Saturday, March 07, 2009

Twellman is this generation's Billy Gonsalves

Taylor Twellman is greatest footballer New England’s seen since Billy Gonsalves.

There, I said it. I understand that Gonsalves has been given the distinction of being “the Babe Ruth of American Soccer” by many soccer historians. He played in two World Cups, won eight Open Cup championships, and reportedly scored over 100 goals in his illustrious career.* He is a legend. So, yes, I understand that’s saying a lot.

(*Unfortunately, soccer stats weren't tracked as well during Gonsalves career as they are today. According to two sources, Gonsalves had close to 100 goals in eight seasons of his 25 seasons as a footballer. Sadly, we may never know how many more he scored.)

However, Twellman’s play over the course of his seven Revolution seasons is enough for me to designate him as the best soccer player New England’s seen since Gonsalves' retirement in 1952.
Sometimes, it takes years after the culmination of a career to fully appreciate a player’s legacy. Now, I am not in the business of writing premature obituaries. Despite the fact he doesn’t appear primed to register a single preseason minute anytime soon, I understand that he’s still on the active roster.

But in light of Twellman’s ongoing neck pain – which may or may not be symptom of post-concussion syndrome – you have to wonder whether the 2005 MLS MVP will ever be healthy again to play top flight soccer in the States.

It’s tough to say at this point. Twellman’s condition is being held under lock and key by the Revolution organization, and justifiably so. However, it has been reported that his most recent concussion, which occurred last August after a violent collision with Los Angeles goalkeeper Steve Cronin, was the fifth known concussion suffered during his career.

Five concussions in anyone’s life – athlete or otherwise – is a considerable toll to be taken on any person’s brain, nevermind one of this country’s most physical players.

And it’s because of that physical, not to mention exceptional, play that Taylor Twellman simply raked. In 171 regular season matches, he struck for 99 career goals – an incredible success rate for any center-forward, MLS or otherwise.

As a result, his club, a formerly hapless bunch, flourished. With Twellman up front, the Revolution never failed to reach the playoffs. They earned four Eastern Conference Championships, not to mention U.S. Open Cup (2007) and Super Liga (2008) Championships. His uncanny scoring knack almost single-handedly delivered his team to an MLS Cup Championship in ’07.

But perhaps more importantly, he gave New England soccer fans an identifiable face to associate the sport of soccer with. His image plastered on posters, travel mugs and magazines, he gave soccer-playing kids a local hero to look up to. Little leaguers had David Ortiz. The U-10s had Taylor Twellman.

On the pitch, he was rarely afforded the same superstar treatment by referees. He was often mercilessly shoved, kicked, and tackled as countless referees could only offer “play on” shouts. Undeterred, he played with wild abandonment of his own personal safety. He speared headfirst into goalkeepers. He cannonballed into seas of sharp elbows, hard shoulders, and crunching boot studs. And throughout it all, he remained fearless. He never backed down. His bruised and battered body committed itself to putting the ball in the ol’ onion bag by any means possible. But there was always a price to be paid.

He was stitched up, concussed, and bloodied many, many times and in that, there is a sad injustice. Despite his success, he never attained the attention poured out to his nearby sporting peers. He never acquired that marketable nickname so many Big Four athletes are doled out. His club was rarely discussed on sports radio. Sports pages devoted little more than three inches to his endeavors, and only on a semi-regular basis. Outside of the soccer realm, he was just another anonymous soccer player not named David Beckham.

Yet, American soccer fans know better. They know him as a supreme talent who just missed a trip Germany for the 2006 World Cup. Though he had to settle for the “alternate” designation, he’s still known as one of the best goalscorers MLS has ever seen. They know him as a guy who played hurt – and he was often hurt – and with heart. A guy who refused to give an inch in the box. A stubborn attacker. A guy who regularly created headaches for opposing defenders and goalkeepers.

And perhaps it is only fitting that should the circumstances force Twellman to call it a remarkable career that one of his final masterpieces exemplified the way he played the game.

The score was 0-0. The potent tandem of David Beckham and Landon Donovan looked keen to cash in. But Twellman would have none of it. Looking to redirect a Khano Smith cross from the left, Twellman launched headfirst into Steve Cronin’s path. The striker's forehead met the ball, and the keeper’s fists nearly simultaneously. Twellman crashed down hard. The crowd gasped in horror. The dazed striker needed to be picked back up. The ball needed to be picked out of the net. The crowd erupted.

Maybe I'm making too much of Twellman's present condition. I don't know. But what I do know is that it shouldn’t take retirement to fully appreciate the magnitude of Twellman’s career.

After all, he is this generation’s Billy Gonsalves.

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