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Jul 31, 2008

Revolution make a statement by downing Dynamo

FOXBORO, Mass. -- The second edition of the SuperLiga had a peaceful conclusion late Tuesday night at Gillette Stadium. Maybe too peaceful.

All-out brawls marked the postgame events of the semifinals. But the final became as much a bonding experience for the players as an occasion for the New England Revolution to take vengeance on the Houston Dynamo. New England triumphed 6-5 in a penalty shootout after extra time ended with both teams tied, 2-2.

The Revolution and Dynamo set the tone for the final celebration by deciding before the match to split their 15 percent share of the $1.5 million prize money awarded to the first- and second-place finishers.

And the teams carried over that spirit of camaraderie following the Revolution's victory over the Dynamo.

Revolution captain Steve Ralston could not have been much more subdued as he collected the SuperLiga trophy. Ralston and his teammates, plus Revolution owner Robert Kraft, did get into the spirit long enough to parade the trophy in front of The Fort section behind the goal.

But the victory party had a low-key feel, as both the Revolution and Dynamo were interested in making a statement about their dissatisfaction with the prize money distribution, symbolized by the teams exchanging jerseys immediately after the match.

"It was a show of unity," Houston goalkeeper Pat Onstad said of the shirt exchange. "We believe our CBA [collective bargaining agreement] rights were violated, and it was set up that we were playing for $1 million, when that was not the case. We are a little disappointed about how it was handled."

The conflict between MLS and the MLS Players Association over the SuperLiga payoffs might be the first of many leading up to negotiations when the CBA expires after the 2009 season. Or, if anything is learned from the experience, communication between the two sides could improve by then.

"We've been through quite a bit," said Revolution player union representative Jay Heaps, who was suspended for the final. "But we solidified as a group. We wanted to get to the point where we could discuss it but we never had that chance."

The roots of the players' dissatisfaction relate to the fact the players of the Mexican clubs in the event will receive a greater percentage of the prize money. Pachuca players apparently told MLS players they split the full $1 million payday for winning the first edition of the SuperLiga. MLS officials contend the Pachuca players split $300,000, about 30 percent of the total. Even so, MLS players felt deceived, the contract for the SuperLiga having been unilaterally negotiated by the league.

The Dynamo players hoped to meet with ownership to decide their share and have filed a grievance that will be heard in October.

In any case, MLS teams showed they are the equals of their southern neighbors on the field.

The Revolution were especially impressive in knocking off three of the last four Mexican league champions, then rallying against the two-time defending MLS Cup winners.

Though the final was conceived in the spirit of cooperation, it was a highly competitive match, more open than the last two MLS Cups.

The Revolution have been transformed with the addition of forwards Kheli Dube and Kenny Mansally, plus Sainey Nyassi, whose play on the right wing was a key to the team's success against the Dynamo. The Revolution had three 19-year-olds (Amaechi Igwe, Mansally and Nyassi) in the starting lineup against the Dynamo, symbolizing the team's new look. The newcomers provide a break from the past and the collective memory of three successive MLS Cup defeats.

Of course, it helps to have Shalrie Joseph, who established himself as a major threat on set pieces, scoring three times off Ralston free kicks in the SuperLiga. Joseph's header tied the score in the 102nd minute and demonstrated the Revolution are more resourceful than they were last November, when they appeared down and out after falling behind against the Dynamo in the MLS Cup.

Revolution coach Steve Nicol has kept some of the foundation of the team since his first full season as head coach in 2003. Heaps, Joseph, Ralston, goalkeeper Matt Reis (who made two penalty kick saves during the penalty shootout in the final) and Taylor Twellman had key roles in the SuperLiga. But the Revolution have a remarkable streak going -- they are 11-1-5 in all competitions since May 3 -- because young, previously low-profile players have made a strong impact.

"That was hardest-fought game of the year," Heaps said of the final. "It was one of the best games I've seen.

"The SuperLiga is an awesome tournament. The biggest statement we made was shutting out three Mexican teams."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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