Revolution Revisited: “So Close”

Taylor Twellman calls for the ball as Wolde Harris dribbles. (Photo: Chris Aduama/aduama.com)

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 later paved the way for a remarkable run of MLS Cup finals in the 2000s.

In the first part of a seven-part series, Sean Donahue – who covered the squad for Fall River Sports Journal in 2002 – takes us through the highs and lows of the 2002 season.

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Hope would hardly be the right emotion for Major League Soccer in 2002 after the contraction of its two Florida teams. Yet for the New England Revolution, one could hardly blame club’s faithful fans for being hopeful.

The Revolution had never finished a season above .500 and had made the postseason just twice in their first six years. But heading into 2002 there were plenty of reasons to expect a change.

The team was coming off their first appearance in a cup final, losing in overtime against the Los Angeles Galaxy after head coach Fernando Clavijo led them on a shock run to the 2001 U.S. Open Cup Final. On top of that, the Revolution were about to begin play in the brand new cmgi Field (now Gillette Stadium) with a pristine Kentucky bluegrass surface and were set to host the 2002 MLS Cup.

That may have been reason enough for hope, but New England also benefited from the league’s contraction by grabbing a host of All-Stars in the offseason. The contraction of Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny allowed the Revolution to acquire the following via the dispersal draft:  Mamadou Diallo, an imposing striker who had scored 35 goals the previous two seasons, Carlos Llamosa, a U.S. National Team defender, Steve Ralston, one of the league’s top right midfielders, Alex Pineda Chacon, the 2001 MLS MVP with 19 goals and 9 assists, Jim Rooney, an experienced central midfielder with 6 goals and 9 assists the previous season, and talented young goalkeeper Adin Brown.

As if that wasn’t enough, the team grabbed a promising young striker in Taylor Twellman with the second overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Yet with the Revolution’s bolstered forward corps, Twellman looked likely to be fourth in the pecking order at the time.

With Chacon and Diallo added to a strike force that already had Wolde Harris, the Revolution roster included three players who had scored 15+ goals in at least one of the previous two seasons. With service from the wings behind them from the likes of Ralston, Jay Heaps, Joe Franchino and Ted Chronopoulos, plus the likes of Rooney and Andy Williams in the middle, goals seemed a certainty.

Add Llamosa to the backline with Leo Cullen and a promising Rusty Pierce, throw in U.S. National Team veteran ‘keeper Juergen Sommer along with an expected national team goalie of the future in Brown and there was reason to believe the Revolution would be successful on both sides of the pitch.

Reality proved something different. After a 5-2 drubbing at the hands of the Colorado Rapids on May 22, the Revolution found themselves in the midst of a disappointing 2-4-1 (7 points) to start the season. Meanwhile, Twellman had surprised and grabbed a starting spot, with Diallo and Chacon struggling to find their past scoring form. Making matters worse, the Revolution defense was hemorrhaging goals at a rate of 2.14 per game.

It was time for a shake-up.

On May 23, Clavijo was sent packing and assistant Steve Nicol took over, but only on an interim basis. The next day, the Revolution completed perhaps the biggest trade in league history, shipping Diallo, Williams, and Chronopoulos to the Metrostars for striker Diego Serna, defensive midfielder Daniel Hernandez and left midfielder Brian Kamler.

But an immediate turnaround was not to be had as the team went 2-5-0 over their next seven games, dropping to 4-9-1 (13 points). An ACL tear would soon sideline Serna for the season. After two straight wins to start July, the Revolution dropped three straight and finished that month 3-3-0. Perhaps it just wasn’t the Revolution’s year. Still, the team picked up a pair of key pieces in Daouda Kante and Winston Griffiths.

After two more losses to start August, the Revolution were at 7-14-1 (22 points) with just six games to go. Despite Twellman and Ralston being among the league leaders in goals and assists, respectively, New England’s once hopeful season looked destined to end in disappointment.

Then, somehow, it all started to click. Brown, who had won the starting job midseason, played lights out in net, making 26 saves while allowing just three goals in the final six games. On the other end of the field, Twellman scored eight goals over that same stretch. Harris added three of his own and the Revolution finished out the season with a six game unbeaten run (5-0-1).

Still, it all came down to the final game.

In the hunt on the last day of the season, the Revolution were faced with a crucial home match against their rival Metrostars. In an insanely tight Eastern Conference race, one result could change everything. A win could see New England take first place, while a loss could send them to last place – and another early offseason – in the five team conference. However, thanks to a brace from Harris and a penalty from Twellman before the interval, the Revolution put the doubts to rest and cruised to a 3-0 victory.

Suddenly, the Revolution had the first seed in the East with a 12-14-2 (38 points) record. For the first time in franchise history, the Revolution were the hottest team in MLS –  and a favorite to advance to MLS Cup, at their home stadium.

There was plenty of work left to do to get there. No worries. In the postseason, New England picked up where they left off, beating the Chicago Fire 2-0 behind goals from Twellman and Hernandez to open the best of three series with a win at Gillette Stadium. The streak would end at 7, however, as the Fire would overcome an early Kamler goal to win 2-1 and knot the series at 1-1.

