Tuesday, November 20, 2007

An inside job: Revolution undermined by one of their own

It turns out that the fourth time wasn’t the charm, either.

After Sunday afternoon’s MLS Cup match between the New England Revolution and the Houston Dynamo, the Revolution failed once again to capture the Cup that has painfully eluded them for the fourth time. Only this time around, the local lads didn’t stand a chance even before the opening whistle.

This time, the Revolution was undone by something far more sinister. Something that required precise planning and impeccable execution. Something that was carefully coordinated, and masked under a veil of good intentions. In short, it was inside job.

Any hopes that New England would finally break its MLS Cup streak was dashed long before the club hit the tarmac at Reagan International Airport. It wasn’t DeWayne DeRosario or Joseph Ngwenya that did in the Revolution. They were only accessories to a larger crime. While it may have appeared that the villain was decked out in Creamsicle orange, the fact of the matter is that Steve Nicol is the actual culprit behind the Revolution’s fourth MLS Cup failure.

How? Rewind to early-October, when the Scotsman banished second-leading scorer Andy Dorman to the bench. Though the attacking midfielder, who piled up eight goals before the MLS All-Star match in July, had slumped during the summer, the attack still remained potent, despite Dorman’s struggles. Nevertheless, Nicol, in a very curious move, switched Steve Ralston from the right to the middle, inserted rookie Wells Thompson in Ralston’s old role, and relegated Dorman to the pine.

With Dorman dropped, the attack sputtered - badly. From October 6th onward, the Revolution became heavily dependent upon Taylor Twellman to put the ball in the back of the net. As a result, the offense became mind-numbingly predictable, as opponents began to isolate the Best XI striker by simply blanketing him with a crowd of defenders. Take away Michael Parkhurst’s 60-yard circus goal against Toronto, and the Revs only cracked two goals in a game once - October 13th - against hapless Columbus, who actually managed to claim victory that night.

Going into the playoffs, Nicol stuck to his sure-fire formula, and the attack looked flatter than it had all season. But luck was on New England’s side during the first three playoff matches. The Revolution beat a New York team that lay in shambles on a mere 1-0 aggregate, (the lone goal courtesy of Twellman) and instead of facing MLS MVP Luciano Emilio and DC United in the Eastern Conference Championship, it was the Chicago Fire, fresh off their 4-3 aggregate upset of DC, that came into Foxboro with nothing more than Cuauhtemoc Blanco to throw at them. Again, luck proved to be the Revolution’s mistress, as Twellman amazingly bicycle kicked the game-winner, sending New England back to their third consecutive MLS Cup appearance.

Despite the fact that the Revolution had only scored two goals – both from Twellman - in during the course of 270 minutes of playoff soccer, Nicol stuck to his guns, although it was evident that the Revolution attack had became one-dimensional since the lineup shuffle.

True to form, Nicol once again deployed the same decaffeinated lineup in DC for the MLS Cup. Though they took an early lead thanks to – who else? – Twellman, Houston smartly adjusted, and surrounded the striker with double and triple teams. Going into the second half with a 1-0 lead, Nicol hoped to keep Houston at bay by abandoning the attack and bunkering up in the back. But you cannot simply dance with the champ – you must knock him down.

Instead of going for the jugular and unleashing Dorman or rookie striker Adam Cristman as a substitute to keep the pressure on Houston, the gaffer opted for the conservative defensive shell that essentially provided an open invitation to the Dynamo to challenge his backs. Like the ill-fated snow owl in Dumb and Dumber, the Revolution was a vulnerable bird that Nicol felt required the utmost protection. But when Joseph Ngwenya uncorked the equalizer in the 61st minute, (sidenote: adding to the symbolism is that Jim Carrey sported a gaudy orange tuxedo when he unknowingly offed the owl), it hit the Revolution bird square in between its eyes, as the the creature quickly hit the ground and writhed in agony.

Presented with an even score, a stubborn Nicol remained steadfast, intent on playing for overtime instead of regulation. But the guillotine finally dropped on Nicol’s fail-safe plan when Dwayne DeRosario headed in the go-ahead tally in the 74th minute. With Twellman completely entrapped in a wall of orange, Nicol tried to counter by deploying Dorman late in the 78th minute. But it was a classic case of shutting the proverbial barn door after all of the horses had escaped, as the Revs were treated to yet another spectator’s view of an MLS Cup celebration.

Nicol’s supporters have often stated that the reason the Revolution has gotten to four MLS Cups is because of him. Yet, a growing contingent of detractors are countering that with each successive MLS championship failure, the Revs have made it to the finals in spite of Nicol; that a team comprised of five MLS all-stars (Twellman, Ralston, Shalrie Joseph, Michael Parkhurst and Matt Reis) should make the playoffs. It’s their manager that continues to undermine their efforts in championship play due to an ultra-conservative game plan that has failed each time.
In the wake of their fourth MLS Cup loss, many are calling for the Scotsman to be shown the door.

Given the Revolution’s successful regular season track record, it is unlikely that management will give into the cries for Nicol’s head. Even so, it may be time to shorten the leash tethered to Nicol’s neck. For anything less than an MLS Cup in 2008 should be viewed as a failure on the part of the front office to address this issue well in advance.

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