Tuesday, November 13, 2007

It's not 2006 anymore

For many, the image of Jay Heaps biting his jersey in heartbreak and disbelief after he missed the deciding penalty kick in last year's MLS Cup is a microcosm of the frustration felt by Revolution players, coaches and fans after three runner-up finishes in MLS Cup. After each attempt, Revolution players slowly walked off the pitch only to watch others hoist the shiny silver trophy they’ve come painfully close to capturing.

Needless to say, after last year’s painful defeat, the 2007 season could not come soon enough. To dream again. To start anew. To have another crack at the most prized possession in MLS after enduring the heartache of narrow defeat time and time again.

Come Sunday, they'll get that chance - against a familiar opponent, no less.

After the Houston Dynamo thoroughly disposed of the Kansas City Wizards 2-0 during Saturday night's Western Conference Championship, the stars realigned for an MLS Cup encore between the two squads that had to be separated by penalty kicks when it was all said and done in 2006.

Revolution fans need not rehash the events of what looked like the promise of hoisting the MLS Cup in New England. In fact, for a whopping 71 seconds, it seemed like sweet justice would finally bestow itself upon the local eleven. With the score knotted at 0-0 in the 113th minute, Taylor Twellman broke through box and lodged the ball into the back of the net for what appeared to be the clincher. No more frustration. No more bridesmaids. No more barren trophy display. No more teasing from rival club supporters. Seventeen minutes to go, and victory was surely theirs.

To quote the illustrious Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend...”

It's difficult to describe the emotions felt during the ensuing 71 seconds. The timespan was so brief that before it could be truly grasped and appreciated, Brian Ching diabolically disrupted the joy with a quick header that evaded the grasp of Matt Reis in the 114th.




The lead so precariously held for one hot minute and eleven seconds was painfully wrought right out of the Revolution’s hands. Imagine making out with Jessica Alba, all the while thinking about what your friends will think once they find out (among other things, obviously). As you’re about to accompany her to the luxurious penthouse suite upstairs at the Luxor, you cannot believe your luck. This could actually happen. Heading up the stairs few minutes later, her boyfriend, who just so happens to be a seven-time Mr. Olympia bodybuilder, finds you trying to get with his main squeeze. After trading some diplotmatic words to calm down the 'roid raged beau, he punches you with all of his HGH-enhanced might right in the kisser. Goodbye, dignity. Goodbye, top front teeth. Goodbye, consciousness. Thump. That's what it felt like after Heaps missed the penalty.

But this year is different, for more reasons than just the Gregorian calendar saying so. This year, the Revs have already won a championship - the US Open Cup. This time around, the spoils can be realistically grasped. After a total of four oh-so-close finishes in MLS Cup (2002, 2005, 2006) and US Open Cup (2001), the Revolution finally found its playoff mojo and won a major piece of hardware when they beat FC Dallas 3-2 in Frisco, TX - the very site of their last year’s devastating MLS Cup loss. Can anyone say, "Exercised demons"?

Yes, this is a new season - a new postseason, in fact. While some of the pieces have changed (ok, only a few), the crucial ones remain. Taylor Twellman is still one of the league's premier strikers, and when paired with Pat Noonan, both are a force to be reckoned with. Steve Ralston, whether deployed in the middle rather than the right, is as potent a playmaker as he’s ever been during his astonishing 12-year career. Matt Reis - is there another keeper you'd rather have in a match like this?

Besides, who do you think wants this match more? There's certainly much more at stake for New England. The Dynamo, formerly the old San Jose Earthquakes (not to be confused with the new San Jose Earthquakes, coming to an MLS venue near you starting in 2008), have raised the MLS Cup trophy three times (twice in San Jose, once in Houston) since 2001. It's old hat to them. If Houston loses, heck, they've still got three in the trophy display to smile about. New England? None. Zero. Zilch. Goose egg. If Nicol’s boys were hungry for it last year, they're starving and salivating for it this year.

Thankfully, this isn't 2006 anymore. This isn't the same championship-hexed squad of yesteryear. RFK Stadium won't be brimming with Houston supporters like it was last year in Frisco, TX, which created a de facto home game for Dominic Kinnear’s squad. Last year, Twellman (hernia/hip), Pat Noonan (sports hernia), and the Euro-bound Clint Dempsey (right ankle sprain), the club’s top goal scorers, were all limited due to injury. This year, Twellman and Noonan are both healthy, and hellbent on grabbing the hardware after time expires on Sunday’s ultimate showdown. On defense, the Revs haven’t allowed a goal in all 270 minutes of postseason action - the only MLS team to do so this postseason. Despite the fact that many familiar faces remain on both the Dynamo and Revolution sides, don't be fooled - this MLS Cup affair will transpire much differently than last year.

Last year's defeat left an incredibly bitter in the taste in the mouth of many players that has noticeably stuck with them throughout this season. This is not just victory for New England - it's revenge. Vindication. The MLS version of the Buffalo Bills, this team is not. Think about it. This team isn't just shooting for an MLS Cup - they’re also shooting for the illustrious double in the process, a feat only achieved by two other teams (DC United and Chicago Fire).

In short, this isn't 2006.

This is now.

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