Connolly: Confident Revs set for Cup
It is quite a loose bunch, this New England Revolution side.
Minutes after New England outlasted Chicago 1-0 in the Eastern Conference Championship, a group of players that included Jay Heaps, Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman emerged from the adjoining lounge inside the team's locker room. Huge smiles were plastered on their faces.
However, they were seemingly just as giddy about how their respective fantasy football teams were progressing during the afternoon after a quick check on the computer as they were about the team's berth in next weekend's MLS Cup.
"And I still have (Clinton) Portis going tonight," said one of them, alluding to the Washington Redskins running back.
That sort of talk is par for the course with these Revs, though.
For a team that has been in first place for the last eight months, it's not as though they are surprised that they will be the ones representing the Eastern Conference against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday in MLS Cup 2005. It's almost like they expected it.
That sort of confidence and level-headed drive comes directly from coaches Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner and their "never get too high or too low" mantra, and is exactly the type of attitude that has allowed this team to put the dagger in teams late in matches.
New England has scored seven game-winning goals and four game-tying goals from the 76th minute on, which is astounding. It's why no one on this team seemed to blink an eye when they found themselves down two goals on aggregate against the MetroStars on Oct. 29, and why those same players didn't seem to realize just what they had pulled off afterwards.
That doesn't mean that this group of Revolution players is a bunch of robots, either. They were ecstatic after the match -- Matt Reis sprayed everyone in sight with champagne and bottles of Bud Light were passed around in celebration -- but it also seemed to be a team that was equally relieved to have lived up to their top-seed billing as one that is now 90 minutes away from hoisting the franchise's first Alan I. Rothenberg trophy.
"This was our goal all year long," said defender Joe Franchino, who will be playing his former team once again in an MLS Cup, just as he did in 2002. "We've been to four conference finals in a row and we've been to the final. But our ultimate goal is to win the Cup title. And we're feeling pretty confident right now."
That message was echoed by the simple words written on the team's board in the locker room: Congratulations -- one more to go.
The veterans that remain from that 2002 side -- Franchino, Heaps, Daniel Hernandez, Steve Ralston and Twellman -- can appreciate the current team's accomplishments more than anyone. They know what it's like to have to sneak into the playoffs on the last day of the season and how difficult it is to play in conference finals on the road as the underdog. Getting the chance to be the top dogs and enjoy home-field advantage was a welcomed change this fall.
"It's satisfying for us that we didn't have to make a run to be here," said Heaps. "We've been strong all year. Now it's our job to finish it off."
Finishing it off will not be easy.
On paper, this MLS Cup Final matches a No. 1 seed from the much-stronger Eastern Conference against a No. 4 seed from the West. One team set a team record with an impressive 17-7-8 record, while the other underachieved by finishing with a .500 mark (13-13-6) and was scored upon more times (45) than it scored (44). It seems like a mismatch at first glance.
Of course, the Los Angeles Galaxy are hardly a plucky group of upstarts who rode a wave of magic to get to Frisco. There are too many battle-hardened veterans like Chris Albright, Kevin Hartman, Cobi Jones, Tyrone Marshall and Pete Vagenas to ever say that. There's also the ultimate X-factor in the form of Landon Donovan, who is generally regarded as the league's best player and most dangerous playoff scorer in league history.
The Revolution players know very well that Donovan and Co. are not your average No. 4 seed. It's much like when the Los Angeles Lakers opened the 2002-2003 playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the West, yet were a team that no one wanted to play because they had the sport's best players in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Had the Galaxy not lost to the Earthquakes on the final game of the regular season, San Jose probably would've been much better off. Rather than have to face the Galaxy in a two-game series with the monumental challenge of shutting down Donovan for 180 minutes, it would have been less daunting to do it in a one-off at Spartan Stadium.
Now that the Galaxy have momentum on their side and Donovan is playing his best soccer (three goals and an assist in three playoff matches), it's not an easy matchup for the Revolution.
"I look forward to the challenge," said Franchino. "Landon is probably one of the best players in America right now, and Cobi Jones for all he's done for soccer in America and how he played last night, it'll be a huge challenge for us. I'm looking forward to it."
After losing to the Revolution, Chicago Fire midfielder Jesse Marsch seemed to give the edge to the Galaxy when talking about next week's match.
"The best player in MLS [Donovan] against New England," he said. "Landon is very hard to deal with, especially on a big field. He is going to find space on that field."
Landon versus New England is a matchup all to its own. But looking ahead, one of the other important matchups will be along whatever flank rookie James Riley starts on for the Revolution. Against Chicago, the Wake Forest product started on the right side of the midfield and was matched up against Ivan Guerrero, who didn't have one of his best games for the Fire. Steve Ralston moved to the left flank to accompany the change brought on by injuries to both Marshall Leonard (hamstring) and Khano Smith (bruised knee) during the second match of the Eastern Conference Semifinal Series against the MetroStars.
Against Los Angeles, he could find himself playing against either Jones or Ned Grabavoy, depending on what both coaches decide since both veterans -- Jones and Ralston -- are versatile enough to play on either side. Riley fought off a shaky first half against Chicago and was an instrumental part of the team's defensive effort during the second half as the Revs held onto their one-goal lead.
"My goal was just to play simple and defend more than attack," said Riley. "I couldn't sleep very well last night, but once I got into the game I treated it like any other game. If given the chance, I'll do the same thing against L.A. and try to treat it like just a regular game."
As loose as this Revs side seems to be, they'll likely do the same.
Marc Connolly is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This sotry was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.