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 fifth part of a seven-part series, forward Taylor Twellman–now a TV personality for ESPN– gave us his perspective on one of the most important seasons in club history.
FC Dallas selected defender Chris Gbandi of the University of Connecticut with the first pick in the 2002 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Gbandi was a solid MLS defender, but Dallas passed up a chance on Taylor Twellman. The New England Revolution pounced at the opportunity to draft a seasoned professional and former collegiate stand-out with the second pick in the draft. It was a move the team would never regret, and it was one of the major moves that set the wheels in motion for the success of the 2002 Revolution.
Twellman says he didn’t expect the Revolution to pick him because the team had just restocked its attacking options with the signings of MLS’s two previous scoring champions Mamadou Diallo and Alex Pineda Chacon from the Tampa Bay Mutiny after the league contracted both the Mutiny and the Miami Fusion.
Prior to the draft, Los Angeles and Kansas City contacted him after he decided to return from a two-year spell with 1860 Munich’s reserve team in Germany. But Twellman was told by the league that he’d need to go through the draft process, even though he was two years removed his collegiate career.
“What happened was I didn’t sign my contract query out of the University of Maryland and MLS wanted to make an example of me for a player that never really made it to the first team and went to the Europe and did the reserve team thing for two years,” says Twellman in a phone interview.
“At the end of December in 2001 I found out that I had to go to the SuperDraft. I had to go to the combine and I was basically treated as if I was a college player even though I had been a pro for two years. I went to all that and was very interested to see what was going to happen. Miami and Tampa fold, so before the SuperDraft they have the dispersal draft and I see New England take the last two scoring champions, Mamadou Diallo and Alex Pineda Chacon, Steve Ralston and Adin Brown.
“I look at the SuperDraft and [see who] New England chose [in the dispersal draft], so I sit there and think they’re not going to take a forward. Dallas was one [in the draft] and after the first day in the combine — I had a good combine, I had like four goals and I’m thinking alright, I’ve got a legit shot because I’ve been a pro for two years — and Mike Jeffries was the coach and he told me at the combine, ‘we’re not taking you.’” continues Twellman. “Then I saw Fernando Clavijo and he said, ‘we’re very interested in you,’ and we talked for a few minutes. I hadn’t even thought about New England. I had no idea New England would want to take on another forward after taking on Mamadou Diallo, Chacon and Wolde Harris, Andy Williams, but that’s where I ended up.”
Clavijo’s tenure in charge of the Revolution was short, but he left a legacy when he drafted Twellman. In his 2002 rookie campaign, Twellman tallied 23 goals and won the scoring championship, edging out Carlos Ruiz because he had more assists. Over the course of his career Twellman would score 101 goals for New England.
After the draft, Twellman flew to Brazil and met up with the rest of the team, which was mostly made of new faces. At his first practice with the team a special bond was forged: Twellman and Steve Ralston started to link up, and the blond-haired forward knew from that moment on that if he could get in the right positions he’d have unlimited quantities of quality service from the right-wing when Ralston was roaming it.
“The first time I ever trained I was actually on Steve Ralston’s team and it was like a 7v7 type of game, small-sided, and I was like, ‘wait a minute’ and it wasn’t anything that we had to verbalize, it was something you just do. And Ralston would probably say the same thing,” says Twellman, who then acknowledges the ability of Ralston was unmistakable.
“I’m not a rocket scientist, but if you can’t play with Steve Ralston then you don’t deserve to play,” says Twellman. “I mean its not something I pat myself on the back all the time and say, ‘hey I played with Steve Ralston and I made it successful.’ I’m not going to lie to you, the guy was phenomenal and he made anyone look better. He made me look a lot better than I was and he made my job easy.”
That bond didn’t come to fruition for a few games, though. Twellman didn’t get his first start until the third game of the season when New England went to Columbus and got its first win, 2-0. Twellman opened the scoring in the 10th minute and never looked back. He went on to score in six consecutive games, with Ralston having a hand in three of the six goals.
Things weren’t looking up for New England, though. New England was 2-4-1 in its first seven and a change was needed. Clavijo was out and his assistant Steve Nicol was in as the team’s interim head coach. Even then New England slumped to last place in the Eastern Conference, but Nicol started to build something with the Revolution. His first task: make sure the team was organized on the field.
“[Nicol] did one thing that we as players found extremely monotonous, we found it very annoying because we did it for five or ten minutes every day, but he’d talk about blocks,” says Twellman. “It was a 4-4-2 and everyday we’d talk about shape, ‘this is where you go when the ball is here, this is where you go when the ball is here.’
“I think now, reflecting on it, that’s a credit to Steve Nicol because I think he looked at our team and said, ‘listen, the only way we got a shot of making a run at this is if we make sure all 10 field guys and Adin Brown are in the same spots, they have an understanding of each other and where to go and we’re a nightmare to play against.’ That’s really what he did,” continues Twellman.
Even with Nicol’s new instructions and Twellman’s goalscoring, the Revolution spent much of the season outside of the playoff picture. The slow start left the team dragging up the rear. A little magic was still needed. And it came in the form of Brown, whom Twellman credits with the success of the 2002 team’s late season run.
“People don’t realize this and it’s kind of been forgotten because Carlos Ruiz and LA won [the MLS Cup], but Adin Brown was unbelievable,” says Twellman. “He was Eddie Belfour, Ron Hextall combined, but he looked like a Sasquatch. It was fun to be on the same field at the same time as Adin Brown. He made saves I’ve never seen before in my life.”
Helped in part by Brown’s heroics, the Revolution went on to win it’s final six games of the season and clinch the conference with a losing record (12-14-2, 28 pts.). By winning the conference, New England were granted the ”luxury” of playing a stacked Chicago Fire team in the first round of the playoffs that included seven U.S. internationals — including Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov, Josh Wolff and Zach Thornton to name a few — in its starting XI and a former Ballon d’Or winner on the wing — Hristo Stoichkov. But the Revolution, riding the momentum of their season-ending hot streak, did away with the Fire, then disposed of the Columbus Crew before falling to the Galaxy in the finals.
What made that team so remarkable for Twellman was that there were no expectations. He calls the team the “Bad News Bears” and talks about how the lack of expectations or pressure made the 2002 season so remarkable.
“There was no expectation level for that team. When you look at ‘05, ‘06, ‘07, those teams were damn good and should have had the MLS Cup. That’s actually the difference. We had no expectations in 2002. We had a new coach in his first year, no one expected anything,” says Twellman.
“Whenever everyone expects you to get there it is a lot different than when no one expects you to get there,” he continues. “It’s a lot more fun when no one expects you to get there and you do.”