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 ninth part of a ten-part series, longtime Revolution columnist Jim Dow (RevsNet.com) gave us his perspective on one of the most important seasons in club history.
A Year To Remember, Even Savor, Forever…
By Jim Dow
For those of us who had huddled in the Fort from the first the 2002 New England Revolution season was simply the best ever and was, as Julius Cesar observed about Gaul, divided into three parts. First there was the post-Christmas windfall in the Dispersal Draft, then a roller coaster ride of a regular season that became an uphill charge to the playoffs and, finally, the two and a half hour morality play where the bad guys won which, regretfully, happened three more times.
Afterwards, as we sat by the holiday fires ruing the ruinous combination of Winston Griffiths’ clank off the bar and Carlos Ruiz’s deadly finishing, the truth was, we likely didn’t deserve to get as far as we did. But, far more importantly, finally, after six seasons of misery, we had a coach in Stevie Nicol, a team that was as likeable a group as has ever pulled on a Revs kit and a spanking new stadium that might be overly large but had a full-sized pitch, comfy seats and, as we were often reminded, cup-holders.
Attendance was mercurial; big crowds at the beginning of the season to scope out the new digs, plus a doubleheader World Cup sendoff for the U.S. National Team and the final, phenomenal 61,000-plus that showed up for MLS Cup swelled the stats to 16,927 for the regular season and 19,018 for the playoffs. But there were a number of nights, including during the dramatic late season and postseason runs, when there were as few as 6,000 souls rattling about the huge new edifice.
Overall though life was good, things were looking up and, indeed, competitively the next few years brought some pretty good football (five straight playoff qualifications and three more Cup Finals in five years) played by some seriously good players (Dempsey, Joseph, Parkhurst, Ralston, Reis, Twellman, etc.) that made for great times in the New Morgue as CMGI, quickly changed to Gillette Stadium, even more quickly came to be known.
But by what thin, tenuous threads such successes seem to hang. At the end of the 2001 season the Revolution were clearly one of the lesser teams in a league about to become less by two as the Florida franchises, Miami and Tampa Bay, whose accomplishments on the field were done in through underfunded ownership in Miami, no ownership at all in Tampa and poor attendance in both places. Then, suddenly, a middling squad boasted all-stars like Alex Pineda Chacon, Mamadou Diallo, Steve Ralston and Jim Rooney to go along with developing youngsters Aidan Brown, Jay Heaps, Rusty Pierce and this pugnacious young twerp, Taylor Twellman.
And while coach Clavijo had shown considerable charm in his revival role, even taking the Revs to the Open Cup Final in 2001, there quickly came the question: what could he do to blend this arrival of riches into a team? To help with the task Steve Nicol was brought in as an assistant, perhaps with an eye towards looking over the former Uruguayan’s shoulders; maybe to help, perhaps to pressure, but eventually to replace. Regardless of what actually happened in the bunker known as Kraft FC, by May Fernando was gone and Stevie was in, Montevideo magnetism replaced by Ayrshire expediency and for nearly a decade the club never looked back.
In 2001 I remember taking my older son to a tryout held by the then Boston Bulldogs, now Mass Pro Soccer, hoping that he might gain a place on their U16 team. It was a rainy, dreary fall day and my blood ran cold when we checked in to see Steve Nicol, whistle around his neck, clipboard in hand approaching to put my kid through his paces. I remember thinking, “Christ, my son is going to be evaluated by the 1986 English Player of the Year, a fifteen-year Liverpool legend!” It was almost as if he were auditioning in front of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Kenny Dalglish and the entire bloody Kop.
At that time Nicol was in the process of being courted by DC United and I recall leaning across the registration table to say, “please don’t go to DC, wait for the Revs to ring!” His response was a variant of that nasal snort those of us who covered the team came to know so well. Depending on the degree of phlegm involved it could mean, “y’hae nah fahkin’ idée wha yur sayin’,” or it could be, “wul aye, ye hae a wee bit of a pernt.”
