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 seventh part of a now nine-part series, assistant coach John Murphy – who currently serves as head coach of the men’s soccer team at Anderson University (South Carolina) – gave us his perspective on one of the most important seasons in club history.
After a disappointing 2001 season, the Revolution coaching staff needed to find a way to turn things around in 2002. The contraction of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny and subsequent Allocation and Dispersal drafts presented them with a unique opportunity to rebuild with proven MLS talent.
Yet even the abundance of talent available and the plethora of picks the Revolution held were no guarantee of building a playoff squad.
“It was unusual,” said John Murphy, who joined New England as a part-time goalkeeper coach in 2000, before becoming a full time assistant under Fernando Clavijo in 2001. “I think we felt that there were a lot of players available that could change a franchise, but the unusual thing about that was the two that were rated the highest, Diego [Serna] and Mamadou [Diallo], were probably the two that made the least impact.”
The Revolution took Diallo, who scored 35 goals the previous two seasons, with the second overall pick in the Allocation Draft. Despite his pedigree, the Senegalese striker nicknamed Big Mama proved a bust in New England with just one goal in seven games before he was traded away.
Fortunately for the Revolution, there were enough players to be had to overcome one disappointment.
“We were lucky enough to pick up two in later rounds that ended up having the biggest impact for us,” said Murphy, a Quincy, Mass. native. “That was Carlos Llamosa and Steve Ralston… [Former Colorado Rapids head coach] Tim Hankinson’s pick of Pablo Mastroeni was a very good one looking back. That might have been the best one of all for longevity, but for production you’d probably have to say Ralston was the best pick.”
When he wasn’t away with the U.S. National Team at the World Cup, Llamosa would help shore up the center of the defense for the next two seasons. Ralston, meanwhile, would prove the best right midfielder in MLS, playing over eight seasons for New England, recording 42 goals and 73 assists, and eventually being named captain of the club later in his career.
“The team the year before wasn’t very good and we felt like we needed to address several areas, so we made the picks,” said Murphy. “Obviously we also picked up Jim Rooney and [Alex] Pineda Chacon, so I think we made the team a lot better.”
Rooney would provide an experienced option in central midfield, while Chacon, the league’s reigning MVP, added some class up top, even though he was a bit of a disappointment with just two goals and two assists in 20 games (nine starts).
Of course, the Allocation and Dispersal drafts weren’t the only way the Revolution added to their roster. New England also added goalkeeper Adin Brown, after he went unselected in the drafts, and young striker Taylor Twellman — who would go on to become the club’s greatest goalscorer — with the second overall pick in the 2002 SuperDraft.
“When you look back at it, the key acquisitions were probably Stevie [Ralston], Carlos [Llamosa], you pick up Adin [Brown] and then obviously you draft Taylor [Twellman] and those are four huge components of the success that team had,” said Murphy.
Still, all the wholesale changes were hardly a formula for instant success.
“It was a very volatile group,” said Murphy. “I think that’s why the performances at the beginning of the season were very checkered. It was just a very volatile group and it probably just didn’t have time to gel.”
After a disappointing 2-4-1 start, culminating in a 5-2 away loss against the Colorado Rapids, Clavijo was relieved of his coaching duties on May 23rd and Murphy’s fellow assistant, Steve Nicol was promoted to head coach on an interim basis. The next day Diallo, Andy Williams and Ted Chronopoulos were sent to the Metrostars for Serna, Brian Kamler and Daniel Hernandez.
“It was a crazy time around the team anyways,” said Murphy. “We came back from Colorado and we lost 5-2 and it was terrible. You had the feeling something had to happen and it happened. You don’t look off the end of your nose there, you feel terrible about your colleague losing his job and they asked me to stay on, which I did. We knew we could get it better and it’s not fair to the coach that gets fired, but sometimes when you make a coaching change it snaps people to life.”
Twellman had already earned a starting spot with Wolde Harris thanks to Diallo and Chacon disappointing and Serna struggling to fit in, then tearing his ACL soon after the trade assured that wouldn’t change. Nicol now had to integrate Kamler and Hernandez into the squad.
“Kamler was a big, big help,” said Murphy. “Danny Hernandez was very impressive to me. I thought he was one of the best defensive center midfielders in the league when we picked him and he did a fantastic job for us.”
Kamler would solidify the Revolution at left midfield, while Hernandez would form a partnership with Leo Cullen at center midfield that proved at times near impossible to break down.
“Leo Cullen was a good player,” said Murphy. “He was very, very underrated. He was very technical and didn’t play like the typical American player. For me, he played like a European player: very technical and smooth and very underrated. I think sometimes people will look past Leo, but he was a very good player.”
Even with the pieces starting to come together, the Revolution still struggled to get results and looked out of the playoff picture with six games remaining. Then, all of a sudden, the team pulled together to go six games unbeaten (5-0-1) and grab the top spot in the East on the last day of the season.
