Cup role reversal benefits all involved

a true crossover personality -- and the face of SoCal soccer, the one on the captain's diminutive frame was bigger and heavier than most.

Finally reaching the mountain top meant that Jones would be free of such pressure and the Galaxy would no longer be the Buffalo Bills of soccer.

"Seven years of wanting and coming so close and being the bridesmaid for so long before finally being the bride," said Jones in the aftermath of that 1-0 victory over the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium.

The way things were going, you thought it'd continue for years. With a young gun up top like Ruiz, an up-and-coming enforcer in the back like Danny Califf and a bunch of players who played their role to perfection such as Simon Elliott, Ezra Hendrickson, Pete Vagenas and Sasha Victorine, it looked like a dynasty in the making. And with Sigi Schmid pulling the reigns from the sideline, they seemed to be in good hands for many years to come.

On the other hand, you had the Revolution.

Not to belittle the contributions of so many players who stepped up down the stretch of the regular season and during the playoffs for this club, but it was a team that relied heavily on two factors:

1. Taylor Twellman's ability to score goals

2. Adin Brown's shot-stopping

The matchup in 2002 wasn't David vs. Goliath by any means, but it also wasn't one that many pundits believed the Revolution could win -- even with home-field advantage. In the end, they were right, too. The Revs played hard for their then-interim head coach Steve Nicol, but the stronger team and more talented team prevailed on that day.

Since that sunny October afternoon in Foxborough, Mass., the franchises have gone in different directions.

Playoff run aside, Los Angeles finished with an even .500 record this past season. They also allowed one more goal than they scored. This came on the heels of two seasons that saw the side go a combined 20-21-19. Not exactly dynasty material. A bit of poor drafting (Memo Gonzalez), free-agent busts (Hong Myung-bo) and injuries (Califf in '04) have all played a role. Most of the aforementioned players from '02 found work elsewhere, and Schmid was unceremoniously fired and replaced by Steve Sampson.

Only the opening of The Home Depot Center could help outshine the turnover and turmoil that the Galaxy has experienced since winning their only MLS Cup.

Three years later, the cupboard is hardly bare in Los Angeles, though. They have the best player in the league in Landon Donovan, a budding star in Herculez Gomez, two of the best outside backs in MLS in Chris Albright and Todd Dunivant, and four of the team's main leaders from that '02 squad in Jones, Vagenas, Kevin Hartman and Tyrone Marshall.

The Galaxy just don't happen to be the powerhouse they were three seasons ago.

If there is a powerhouse and a dynasty-in-the-making of the two teams in this year's MLS Cup, it's the Eastern Conference champions.

Despite performing poorly during the regular season in both 2003 and 2004, Nicol's side always found their way to the conference championship. They peaked at the right time and got stronger each season. Since losing to Los Angeles in 2002, they've drafted two Rookie of the Year standouts in Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst, as well as a U.S. national team regular in Pat Noonan. They've only gotten better.

All the talent that Nicol, assistant coach Paul Mariner, the front-office staff and former employees Joe Cummings and John Murphy put together over the past three offseasons finally culminated in one of the best end-to-end performances MLS has ever seen. The Revs combined record in 2005 now stands at 19-8-8 when you count the regular season and playoffs.

They are now the ones that deserve "favorite" status coming into Sunday's match at Pizza Hut Park.

What also differs from the 2002 matchup is how this game will be perceived. In '02, it was not a game that anyone at MLS would have preferred. Despite the fact that not one team in the Eastern Conference finished with a record above .500 that season, there was a perception that the Chicago Fire were the sleeping giant of the group. Not only did they have a veteran team that won an MLS Cup and had been to two of the last four finals, they had star power on their side with Peter Nowak, Hristo Stoitchkov and World Cup hero DaMarcus Beasley. The Revs getting to the final was a boon for the league since it resulted in an unexpected sell-out at Gillette Stadium, but they also spoiled the party, so to speak, in the eyes of many league observers who wanted to see Los Angeles play Chicago.

The current Revs-Galaxy pairing is just what the doctor ordered, though. Nicol's side is the undisputed winner in the East, and has been since mid-April, while Los Angeles is not your ordinary No. 4 seed. Many will say between now and Sunday that it is "Landon Donovan versus the Revolution," but nothing could be further from the truth. Donovan being in this match seems to make anything possible, as playoff history has shown everyone in the league that his hot streaks are nearly impossible to contain.

In reality, this final pits two very multifaceted and talented teams that are both littered with players with international experience. Los Angeles simply underachieved in the regular season. That's what makes their inclusion in this match such a non-surprising fact. Once Donovan came back to the league in the spring, there were plenty of writers, announcers and fans that picked a New England-Los Angeles matchup for the final. It might not have looked possible at times during the season, but now that it is, it's not a mismatch or a game that is easy to predict a champion.

Something no one would have ever said that before the 2002 MLS Cup.

Marc Connolly is a freelance writer covering soccer for several publications and regularly writes for MLSnet.com. Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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