New England Soccer Today

One of a Kind

Steve Nicol saw plenty of success with the Revs from 2002-2007. (Photo by Art Donahue/

In his ten seasons in New England, Stevie Nicol oversaw the most successful run in Revolution history. But, after the club’s record sharply regressed over the past two years in particular, the writing was on the wall: it was time for the gaffer to go.

Many will remember that Nicol’s debut came in 1999, when he replaced the last storied Revolution manager – the Spiderman himself, Walter Zenga – for the final two matches of the season. Despite winning both, Nicol wasn’t retained. But New England hadn’t seen the last of Steve Nicol.

Prior to the start of the 2002 season, Nicol was named as an assistant to head coach Fernando Clavijo. But, with the Revolution stumbling out of the gate, Clavijo was relieved of his duties, and in stepped Nicol, the man who’d soon reverse the fortunes of the franchise.

Five months after taking the reigns, the Revolution punched its ticket to the first MLS Cup appearance in franchise history, and held off the heavily favored Los Angeles Galaxy through full time. Although New England would fall at the expense of an overtime goal from Carlos Ruiz, one thing was certain: Nicol, who won MLS Coach of the Year in 2002, had brought a winning attitude to the downtrodden franchise.

In 2005, the team jumped out to a franchise-best 11-game unbeaten streak (7-0-4), en route to its best regular season record (17-7-8, 59 pts.) and its second Cup final against the same Los Angeles Galaxy. But much like its first Cup appearance, the Revolution fell in overtime, 1-0. However, with Taylor Twellman, Shalrie Joseph, Pat Noonan, Clint Dempsey, and Matt Reis in the fold, it was clear that Nicol was building a team to that would be reckoned with.

The following year, the Revolution rested heavily on a staple of Nicol’s modus operandi: defense. In 32 league games, the Revolution conceded only 35 goals, and suffocated teams down the stretch. For the second straight autumn, the Revolution were back in the finals. A defensive struggle ensued against Houston, and despite a Taylor Twellman 111th minute goal, Brian Ching immediately equalized before the Revolution fell in penalties.

Two thousand seven was supposed to be the year that the Revolution would finally get that elusive Cup. They secured their first domestic cup – the U.S. Open Cup – and the attack regained some of the potency it had lost in 2006. Yet, it wasn’t enough on an unseasonably warm late-autumn day in the nation’s capital, where the same Houston squad held the MLS Cup trophy over their heads for the second consecutive season.

The first signs that Nicol’s shine was starting to dull came in 2008. The departures of Pat Noonan, Andy Dorman, Jose Cancela, and Clint Dempsey had eroded the team’s championship form. However, the most troubling development of the season arrived in August when Taylor Twellman hurled himself into the fists of Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin. From there, things would never be the same, as the team limped into playoffs and was eliminated in the Conference semis.

Despite losing his leading striker, and having to patch together a starting XI too many times to count, Nicol found a way to somehow deliver one more playoff berth in 2009, thanks to a last-gasp effort in Columbus that sent the Revolution to its eighth straight trip to the postseason. It was short-lived, though, as another semi-final exit awaited.

With Twellman out for all of 2010, and injuries ravaging the squad unlike any other season, the Revolution failed to make the playoffs for the first time in the Steve Nicol Era. Despite that, it appeared that Nicol and the front office were ready to replenish the roster, signing international players like Didier Domi and Ousmane Dabo to complement the likes of mainstay Shalrie Joseph and new kid on the block Marko Perovic for the following season.

The record will show that 2011 was the team’s worst season in franchise history. Nicol would continually state that the effort was often there, but that the results just weren’t. Meanwhile, with one of his most inexperienced squads, mistakes came by the bushels, and the losses mounted while the wins were far and few in between. The Revs closed out the season winning only once in their last 13, but perhaps more disturbingly, the instances in which the team’s effort on the pitch was all but absent became alarming.

Over his ten seasons on the Revolution bench, Nicol made brilliant tactical decisions. The 3-5-2 was a masterful success during the mid-2000s, but as the parts started falling off the wagon, the three-man backline lost its effectiveness, and thus, was scrapped for the copycat and predictable 4-4-2 that featured a lot of kicking and a lot of running.

