The New England Revolution have never been made to feel at home at RFK Stadium. In fact, the Revolution's most loyal group of supporters, the Midnight Riders, have become reluctant to travel to D.C. United-Revolution matches because of some threatening experiences outside the stadium.
The Revolution drew (1-1) and lost (4-2) in visits to D.C. United this season, but the game that remains in the team's collective memory is the victory in last year's Eastern Conference championship game at RFK.
The Revolution can also draw on recollections of the '04 conference final, which, despite the result (a 3-3 draw and penalty-kicks loss to D.C. United), signaled their arrival as a team that could compete with the league's best on a technical level. Since that match, the Revolution have a 43-23-28 regular-season record and have won three conference championships.
After playing so many matches RFK, the Revolution are comfortable with the setup -- the short hop on the Boston-Washington shuttle, the Crystal City hotel, the bus ride on Interstate 395, the locker room in which the televisions may or may not function well enough for them to follow their fantasy football league. RFK is an early '60s construction, Jack Kent Cooke's futuristic ideas evidenced by the cantilevered roofing that provides a shield from the elements and keeps sounds in, like so many European venues. Cooke also believed soccer would catch on in the U.S. He was a couple of decades ahead of his time in the soccer department and even further ahead in stadium design.
|MLS Cup Final|
|New England vs. Houston|
Although RFK is feeling its age, it still works very well for soccer. As long as the organized groups keep the chants going and turn the stands into trampolines, RFK has an excellent atmosphere for the game, one which can motivate both the home and visiting teams.
The Revolution know very well they are the enemy at RFK. But they are familiar with the battleground. They can pick out memorable spots on the field -- the home-plate area near the corner flag where former player Clint Dempsey celebrated a goal with a home run swing, for instance. They know the quirks (they claim the field is aligned slightly off-center, affecting offside calls at one end) and how the grass plays -- having seen balls skip and pick up speed in the rain -- leading to handball offenses. They have experienced Christian Gomez and Jaime Moreno lining up free kicks from many different angles, similar to ones Brad Davis and Dwayne De Rosario might be lining up Sunday. They like to capitalize on the size of the field by stretching defenses with balls to the wings.
And this could be one of the last chances for the Revolution, or any team east of the Mississippi, to feel like the home team in the MLS Cup.
The MLS will likely start favoring warm-weather sites for the final, and that leaves out Chicago, Columbus, Foxboro, Toronto, Washington. How about a nice, warm Carson, Calif., with some Beckham fever added in? Houston is likely to have a stadium before long, judging by the impressive support the Dynamo have been receiving. San Jose and Seattle could be candidates, depending on their stadium situations. Unless global warming changes the weather even more, only Harrison, N.J., will be a strong candidate in the Northeast in coming years.
The Revolution weren't quite right in the past two finals in Frisco. Key players were below par physically and, for whatever reason, things just did not happen for the team at Pizza Hut Park. The Revolution erased some of those memories with a U.S. Open Cup victory over FC Dallas last month. However, the Revolution are quite content to be playing in the Eastern time zone now. Hundreds of Revolution supporters actually made the trip to Texas, but many more will be in D.C.
In any case, the Revolution will use home-game tactics. As they did in the Eastern Conference final against Chicago, the Revolution will pressure all over the field and attempt to play fast. Free kicks will be taken quickly. They will attempt to make Houston uncomfortable, keep the Dynamo off balance, then find Khano Smith and Wells Thompson on the wings. The Revolution want Smith and Thompson to go directly at Brian Mullan and Davis, force the Dynamo to double-team, which could open space for Steve Ralston in the middle of the field. They want Smith and Thompson to send crosses in for Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman.
The Revolution will emphasize speed of thought, speed of play, and they will play directly. After hobbling through two MLS Cup defeats in two years, this time the Revolution are homing in on the final in a position of strength.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.