While most of the MLS slogged to the finish line in recent seasons, the New England Revolution were sprinting in, looking fresh and rested.
Not this time.
The Revolution were battered and bruised as they limped home following playoff elimination by the Chicago Fire. After four MLS Cup appearances in six years, it appears the Revolution are nearing the end of a cycle. The nucleus of the team should remain, but the supporting cast is taking on a different look.
The signing last year of Gambian teenagers Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi signaled a change in direction for the Revolution, and it continued this year with the addition of forward Kheli Dube. Revolution coach Steve Nicol apparently wants a younger, speedier group to surround the veterans.
Though the Revolution have failed to win an MLS Cup, victories in last year's U.S. Open Cup and this year's SuperLiga provide evidence that they can produce with something on the line.
"Realistically, looking at the team at the end of the season that we put on the field, is that a team to win the MLS Cup?" Nicol said."The answer is no. But if you add Shalrie Joseph on two legs [Joseph had a knee injury], Khano Smith, if we have [Adam] Cristman and [Taylor] Twellman instead of two rookie forwards, it's a different ballgame.
"We get to the playoffs, have the first one at home, and to be perfectly honest, there was nothing between the teams. But when we lose Jeff Larentowicz, it was one too many, it's a loss that takes you over the edge, and we lose the game."
In the Revolution's season-ending loss to Chicago last week, the youngsters were still firing on all cylinders, though they were firing blanks. The Revolution were subpar without Cristman (broken toe), Steve Ralston (broken leg), Smith (suspended) and Twellman (concussion), plus the first-half loss of Larentowicz (ankle).
Those players are expected to return next year, though Twellman's status could change -- he received significant offers from England last year and, even though his marketability has been reduced because of injuries, he might want a different situation because of bitterness resulting from a past contract dispute and the fact he was denied the chance to depart when his value was high.
Central defender Michael Parkhurst could be the Revolution's most significant loss. Parkhurst's contract expires next month and, since he has an Irish passport, he should be able to move to Europe.
Without Parkhurst, there are questions about the Revolution's ability to align in a 3-5-2 formation, which has signified them as an attack-oriented team since 2004. But Nicol's faith in Costa Rican international Gabriel Badilla, a finesse defender similar to Parkhurst, and the other Revolution youngsters indicates the team will continue going on the offensive.
If Parkhurst departs, he will continue an exodus of Revolution players which started in earnest in 2006 with Clint Dempsey (FC Fulham), Daniel Hernandez (Chiapas) and Tony Lochhead (Wellington) and continued last year with Andy Dorman (St. Mirren), Avery John (Miami FC) and Pat Noonan (Aalesunds FK/Columbus Crew).
Only Dempsey attracted a transfer fee, and the Revolution invested much of that in a youth development program.
Nicol has made spectacular finds in the collegiate ranks, with the MLS draft producing many Revolution regulars. But the past three years have not been as productive, judging by the progress (or lack thereof) of Revolution picks Leandro de Oliveira, Wells Thompson and Rob Valentino, and Nicol might continue to go outside the country for help.
There are signs the Revolution were an overachieving team last season, a tribute to the tactics of Nicol and assistant coach Paul Mariner (who is a finalist for the Seattle Sounders' head-coaching position) and also to the winning habits established in recent seasons. The Revolution started the season with a 3-0 victory over Houston, Nyassi's speed on the right wing exposing the Dynamo's defense. That game provided a preview of the Dynamo's weaknesses which led to elimination by the New York Red Bulls.
The Revolution led the MLS overall standings for several weeks and won the SuperLiga in August, defeating the Dynamo on penalty kicks. But, having proved they could overcome Houston when it counts, the Revolution ran out of gas. And, just when they appeared to be refueling, the Revolution were decimated by injuries.
The Revolution had a 12-7-6 record after tying Colorado (1-1) on Sept. 20, but finished the regular season and playoffs with a seven-game winless streak. They lost four times by a score of 4-0 (once in the Champions League) and twice by 3-0 scores, indicating vulnerabilities.
So, is this the end of a cycle? Are the Revolution ready to spring for a big-name player?
"Half the teams in the league are different than they were two years ago," Nicol said while on the way to scouting the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. "Things evolve. We are always interested in a designated player, or finding someone with real quality, a world-class player, but we need to get the right person coming into our team and not jeopardize the whole way we do things as a team, the attitude and outlook we have. We are changing that for a big-time player who thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. We want someone who is also a good person.
"Looking at the season, you can look for excuses, but we look at facts and reasons. From the SuperLiga on, we had too many games -- we played 23 games in 96 days and we traveled to the West Coast on five occasions, plus a trip to Trinidad. After the SuperLiga, from a games aspect, it was too much to handle, as far as the legs go. We didn't have the legs and when that happens you can't play. Back around when we played Colorado [Sept. 20] away we felt as though the legs were coming back, and that's when we started to get injuries. At the end of the season, we've always been fit and healthy and strong. Other than bad luck, you get injuries when you are more fatigued, when you are not as sharp, that's when you pick them up.
"If you look at Houston and all the teams involved in tournaments, all of them are out in the first round. D.C. didn't qualify for the playoffs because of the schedule. It's a learning process for the league. It's not discouraging, not at all. All it makes us is to want to get there even more."
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com.