In this case I like to think it was the latter.
That direct abruptness came to be a hallmark of his teams and served them well for a number of years. Perhaps it was phlegmatic pragmatism that was the glue. Steve Ralston told one of the scribes from New England Soccer Today that the 2002 Revs had the closest dressing room he had ever been in. Every week there was some new dramatic tale to emerge, often from the unlikeliest of places, like Daouda Kante’s head, a game-winning goal from a player who went from playing in front of 61,000 in the Cup Final to pickup games on lumpy Cambridge fields only a year later.
Looking back there were certainly some great players: Ralston and Twellman, to name two; some who had great seasons, Adin Brown, Kante and Carlos Llamosa; some dependable pros, Leo Cullen, Brian Kamler, Braeden Cloutier; some emerging talent in Joe Franchino, Wolde Harris and Jay Heaps; some who were baffling, Alex Pineda Chacon, Daniel Hernandez, Diego Serna and some make weights, Shaker Asad, Ian Fuller, Tony Frias.
But what always amazed throughout the season was how new coach Nicol managed to patch together an effective team from this group, given all the comings and goings and the characters and circumstances involved.
After all, he not only inherited a newly formed squad from Fernando, he also pulled the trigger on as big a trade as MLS had seen, further complicating continuity, to say nothing of chemistry.
There was Big Mama Diallo whose goal-scoring feats dried up on Foxborough’s then grass pitch. There was Daniel Hernandez who never saw a long shot opportunity he didn’t like and arrived with a reputation that belied just how good he was in the middle of the park; it took the likes of Shalrie Joseph to eventually replace him. And who could forget Diego Serna, whose strange absences turned out to be trips to hand-carry cash to relatives in Colombia. The stories go on and on, yet somehow, this disparate cast of cast-offs, gloriously gifted players and impetuous youth were forged into a legitimate, if flawed contender for the Cup.
The success of the 2002 side may well have saved the franchise from being moved, sold or folded. Times were very dicey for MLS at that point and the emergence of a new, soccer-specific identity across the league was yet to bear fruit. At the same time, it may have blinded New England’s ownership to exactly how difficult it is to assemble a proper team, given that they had benefited greatly from the misfortune of others, as well as a successful college and allocation draft. Remember that in the salad days that followed a difference maker was never brought from outside those confines to truly tip the balance and win the chalice.
Throughout that time there were outbursts and vignettes of enthusiasm that I will always treasure. Walking into then CMGI Field for the first time after having watched the monster growing next door for over two years. Seeing Taylor Twellman put his head in harm’s way, time after time, to convert Steve Ralston’s pinpoint crosses. Marveling at Adin Brown’s ability to move his huge body so quickly in response to venomous shots. Realizing that Carlos Llamosa was beyond balletic in his ability to extend his legs to tip away through balls at the last nano-second. Steve Ralston inscribing a #14 shirt my kids had bought for me with the words, “for the Goat, from Steve” and breaking out in laughter that anyone should have such a nickname. Shuddering at the rampant enthusiasm of Franchino, Heaps and Pierce, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t get cards and be thrown out or suspended. Driving through Belmont Center at morning rush hour honking the horn and dragging a flag when the U.S. beat Portugal. Howling with my older son under a Cambridge streetlight after the playoff clincher in Columbus. Breaking into tears when I realized that there were over 60,000 people in the stands for the final, then doing so again when Pescadito administered the coup de gras.
Any long-time fan of any sport has a defining season, one they will always remember, savor and grow old with. I lived through Joe Willie guaranteeing a win over the Colts in ’66, the Impossible Dream in ’67, Bobby Orr and the Stanley Cup in ’72, the Hand of God in ’86, the ’94 World Cup in the States, MLS starting in ’96. The 2002 New England Revolution season was and will be until they win the Cup, the best one ever.