Friday, November 16, 2007

The (added) pressure to win

Trophy Town. City of Champions. Current Hub of the Sports Universe.

On Sunday afternoon, the New England Revolution will step onto the RFK Stadium pitch for the MLS Cup with a gorilla-sized burden resting heavily on their shoulders. Sure, it’s the winner-take-all championship match, and another loss to the Houston Dynamo for the second consecutive year would be devastating, to say the least.

But aside from that, additional pressure has stemmed from the least likely of sources: their successful surrounding neighbors. For the championship ventures of the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox have unquestionably elevated the expectations New England’s sports fans, thus creating inexorably heightened expectations for surrounding clubs. The cold reality is simple: anything short of championship on Sunday will keep the Revolution from the fan and media attention that it has long deserved.

In a region that can lay claim to five combined championships in the past six years, it simply isn’t enough to be good, which is precisely what the Revolution has been during the same six-year time frame; a team must be great (i.e. championship great) to have its name invoked by the media. Why? Because the streak of recent success has heightened – perhaps redefined - the expectations of a fan base that have been incredibly fortunate to experience a bevy of glorious triumphs. Due to the meteoric rise of the Red Sox and Patriots, the Boston sports fan now demands greatness. So with these veritable lead weights on their shoulders, the Revs will clearly be fighting for something greater than just MLS Cup spoils: they'll be fighting for the media and fan attention that the great teams of the Patriots and Red Sox have combined to monopolize.The goal: to strike the championship metal while it’s still hot.

To appreciate the steep challenge the Revolution faces in order to accomplish this monumental task, take a look down the list of Boston’s most notable sports teams. The Red Sox: World Series Champions. The Patriots: Currently 9-0, and primed for an unbeaten season and an accompanying fourth Super Bowl victory. The Boston Celtics: 8-0, and the hottest team in the NBA. Boston College football: 8-2, and up until two weeks ago, were flirting with a bid to the BCS Championship game. Talk about trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Yet, in comparison to the “big brothers” of the regional sports scene, the little brother soccer team has actually outperformed the headline-grabbing older siblings in recent years. In terms of playoff appearances, the Revolution has actually bested all four of their elders by clinching postseason berths in each of their past six seasons. Despite this remarkable track record, the club has continued to fly under the sports radar, desperately lost while the talking heads dominating the airwaves discuss the Red Sox and Patriots ad infinitum.

In an odd sense, the current concentration of championship caliber clubs has adversely masked the successes of the Revolution. The Red Sox have won two of the past four World Series championships. Not to be outdone, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls since 2001. Sensing that they were in danger of becoming marginalized themselves, the Celtics went out and acquired two big names (Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett) to join in-house superstar Paul Pierce. Thus, the newly-christened “Big Three" is not just Boston radio, but the entire NBA. The unfortunate result of the unparalleled success enjoyed by these clubs has left the Revs conspicuously absent from Boston’s sports pages, radio, and nightly newscasts.

The perception that the Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics are the only worthwhile candidates for water cooler banter is obstacle the Revolution must try to overcome. Contrary to the opinions of various media blowhards, there are people who do care about this team; it’s simply a matter of trying to convince the traditional mainstream media outlets that they should invest in Revolution soccer as well. Even if the club achieves the MLS championship on Sunday, it may only be the first step – albeit a sizeable step – toward shifting the general attitudes of the media, and in turn, the general fan base.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, the Revolution is faced another, yet far more sinister perception: the perverse idea that soccer is a nothing more than a “foreigner’s sport.” Many so-called sports personalities dismiss the game as patently “un-American”, and thus, go out of their way to bash the sport when the word “soccer” is even uttered. This misguided and troubling anti-soccer sentiment is also held by a surprising number of local sports editors, writers, and producers who simply ignore the efforts of soccer squads by force-feeding their own readers, viewers, and listeners with non-stop baseball, football, and basketball stories. Sadly, there are more than a handful of media types that are unabashedly rooting against the Revolution so as to withhold any attention to the soccer club. Therefore, in order to crack the hardened crust of the status quo, the Revolution must do something big to force the hands of their critics.

That’s no easy task, either. Considering in that the Revs do not have the luxury of a league championship (though they did win the 2007 US Open Cup) or big-name player signing, the organization has nevertheless worked tirelessly to attract the masses. The fruits of their labor ripened this summer when average home attendance rose 40% over the previous season, as the club posted solid home crowds throughout the season. Another encouraging development: an astonishing crowd of 22,000-plus fans came out to see the Revolution take on the Columbus Crew in mid-October on the very night that the Red Sox battled the Cleveland Indians during Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park.

True, the Revolution doesn't have a sports icon like Tom Brady, a lovable and popular performer like David Ortiz, or an insanely talented baller like Kevin Garnett that everyone from the playground to the office can gravitate to and discuss at length. But the Revolution does have great talent. They have one of the best strikers in American soccer in Taylor Twellman. They have the undisputed best defender in MLS in Michael Parkhurst, who just so happens to be a local guy (Providence, RI) as well. And they have a charismatic goalkeeper in Matt Reis, whose clutch playoff performances actually rival those of Brady and Ortiz.

But the question remains whether an MLS Cup victory would bring greater focus to the local XI. The club has undoubtedly enjoyed a greater media presence in the wake of its MLS Cup berth. Reis appeared on NESN SportsDesk this week, while Parkhurst, the local kid, has graced the Rhode Island news channels multiple times during the past two weeks alone. Perhaps the greatest indication that the Revs are shifting ever so close to the mainstream came in the form of a Shalrie Joseph full-page feature in the November 19th issue of Sports Illustrated. For the moment, it appears that the Revolution have been allowed to shed the “forgotten stepchild” label in the Boston sports family, at least temporarily.

Another positive development that may shine the spotlight even brighter: timing. With the MLS Cup kicking off at 12:30pm, the sports populace will be afforded a glimpse of the Revolution in action during the early afternoon without missing a minute of their beloved Patriots, who will be facing off against the Buffalo Bills later that night.

Realistically, the Revolution poses no threat to overtake the Red Sox or the Patriots as the team in New England anytime soon. But capturing a major championship on national television would certainly boost the club’s visibility from Portland to Portsmouth, and all points in between. Granted, Revolution jerseys and caps may not become as in vogue as pink Red Sox hats or purple Tom Brady jerseys. But a championship would create a wonderful springboard for the Revolution to take a cannonball-sized plunge into the trophy-filled pool.The stakes in New England sports landscape have never been higher. New England’s sports culture is immersed (and to a degree, obsessed) in the success of its teams. Fortunately for the Revs, many media outlets are primed to give the club added visibility – and are ready to dole out even more should the Revs bring home the MLS Cup.

It’s no secret that New Englanders, in particular, take enormous pride in championships because of the heartbreak they’ve endured prior to these present glory days. A championship opens the door to a magnificent common denominator between fans of all sports. In the past, many proud Sox fans did not publicly cheer the embarrassing Patriots of the late-1980s. A Super Bowl victory changed that. Essentially, what a championship affords is the opportunity to acquire the respect of the media and fans. That in turn could favorably position the Revolution into the consciousness of New England’s wildly passionate fan base.

What a fantastic opportunity it would be for the Revolution if it secured its very first MLS Cup on Sunday, then headlined the sports pages, websites, and airwaves across New England the following Monday.

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