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Nov 16, 2007

A healthy Joseph could be the difference

WASHINGTON -- When New England attempts to break its MLS Cup jinx on Sunday, the Revolution will be led by the league's most dynamic midfielder, a player who wasn't sure if he really wanted to still play for the Revs earlier this season.

You wouldn't know there was ever a problem between Shalrie Joseph and the Revs, not when you watch him laugh and joke and enjoy practicing with the team he has helped turn into the most consistent winner in the league. Joseph is happy and healthy and playing some of the best soccer of his career. Things weren't always so positive for Joseph, at least not earlier this season.

Joseph was fed up. He stood by helplessly as New England rejected transfer offers from Scottish power Celtic FC and felt powerless as he saw other teammates ink lucrative new contracts while he stood lower on the team's salary table than a player of his caliber ever should be. He expressed his frustration with his contract status, but New England stood firm, forcing Joseph to request a trade.

MLS Cup
New England vs. Houston

Sunday
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
Noon ET, ABC

"There was a point in the season where it was so frustrating that I spoke to the coaching staff about it, and they understood where I was coming from," Joseph said. "They knew it was a business move. They know I love this team and I wanted to play on this team, but sometimes you've got to do what's best for you, and at that point my future didn't lie with the Revolution.

"I made it clear that if they don't make a move or if they don't want me here, then I would have to go somewhere," Joseph said. "They didn't really want me to go anywhere and they didn't want to pay me, so at that point I didn't want to play for them anymore."

Rather than let his unhappiness affect his game, Joseph responded by enjoying one of his best seasons ever. New England responded by signing Joseph to a new four-year contract in October that will tie him to the Revs through the 2011 season. The deal also will make Joseph one of the 10 highest-paid players in the league.

Consider the new contract good timing, because Joseph has delivered his best soccer of the season in the playoffs. His laser-like pass to help set up Taylor Twellman's game-winning goal against the Red Bulls in the first round and his dominating performance against Chicago in the Eastern Conference final served as a reminder of why he is regarded as an MVP candidate every season.

"I think he's the best player in the league," said Revs defender and MLS defender of the year Michael Parkhurst. "He just dominates the middle of the field, especially defensively. He's just a rock and holds our team together in the middle."

The new contract means Joseph won't be playing for any other MLS team, but the Grenada national team standout still won't rule out a potential move abroad.

"I'm always going to have the desire to play overseas," Joseph said. "If a team wants to come in and pay that much money, then it's going to happen, but right now I'm focused on bringing another championship to Boston."

Joseph heads into Sunday's final completely healthy, something he couldn't say in the team's previous two trips to the MLS Cup final. In 2005, Joseph endured a myriad of knee injuries and played through a concussion in a match that Los Angeles won in overtime. Last year, Joseph was healthy except for severed tendons in his hand that forced him to play with his right hand heavily wrapped.

Joseph will have no such worries on Sunday. He is healthy and on form and ready to erase the memories of past cup losses, particularly last year's penalty-kick loss to Houston.

"We're going into this weekend confident that we're going to play well," Joseph said. "Last year we came away feeling like we should have won that game, and now we have another chance against the same team, so we are ready to win a championship."

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.