Note: In 2002, the New England Revolution went from a team in turmoil to a collection of players on the cusp of bringing the franchise their first championship – all within the course of 35 games. Ten years later, New England Soccer Today remembers the squad that paved the way for a remarkable run of MLS Cup finals in the 2000s.
In the second part of a seven-part series, starting defender Jay Heaps – now Revolution head coach – gave us his perspective on one of the most important seasons in club history.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It was one of the first things Jay Heaps looked at after he was named head coach of his former club last fall.
Saddled with a Revolution squad that had only won five games in 2011 Heaps searched to find the blueprint for rebuilding. He pored through the film. He flipped through the stats. He cued the mental archives. The focus: to find a team that perservered. A team that endured its share of struggles. A team that never looked back.
That team: the 2002 New England Revolution. It was a team that Heaps, a fixture on the Revolution backline in 2002, immediately drew inspiration from as he plotted his plan to bring the club back from the depths of the table.
“It was very similar to the group we had here,” Heaps said. “The Revs hadn’t made the playoffs in the last couple of years, there was a coaching change and we were struggling to find an identity.”
An identity. At the beginning of the 2002 season, it looked like the last thing the Fernando Clavijo-led club would find.
The year before, New England stumbled through a 7-14-6 season, and bowed out of the postseason hunt by going winless in seven of their last nine. So much for carrying a measure of momentum into 2002.
“There really wasn’t really a winning (attitude) yet,” Heaps said, reflecting on the situation going into 2002. “We were talented, but we just couldn’t find right group.”
Then, the league made a stunning announcement at the start of the 2002 preseason: the Miami Fusion and Tampy Bay Mutiny were ticketed for contraction. Their players would be dispersed via draft.
With a number of strong players there for the taking, New England made out like a thief. They picked up reigning MVP Alex Pineda Chacon. They grabbed the right hand man of Carlos Valderrama – El Pibe – in Steve Ralston. They welcomed scoring sensation Mamadou Diallo. While they were at it, they also took Carlos Llamosa.
On paper, the Revolution became an immediate contender. There was just one problem: they didn’t play like one.
As a result, Clavijo was fired on May 23. Enter Steve Nicol, the assistant turned interim manager. A day later front office orchestrated a major trade, shipping the disappointing Diallo, mainstay Ted Chronopolous and Andy Williams to the MetroStars for Daniel Hernandez, Brian Kamler and Diego Serna.
But the shakeups didn’t pay dividends until late-August. Staring at a 1-1 scoreline in Chicago, the Revolution refused to buckle down for the draw. Instead, they pressed forward. At the 89th minute, Ralston launched a corner kick and Daouda Kante converted it for the win. It would be the defining moment of the regular season.
“I thought it was interesting how we came together at the time,” Heaps said. “When we were up against a wall, we rallied together. We were a good group on the field, off the field and we trusted each other. I think that’s the most important thing.”
That spirit of determination pervaded down the stretch. The Revolution closed out the season 5-0-1, and nudged their way into the postseason with a 12-14-2 mark.
Riding a tidal wave of momentum, New England beat Chicago in the Eastern Conference semis 2-1, and got the win they needed in Columbus – with Heaps, who scored three minutes in, as the central figure.
“I broke the record,” Heaps quipped. ”I scored, I got an actual yellow card and then my red card was a straight red. So there you go…”
The Revolution returned home for the MLS Cup final against the star-heavy Los Angeles Galaxy. It was no easy task, by any stretch of the imagination. But with 61,000+ spectators on hand for the showdown, the Revolution had the 12th man on their side.
“It was one of the best (experiences) and probably one of my proudest moments being on that field in front of friends and family,” Heaps, a native of Longmeadow, Mass., said. “Just that feeling that Gillette Stadium hadn’t really been filled much by soccer yet. It was awesome to know that it was a soccer event that created 61,000 people to show up. (Plus), it was our chance to win a championship.”
However, the clock struck midnight and the carriage turned into a pumpkin when Carlos Ruiz scored in the 113th minute to give the Galaxy their first title, and deny the Revolution of theirs.
The 2002 club may have come up short in the end, yet they set the tone for the remainder of the decade. New England returned to the finals in three straight seasons from 2005-07, and just as they did in 2002, they were doomed by a single goal each time.
While the 2002 may have been classic overachievers, the attitude that carried them to their first final has remained with Heaps.
“We trusted that when the game was on the line,” Heaps said. ”We were going to make a tough tackle or pick somebody up when they were down. Those things don’t happen overnight.”
Reflecting on the 2002 squad, Heaps fires off the stats without missing a beat. Ralston’s 19 assists. Taylor Twellman’s 23 goals. The 5-0-1 record down the stretch. He cites the positive qualities – leadership, accountability, hard work, and determination - that Llamosa, Ralston, Twellman and captain Joe Franchino brought to the locker room. It all added up to a championship run.
Ten years later, he’s trying to incorporate the same qualities - which fostered an unshakable bond in the locker room - into his own squad. In terms of talent, he sees traces of Ralston in the likes of Lee Nguyen (“Lee keeps the ball like Ralston did and never loses it….”) and Kelyn Rowe (“Kelyn’s got a cross just like Steve…”). The potential is there.
Unlike 2002, the postseason eluded New England in 2012. The successes were too far and few in between. Even so, Heaps still watches the film. He studies it and makes mental notes. He sees a template for success.
“I go back and analyze (the 2002 team) for our group because we struggled this year to find that winning formula,” Heaps said. “(2002) was really the year we put it all together.”