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 third part of a seven-part series, starting midfielder Steve Ralston– now Houston Dynamo assistant coach – gave us his perspective on one of the most important seasons in club history.
New England? Really?
Steve Ralston was incredulous.
Only days before the Revolution selected him in the 2002 Allocation Draft, he and his Tampa Bay Mutiny teammates were practicing together, getting ready for the preseason. Then, he heard the shocking news: his club, along with the Miami Fusion, had been contracted by MLS.
The league decided that the Mutiny and Fusion players would be available to the surviving clubs via draft. And so the wheels were set in motion for the Revolution to pluck Ralston out of his comfortable climes in the Sunshine State.
“When New England selected me, I’ll be honest: I wasn’t too happy,” Ralston said via phone, with a laugh. “It was like the one place I didn’t want to go. I didn’t know much about Boston. I just knew they had a team that hadn’t done so well the previous six years or so, so I wasn’t too keen on it.”
That wasn’t the only reason Ralston wasn’t keen on going north.
“At the time the Mutiny folded, I had just built a house, just had a child, my daughter was a few weeks old,” Ralston said. “Then, to uproot and having to move miles and miles away after being there in Tampa – it was hard.”
But Ralston spoke to a friend who once lived in New England. It wasn’t as bad as the former Mutiny midfielder had made it out to be.
“He said, ‘You have to go there with an open mind,’” Ralston said. “‘You’re going to love it, it’s going to be a great opportunity.’”
Ralston took the advice to heart. He looked at the Revolution roster following the draft, saw the likes of Alex Pineda Chacon, Mamadou Diallo and Carlos Llamosa on the team sheet, and decided he was going to make the most of it.
As impressed as he may have been with the talent around him, the early returns for the Revolution in 2002 were anything but impressive.
The team was underperforming, and less than two months into the season, manager Fernando Clavijo became the first casualty. Clearly, this wasn’t what Ralston had in mind going in the midst of his first season out of Tampa Bay.
“It’s always hard to see someone get fired,” Ralston said. “He was doing the best he could, but we weren’t helping him. We weren’t playing well at the time and as players, you kinda feel like you’re at fault as well.”
Assistant coach Steve Nicol was given the managerial duties, but only an interim basis. Yet, even with that tag attached to his title, Nicol immediately commanded the respect of the players.
“I thought Stevie came in and did a great a great job,” Ralston said. “We all knew him, which made it easier as opposed to somebody random coming in. Steve knew the team and we knew him, so I think that made the transition a little bit easier.”
Even though Nicol, the former Liverpool stalwart who’d come to the States following his retirement, had the ear of every one in the locker room, the team remained sluggish in the weeks following. They lost five of their first seven under Nicol. It was starting to look like a lost season in making.
What turned the tide around – at least in Ralston’s eyes – was an Aug. 24, 2002 match at Chicago. A minute before full time, he sent a hopeful corner that Daouda Kante shoved into the net to stake a 2-1 win. A revival was in the works.
“We just said, ‘You know what? We’ve got nothing to lose, really,so let’s just go play,’” Ralston said. “And we did and we kept winning and winning. We went from having no chance at making the playoffs to actually winning the conference on the last day of the season. It was a pretty incredible run.”
It was a run made possible by the strong performances of Ralston, who amassed a career-high 19 assists, and rookie sensation Taylor Twellman, who collected 23 goals. But it wasn’t the individual feats that set the tone down the stretch.
“It was one of the best locker rooms I’ve ever been in,” Ralston said. “Everybody got along. It was really a great group of guys who spent a lot of time together off the field as well. It was a special group of players.”
That special group of players kept the Revolution on course for a date with destiny: the 2002 MLS Cup, which was going to be played at Gillette Stadium, their home park.
“That was pretty incredible,” Ralston said. “The fact that we had 60,000 odd people there and as we walk onto the field and looking up and seeing the Stadium plenty filled (was great).”
Their opponent - the Los Angeles Galaxy – were, without question, the stronger team. Ralston knew it, and so did his teammates.
Yet, in spite of the changes, the slumps, and the doubts, they’d already come this far. So why stop believing now?
“We felt like, ‘You know what? Anything can happen,’” Ralston said. “We’ve shown that all season long. We’ve got nothing to lose, so let’s just go out there and play.”
The Revolution went toe-to-toe with the Galaxy, with neither giving an inch for nearly two hours. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Carlos Ruiz’s 113th golden goal ended New England’s remarkable run.
“It was disappointing,” Ralston said. “I don’t think we were happy just to get there. But it was almost a surprise that we made it that far. It’s just a shame that we weren’t able to get that last one.”
Although the 2002 Revolution came up short, it set the foundation for three more runs in 2005, 2006 and 2007 – with many players from the 2002 team playing major roles, including Ralston.
“I think it showed us what it took to get there and for us to come back again in the next few years,” Ralston said. “That year (2002), definitely helped us moving forward in getting (to three more MLS Cups).”
Even though the Ralston and his Revolution teammates never got the chance to lift the MLS Cup trophy, the former Revolution midfielder – who concluded his career in 2010 as the MLS all-time leader in assists (135) and games (378) – won’t soon forget the 2002 team.
“It was one of the funnest seasons of my career just because nobody expected us to do anything,” Ralston said. “I ended up loving my time up there, and had some pretty good years.”