New England Soccer Today

Revolution Revisited: Steve Nicol

Steve Nicol inherited a defensively-flawed Revolution team in 2002 and turned them into a championship contender by season’s end. (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 paved the way for a remarkable run of MLS Cup finals in the 2000s.

In the eighth part of a ten-part series, manager Steve Nicol – who currently lends his expertise as an analyst for ESPN Soccernet – gave us his perspective on one of the most important seasons in club history.

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The situation was far from ideal when Steve Nicol made the leap to managing top-flight football.

Following a 5-2 loss at Colorado – a game in which the Revolution conceded a quartet of first-half goals – Nicol, the club’s assistant coach, was tabbed to succeed Fernando Clavijo as manager. Read: manager of an underachieving team that opened the season with a disappointing 2-4-1 mark.

While most managing candidates may have accepted the position with an understandable dose of apprehension, Nicol was anything but anxious. Rather, he viewed the appointment as an opportunity to rebuild a flawed – yet talented – squad to his liking.

“I felt we had good players and good professionals,” Nicol said via phone. “And if we molded them in a certain way and also gave them some freedom as well, I just felt that it would be a good combination.”

But before he was ready to give them some freedom, there was one particular area of concern he needed to work on immediately: the philanthropic defense, which allowed 15 goals in its first seven games.

“We were losing too many goals,” Nicol said. “You can’t rely on approaching every Saturday having to outscore the opposition every single time. You’re not going to do it. If we allow two goals in a game, you have to score three every game, and that’s not happening. It just doesn’t work that way. Not unless you’re playing U-12 girls or boys. So, in order for things to start going the right way, that was the first thing we had to stop.”

So Nicol, whose superior defending as a player earned him numerous personal and club accolades at Liverpool in the 1980s, called his players together everyday in training and introduced them to “the blocks.”

The objective was to teach each player were to be when their opponent had the ball. No more racing over to the nearest attacker or marking the closest guy. With Nicol in charge, the days of undisciplined defending were coming to a close.

“It was important that we didn’t leave holes,” Nicol said. “But we had to sacrifice something to get the thing rolling.”

The sacrifice Nicol had to make wasn’t an easy one. Alex Pineda Chacon, the reigning league MVP, was an artist on the ball. On the other hand, his defensive prowess left something to be desired. Nicol weighed the decision carefully, but ultimately relegated one of his best attackers to the bench.

Meanwhile, the results didn’t come in bunches just yet. Following Nicol’s promotion, the club had to fight through the growing pains of learning a new system. They went 2-5-0 in their first seven games under their new manager, and seemed destined for another finish outside of the postseason.

Making matters worse, the club was still giving up goals at an alarming rate. So Nicol was forced to make another difficult mid-season change.

Starting goalkeeper Juergen Sommer, who had a 2.39 goals against average in 12 games, was benched in favor backup Adin Brown.

“The reason I put Adin Brown in goals is because, at the time, we were losing too many goals,” Nicol said. “I felt what we needed were big saves and Adin did that right from the get go. There was no moving him.”

It wasn’t until late-August, however, that all the pieces finally began to fit together.

After getting torched for a combined 11 goals at the hands of Kansas City, New York and Colorado, the Revolution put Nicol’s agenda into practice on the pitch – and they did it consistently.

Meanwhile, Nicol, who also set out to give his players some freedom, watched as each player began to put their own unique stamp on the club’s success.

“Everybody has their own individual piece of ability that they add to the team,” Nicol said. “I felt if we can just get it all organized and make it hard for other teams to begin with, then the ability that we had would come shining through.”

The club closed out the campaign on the strength of its defense, which only allowed three goals in their last six games. Their goalkeeper basked in the glow of an impressive 0.50 goals against average in that span. Perhaps most important, the Revolution were gaining confidence, and playing with a noticeable swagger down the stretch.

“Once everybody starts believing, and you start winning, then the attitude changes,” Nicol said. “By the end of the season, we kept coming to the players and saying, ‘Look, nobody wants to play against us.’ Whether that’s true or not – I did think it was true, but when you start believing that, and you start going into games thinking that the opposition doesn’t want to play against you, all that does is makes you bigger, and stronger and quicker.”

The reborn Revolution attack were certainly playing bigger, stronger and quicker as the playoffs approached. On the other end of the pitch, the defense grew stingier with each passing match. Brown, for his part, made save after save, and sported a sparkling 0.67 goals against average in the postseason as the Fire and Crew both fell victim to the red, white and blue juggernaut.

With their first league title in sight, Nicol was keen to keep his players level-headed. He didn’t set out to deliver the speech of the century. Rather, he kept the message simple.

“I told them just because it’s a final, it shouldn’t change anything in the way you go about your business,” Nicol said. “If you go about it in a different way, then things typically go wrong.”

Paired against a talented Galaxy side, the Revolution stuck to their defensive approach. Ninety minutes went by without a single goal from either side. It wasn’t until the 113th minute that the Revolution defense – the one that had steered the Cinderella squad all the way to its first final in franchise history – would break, as Carlos Ruiz put an end to any fantasy the hosts may have harbored of lifting the MLS Cup trophy in front of 61,000+ fans at Gillette Stadium.

Yet, even though the Revolution fell short of the ultimate goal, Nicol, who earned MLS Coach of the Year in 2002, knew he had something special on his hands.

“We had a real good mix of players,” Nicol said. “We had Joey Franchino, who we made captain because he was a guy who’d probably run through a brick wall for me and his teammates, so that’s the guy you wanted as your captain. I mean, who else do you want in the trenches? Joey Franchino is the guy you want in the trenches.”

“Then, of course, you have guys like (Steve) Ralston, who you’d want to see get the ball when you’re attacking, and you want him to be feeding guys like (Taylor) Twellman, who was just a natural goalscorer. All we had to do was get the ball in the box and not just by lumping it, but putting dangerous balls in there with extra pace and giving him an opportunity to get on the end of it because he always wanted to get on the end of it.”

“There’s Danny Hernandez, who was just a football player. You look at the back, defensively, and you look at (Jay) Heaps and Carlos (Llamosa), and you know Heapsie is going to stand next to anybody all day long, and Carlos was a great sweeper, a smart footballer.”

Nicol also believes players like Brown, Brian Kamler and Daouda Kante all helped pave the way for a run that few expected to see from the Revolution in 2002.

At the time, it may have been tempting to dismiss the Revolution’s unexpected success in 2002 as a fluke. A team that caught fire at just the right time, perhaps.

But, as the years progressed, and the franchise returned to the MLS Cup finals three more times in 2005, 2006 and 2007, Nicol will be the first to tell you that 2002 squad unquestionably reversed the fortunes of the franchise.

“I think the legacy of that team is that they laid the foundation for the rest of that decade,” Nicol said. “(Eventually) Carlos came and went, Daouda came and went, Pineda came and went, so then you’re thinking, ‘Who are you going to bring in to replace them?’ So we brought in players like (Pat) Noonan, (Andy) Dorman and (Clint) Dempsey and (Michael) Parkhurst and Matt Reis. So that (2002) team definitely laid the foundation of what we expected from every New England Revolution team going forward.”

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