There were also times in which Nicol seemed to intuitively insert perfect late-match subs to preserve a lead or leapfrog an opponent. It was that acuity that in the heyday of the team’s success, seemed to single-handedly catapult the club toward crucial victories.

But for all the wisdom and insight Nicol had, there often times when the gaffer seemed lost. In recent years, it appeared as though Nicol’s sole focus throughout training was his club, with little time given to peering into the dossier of the upcoming opponent. It was as if he could simply outmanage any coach without having to rely heavily on film or advance scouting.

Not only that, but far too often, Nicol appeared to struggle with young, raw talent rather than seasoned veterans. Nicol was known as a “player’s coach,” and as a result, wasn’t the disciplinarian the inexperienced Revolution roster needed. Instead of scaring the kids, he joked with him, which may have lent itself to some of the team’s lethargic performances this season.

Perhaps the most cutting criticism is that, in hindsight, the mid-2000s teams may not have won so consistently because of him, but in spite of him and his dogged defiance toward change. That he stopped winning with the same frequency once Paul Mariner, his trusted lieutenant, left for Plymouth Argyle at the end of 2009 is telling. Simply put, it appeared that Nicol, much like Brian Clough at Leeds, lacked his Peter Taylor when Mariner departed.

Even so, his legacy here in New England will be that of a winner. A winner who delivered for a very long time. Prior to his arrival, the only thing the Revolution trophy case collected was dust. Today, that same trophy case hosts four Eastern Conference trophies, a U.S. Open Cup, and a SuperLiga trophy.

Although the front office may not have given him the cash to spend on premier players like Robbie Fowler or Luis Figo, Nicol unquestionably squeezed the most out of his players more often than not. Consider that his last playoff appearance came in a season that Taylor Twellman only scored two goals and Joseph was forced to become the team’s de facto striker.

No head coach in MLS is perhaps more deserving of the term “manager.” Stevie Nicol’s duties didn’t end when the final whistle blew. He often flew overseas to re-stock the cupboard, personally scouting prospective players, and overseeing the construction of his roster from the ground up. In short, he was a throwback to an era in which the gaffer was unquestionably the man in charge.

And while he was one of the most respected men in MLS, Nicol was never shy to crack a joke or lighten the mood with his trademark sarcasm. When asked about an upcoming match, he deadpanned, “well, it honestly doesn’t matter if we win, lose, or tie.” At one point this season, he categorized his job as “a piece of cake.” Rarely at a loss for words, if there was one thing about Nicol that everybody knew, it was this: he loved managing soccer.

Unfortunately, that love and desire to outwit his opponent wasn’t translating in the standings. Too often this season, he put his team in vulnerable positions. He focused on intangibles – effort, heart, spirit – rather than instructions and fundamentals. Whether he deserves the lion’s share of the blame or not, the fact is that the 2011 team stagnated on his watch.

It was a long and trying season for Nicol, his team, and its fans. Too long and too trying for him to return next season. And with Nicol’s departure, the team not only loses one of its most successful minds, but a colorful character who was the quintessential gaffer in every respect.

Regardless of whether Nicol should have been shown the door sooner or given another chance in 2012, the fact this that we’ll never see the likes of Stevie Nicol ever again.


  1. Walter Silva

    October 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

    ever again? thats a long time Brian, he will be back some day,

  2. Brian O'Connell

    October 25, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Personally, Walter, I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Stevie. He’s always been class act and his record speaks for itself.

  3. Chris B

    October 25, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    It’s a bummer the Revs didn’t create some new job for him. He could’ve been like a head scout or something not that they would accept any players he suggests. Plus something like that would be less salary and he may prefer to coach elsewhere.

    I don’t know much about a how a soccer/MLS team is run (yet), all I know is the Revs lack whatever it is because they scout on youtube (not that Caraglio and Zerka aren’t good but it’s still messed up).

  4. Larry

    October 26, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Good riddance! Next!

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