The Revolution found themselves in a winner-take-all game three against the Fire. It was a situation all too familiar for New England, who just two years prior suffered a crushing 6-0 defeat to Chicago at Soldier Field in game three of the quarterfinals.

This time would be different. With the Revolution at home, Kamler and Twellman would strike again, leading the team to a 2-0 win to advance to the Semifinals. It was the first time the Revolution had emerged victorious from a playoff series.

With their shock run still alive, the Revolution opened the series against the Columbus Crew with a scoreless draw with Brown making seven saves in the shutout. Brown was the hero again in game two, with five big saves, making a third minute Heaps goal stand in a crucial road win.

Then, in game three, after Ralston and Harris gave the Revolution a two-goal lead, the Crew fought back to tie it. But the Revs held on for the draw and advanced thanks to 10 saves from Brown.

It was on to MLS Cup with a chance to make history. New England’s opponents, the Galaxy, were the top team of the regular season. But who was ready to bet against the Revolution after their miraculous run?

New England entered the game with the talented Twellman, who finished the regular season second with 23 goals. They also had the best right midfielder in the league in Ralston, who lead the lead in assists with 19. And, for good measure, they had hottest goalkeeper in MLS in Adin Brown who had an astonishingly low 0.56 goals against average while making 62 saves over the previous 12 games.

The team also had one of the best left midfielders in club history in Brian Kamler, who was playing some of the best soccer of his career. Meanwhile, the backline was bolstered by a center back who played a role in the U.S. National Team’s shock run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup that summer in Carlos Llamosa.

Add in Kante, who had formed a great partnership with Llamosa, and especially strong playoff performances from Heaps and Joe Franchino at fullback, and the defense looked like shut down unit. Helping out the back four was the defensively strong central midfield pairing of Daniel Hernandez and Leo Cullen, while Harris seemed to have re-found his scoring touch.

There was also some solid options off the bench, including Chacon, Griffiths and Rusty Pierce. And all of this was at the disposal of Nicol, who still had “interim” affixed to his title. The Revolution appeared a formidable foe for anyone.

Even so, this was a Galaxy side filled with stars including Carlos Ruiz, Cobi Jones, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Alexi Lalas. A team with far more playoff – and cup final – experience than New England.

With an MLS Cup record 61,316 in attendance at Gillette Stadium, the Revolution defense held tight as neither team was able to generate many scoring chances. A Franchino cross headed down by Twellman in the box rolled just out of reach of Ralston in the 26th minute, but that was the closest the Revolution would get before taking a scoreless draw into halftime.

The defensive battle resumed into the second half, but as the game approached full time, the offensive pressure increased. With nine minutes left in regulation, Jones sent Ruiz clear of the defense. The Guatemalan star, who led the league with 24 goals, ran in alone on goal, with Brown charging off his line. Just as Ruiz appeared set to put the Galaxy in the lead, Kante snuck in from behind and tapped the ball out for a corner. Disaster averted.

A minute later, Hernandez’s long blast deflected just wide of the upper corner. After Kevin Hartman saved a stoppage time shot from second half substitute Chacon, the game was headed to overtime.

New England brought on the speedy Griffiths for overtime to attack the tired Galaxy defense, while adding Pierce to aid New England’s own weary backline. Not surprisingly, more holes appeared to open up as each team sought the golden goal that would claim the championship.

The goalkeepers would keep it scoreless going into the break after the first 15 minute period as Brown denied Ruiz on a stunning bicycle. Brown would follow that up with a stunning diving save to deny Ruiz, one of his six saves – all of them difficult – on the night.

Then, seven minutes into the second period, the fateful sequence would commence. A Ralston corner kick fell to Griffiths outside the box, where he rocketed a left-footed shot that deflected off a defender. The ball rose into the air and dipped down, beating Hartman, heading towards the far upper corner and sending the crowd to its feet. A leaping defender at the post couldn’t reach it, but the ball hit off the crossbar, denying the Revolution the goal that would’ve handed them their first championship.

The ball eventually fell to Franchino, whose attempt at a long range shot was deflected, sparking a counter attack. Chris Albright played Tyrone Marshall down the right flank. A tired backline was caught flatfooted as only Pierce was able to keep up with Marshall, and Ruiz snuck alone into the box. Marshall’s quick pass left Ruiz alone near the penalty spot and he made no mistake.

Brown was finally beaten and the Revolution’s storybook ending wasn’t to be had.

“So close,” said Griffiths, who tragically passed away last year, about his shot off the bar. The same phrase could apply to the Revolution’s 2002 season.

The championship dream had been denied, but the groundwork was laid for what would be the most successful decade in Revolution history.

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About Sean Donahue

Sean Donahue has been covering the New England Revolution since 2002 for various publications. He has covered four MLS Cups, in addition to covering various international matches, including World Cup Qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He has done freelance work for the AP and ESPN Boston. Sean hosted Revolution Recap, a weekly radio program covering the New England Revolution and U.S. Men's National Team from 2005-2008. He is a member of the North American Soccer Reporters. Sean can be reached at nesoccertoday@gmail.com or followed on twitter @SeanLDonahue