Thursday, August 05, 2010

SuperLiga to the rescue

(Photo: Chris Aduama)

Steve Nicol probably isn't the biggest fan SuperLiga. You can sense it in his post-match pressers.* There are probably a bajillion different things he'd rather have his team doing on a Wednesday night. Volunteering at the animal shelter. Bowling for charity. Throwing Silly Bandz parties. Pretty much anything that does not involve his team getting subjected to vicious slide tackles and ninety minutes in the thick August humidity without league points at stake.

(*That's not to say that Nicol isn't happy that his team's currently on a bit of an unbeaten streak. I'm sure he's beyond pleased about it. But you could tell that after Marko Perovic and Kevin Alston each picked up injuries during last night's game, Nicol wasn't exactly bonkers about this tournament.)

But as much as the gaffer may not give a googly-moogly about these extra-MLS matchups, the tournament has obviously benfitted his team tremendously over the past month.

You could say that the Revs rebirth started before SuperLiga. In fact, you could say it began on July 10th, when they shocked the Galaxy 2-0. Granted, Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez both missed the match, but the heart of the matter is that the Revs beat the best team in league in convincing fashion.

After the match, Darrius Barnes talked about carrying the momentum into SuperLiga and really making a run in the tourney. Winning was important, no matter what the forum. The team's victories up until that point could be counted on one hand. A win, nevermind a series of wins, would mean the world to this group of hard luck lads.

So that's what they did. They followed up that victory with a 1-0 win against Pumas, a game which featured one of the sloppiest first halfs played by the Revs this season. Yet, somehow, Zack Schilawski managed to get a hold of a goal in the 18th minute, and Revs got themselves together in the second frame to hold off a charging Pumas for the remainder.

And their ferocious form continued against the Fire. They grinded out another 1-0 victory thanks to Marko Perovic's late-match blast and solid defending from the Tierney-Barnes-Osei-Alston back four. It wasn't pretty. Thankfully, style points weren't factored.

Days later, the Revs picked up their third straight 1-0 result against the alliteratively-named Monarcas Morelia, this time with Sinovic at left back, and Shalrie and Sainey on the bench to preserve their status (both received yellows in the Pumas match) for the semifinal. You may remember that Steve Ralston was supposed to play his final match that night, but due to some unforseen circumstances*, never appeared on the pitch to help his team out. Nevertheless, Steve Nicol pulled a rabbit out of his hat and a spot in the semifinal was secured.

(*According to a few people I talked to familiar with the situation, the appearance was scrubbed after some insurance issues -Rally had an offer in hand to coach in H-Town - surfaced. Not to lay the blame on anyone/any entity, but these are the times when a little forethought could have gone a long way. The fact that an MLS legend couldn't even stop onto the pitch for a final hurrah due to legalities is a farce of the highest order. Having said that - Steve Ralston Testimonial, anyone?)

It was all going so well. A few players probably wished that these were league games. Conveniently, a league game presented itself in Philly over the weekend, where the local lads resumed their league form by promptly conceding the first goal of the game, courtesy of Sebastien Le Toux. It looked like the old Revs were back until Perovic's dead ball brilliance emerged in with twenty minutes to go.

Last night, the first half featured a disheveled effort. To add to their woes, Puebla savagely assaulted Nyassi, Joseph, and Mansally, curiously without reprimand. Instead of retaliating, Mansally had the match of his season, as he found space often and regularly threatened in the second half, with his 56th minute goal giving the home crowd hope of another SuperLiga final.

That hope, of course, was rudely interrupted two minutes later when Puebla equalized despite a disputed handball seen by everyone but the referee. The score stayed one-all before penalties were employed to determine the winner.

The Revs converted their penalties and Reis made a heady save on a low shot from Edgar Lugo, and all of sudden, it was back to the Super Liga Final.

A month ago, this team had just had their collective tails handed to them by Real Salt Lake. It's one thing to lose one or two-nil. Five-nil is comprehensive humiliation. It's a Dustin Diamond homemade video. It's the kind of stuff that makes you wish you could ask for a do-over.

But, the Revs didn't plan on getting a time machine to fix it. Instead, they looked ahead and defeated a sleeping giant, then paraded their newfound confidence in a tournament they won only two years ago. Instead of playing tentatively, they've picked their heads up and battled through some fierce competition.

Look, let's not kid ourselves: the playoff ship left port a long time ago. This is a team that sports a 4-9-3 record and currently hovers perilously close to the Eastern Conference cellar. The likelihood that it will somehow find maximum points from now until November and magically maneuver itself into the postseason is My Little Pony stuff.

That being said, there are a slew of games that still remain. How this team performs down the stretch will tell us how hungry they are to forget the failures of the season's first half. How ready they are to show us it a complete aberration. It will tell us what this team, despite the injuries, hard luck, and the multi-goal massacres, is really made of going into next season.

There's no doubt SuperLiga has recharged this club. Yeah, they're not league games, but the tournament has proven to be something far, far more important. It's become an oasis. A place where the losses don't sting as much. Figuratively, of course. A place where the long-lost chemistry has finally been located. An opportunity to breed confidence, a trait that this club had sorely lacked during the spring and early summer.

Steve Nicol may not like SuperLiga. But without it, it's fair to say that his club could have been in far worse shape without it.

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