while Nicol's men kept things mostly buttoned up in the back, guided as always by the habitually steady Michael Parkhurst. The Revs took their chances well at the other end and enjoyed the champagne spoils of a 3-2 win from inside the Pizza Hut Park visitors' locker room.
"Yeah, we did do something different [on this trip to Frisco]," said Revs forward Taylor Twellman, standing just off the huge rolls of plastic set down to intercept some of the wayward bubbly. "We scored three goals."
Twellman knocked in one of them when he escaped his marker, Adrian Serioux, at the far post to bang in a deflected corner kick. That came just before the break, giving New England a 2-1 margin at halftime. Pat Noonan had put the Revs in charge early, exploiting a couple of defensive foibles.
Dallas midfielder Pablo Ricchetti had clumsily fumbled possession, leaving Steve Ralston to swoop in and drive in a cross that goalkeeper Dario Sala appeared to have covered. But Serioux flung himself needlessly at the ball, deflecting Ralston's service past the stranded Sala and leaving Noonan with the easiest of finishes.
Arturo Alvarez leveled matters with a fabulous, bending strike nine minutes later, but Noonan once again factored into the scoring, helping along Ralston's corner kick, which fell to the ever-opportunistic Twellman.
Wells Thompson's 58th-minute strike would prove the game winner. That Thompson was in the starting lineup said plenty about the Revs' ability to finally unlock a title: They did so without their best player. Two-way linchpin Shalrie Joseph was suspended due to a semifinal red card. So Nicol had to reconfigure his five-man midfield, rotating Andy Dorman to a holding spot, Ralston over to the attacking spot and inserting Thompson on the right.
FC Dallas halved the margin but, even with five forwards on the field by game's end, couldn't really manufacture a good chance for the equalizer over the final 20 minutes. That's where the experience in previous finals truly showed, Nicol thought.
"We just finally finished it off," he said. "Tonight we finished it off. What we've got to do now is get ourselves into another final and close it off again."
Only New England has a chance at the domestic soccer double: the Open Cup crown and the MLS title. Nicol's men even have a shot at the Supporters' Shield for most wins, although they'll have to make up ground on front running D.C. United.
FC Dallas, meanwhile, will lament the lessons of an opportunity that slipped away. MLS sides had hosted nine previous Open Cup finals, winning eight of those. Credit New England for putting FC Dallas under pressure on the two first-half strikes. But FC Dallas manager Steve Morrow, who has been trying to patch up a wobbly defense all year, was frustrated with the latest mistakes.
"If you give up soft goals, you aren't going to win championships," he said. "Clearly, we've got to stop doing that."
The home team began with a reasonable plan, starting with Morrow's boldest of personnel choices. Denilson, the club's wildly ineffective DP signing, wasn't in the starting lineup. He wasn't even on the substitutes' bench. With the ability to dress only five foreigners, Morrow declined to select the veteran Brazilian attacker.
The last time these two teams met (a 4-2 win for New England on Sept. 15), Khano Smith absolutely blistered the FC Dallas defense, giving right back Drew Moor everything he could handle and then some. This time, Dallas barely gave Smith a chance to be dangerous. The Red Stripes set up in an attack-minded 4-3-3, with speedy Dominic Oduro deployed on the left wing. Smith spent so much time helping on defense that he rarely got forward, even after Ralston dropped into the right back spot for the second half.
Still, New England did enough to create good chances. And this time, the Revs were up on the winner's stage, collecting the big trophy and perhaps thinking about how to split up the $100,000 champion's pot. Ralston remembers the hangdog feelings of sitting on that same field, watching other teams on that stage reveling in championship delight.
Just before he walked into the locker room, Ralston's voice briefly rose above the hoots and hollers of the giddy bunch. "Take it easy tonight, boys, we've got a game Saturday."
New England will fly Thursday directly to Chicago, where the newly crowned Open Cup champs will meet a Fire side desperate for points in the playoff chase. For their part, Ralston and his teammates will now fix their sights on another trophy.
"It feels good being on the winning side of one of these," he said. "Obviously, we're thrilled with this championship. But we want the MLS Cup, too."
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.