“I think it clicked before that,” said Murphy. “When Stevie [Nicol] came in he just clarified everything. He really turned Jay Heaps into a right back. Before Jay was playing all over the place and [Nicol] got the back four sorted out.”
Beside Heaps in the backline was midseason acquisition Daouda Kante, who partnered Llamosa in the center, and captain Joe Franchino at left back. Nicol also made the tough choice to start Adin Brown over U.S. National Team veteran Juergen Sommer.
“Stevie made a difficult decision to go with Adin,” said Murphy. “We were kind of going back and forth between Adin and Juergen and I think that’s all part of Stevie’s style – he just clarifies things and he wasn’t going to make things complicated. When you get the goalkeeper and the back four sorted out, I think that makes a big difference.”
The coaches saw the team coming together and playing well even before the results were there, but the run really started with a trip to face the Chicago Fire.
“We went to Naperville (Ill.), we were down 1-nothing and Adin pulled off two or three great saves to keep us in the game,” said Murphy. “Then all of a sudden Wolde Harris scored the equalizer and Daouda Kante scored the winner, so that was a turning point for us.”
Brown played a big role in that game, and he’d play a huge role down the stretch, allowing just three goals in the last six games, while looking almost unbeatable at times.
“It was getting to a point in practice where you couldn’t score on him,” said Murphy. “It was scary; you couldn’t get the ball by him. He was an absolute beast – a very, very talented goalkeeper. Unfortunately [not long after that season] Adin’s body kind of broke down on him and it’s a shame because he was very, very talented and really had all the attributes to be a top, top goalkeeper and performed at a very high level unfortunately just for a short period of time. It should’ve been longer and it wasn’t necessarily anything Adin did. I think it was just genetics and his body couldn’t take the wear and tear.”
But, the Revolution had Brown at his peak and his performances – combined with Twellman’s scoring exploits and Ralston’s service from the mifield – helped lead the Revolution to a position on the last day of the season where a win against the Metrostars could mean first place for a team that couldn’t have dreamt of the playoffs a month prior. Yet, in the tight East a loss could also mean last place and no playoffs, but confidence was high.
“I knew we were going to win,” said Murphy. “I was watching the [Metrostars’ prior] game in my house and Tim Howard took out somebody on D.C. United on a breakaway and I screamed ‘red card’ and the referee showed a red card and I said ‘we’ve got these guys’. That was no knock on the other goalkeeper, but we felt [Howard] was a game changer and if you take him out of the equation we were going to win that game at home.”
Sure enough the Revolution won comfortably, 3-0.
From there, Nicol took a one game at a time approach to the playoffs, not setting out any goals for a Revolution team that had never won a playoff series before.
“Stevie was great,” said Murphy. “He never got too high and he never got to low. That’s a good thing when you are working with top players. You want to really take the emotion out of it. We never made goals, we never talked about that stuff. You got ready for the next game and that was Stevie. That’s just the way Stevie was, he didn’t make a big deal out of things.”
That approach got the Revolution through the first round against the Chicago Fire, winning two out of three games. The Revolution then opened their series against the Columbus Crew with a draw and a win before a decisive game three at home. After the Crew battled back to tie it at 2-2 late after being down 2-0, the Revolution’s inexperience in the postseason finally showed.
“It was kind of funny because at the end of the Columbus game when we were tied at home and Wolde Harris kept dribbling the ball into the corner thinking that all we needed was a tie and that was going to be the end of the game,” said Murphy. “Of course we’re all screaming at him. The whistle blows for regulation and we’re going into overtime (In 2002 all tied games had a 10 minute overtime period).
“The point is that we didn’t talk about advancing or going ahead or what was next. We just went out and we played. You could say that’s a bit naïve, but I think that it kind of helped. Everybody was just like let’s just go play the games and we didn’t get caught up in the moment of it.”
The strategy proved enough to get the Revolution into the MLS Cup final. For New England, that meant a home date at Gillette Stadium in front of over 61,000 fans against the regular season’s best team, the Los Angeles Galaxy. It was a memory that won’t soon be forgotten, even though the end result was a 1-0 overtime win for the Galaxy.
“It’s bittersweet and I’ve got a picture of it up on my wall,” said Murphy. “It’s sad because it’s very rare when you get a chance to play a final in front of that many people and it’s really a home crowd. You want to go on and win it, but [players] were banged up… I think we just put everything in getting to the final. We got to the final and, you hate to say it, but the right team won. Los Angeles had the best team all year. You want to nip something, you want to try and nick a game. You always want to try and play to win, but in retrospect, ten years later, you say listen, they were the best team and they won.”
Still, even if the better team won, it’s hard not to imagine what could’ve been.
“It was unfortunate for us,” said Murphy. “We were pretty disheartened. You know Winston Griffiths hits the crossbar and then they go down the field and score. If that doesn’t sum up soccer, nothing will.”