There is value in college-MLS scrimmages
As Pat Noonan jaws with University of Connecticut defender Julius James after yet another hard foul during a midweek "friendly" between the New England Revolution and one of the top collegiate programs in the country, one member of the Revs front office leans in and adds the understatement of the day.
"There's a bit of a history here."
At first glance, it's a meaningless scrimmage for the Revolution and an opportunity for a group of college players to get a taste of what the professional game is all about. But from the look of the match, it's hardly a kick-around for the MLS side, and it doesn't appear as though the UConn players will be lining up to pose for pictures with Taylor Twellman or any of the other big-name players who made cameos in this match.
No, not in this matchup. The same one that saw Rusty Pierce take a swing at a Huskies player four years ago in what elevated into a melee. And definitely the same one that saw both Shalrie Joseph break his nose and Twellman get stepped on in last spring's match. Add in that early spring day when American University's Freddy Llerena got his leg broken on a hard tackle by D.C. United's Hristo Stoitchkov, and there's hardly been many warm-and-fuzzy stories to tell about the pros granting the college kids the chance to spar with them for 90 minutes.
So the question to Revolution head coach Steve Nicol is an obvious one: Why even play a college team?
After watching a group of mostly his second-team players to go along with Twellman and Noonan squander a one-goal lead and lose 2-1 to the Huskies on a cold and windy Thursday afternoon at Gillette Stadium's practice field that saw both teams get a little testy, Nicol said the answer is simple.
"We need games," he said. "This is the first game our reserves team has had together. Obviously, UConn has a great reputation as far as colleges go, so it's a great game. It's ideal for us and its ideal for them. It gets people games."
In this particular case, it allowed Nicol to play several of his players who have started for him in the past and are fighting to make the current starting XI, including Avery John and Marshall Leonard, who both played in the back of the 3-5-2 system that the reserves employed. It also gave him a chance to see Brazilian newcomer Cassio over a 90-minute match, as well.
Playing as the team's left-sided midfielder, Cassio provided one of the only highlights of the day for the Revs when he whipped in a perfectly-weighted ball that found the head of Twellman for the side's only goal of the afternoon.
"He crosses a good ball," said Nicol. "He has experience and a good touch. These are things we need."
Speaking of things the Revs need, that's yet another reason an MLS side would take on a college team. In a league where each club scrambles at the end of their season to get out and scout college players, getting the chance to see several prospects up close and personal is an invaluable one, especially when it comes against a program that has produced several professionals players such as Damani Ralph, Shavar Thomas and Bobby Rhine in recent memory.
This time around, Nicol and assistant coaches Paul Mariner and David Vanole surely took a long look at left back Willis Forko, who will enter his senior season this fall as one of the top defenders in the nation, as well as the freshman center back duo of James and Karl Schilling, who has seen time with the U.S. under-18 and under-20 national teams over the past year.
"(Nicol) probably had his eye on a few of our guys," said UConn head coach Ray Reid. "And that's a good thing because otherwise they don't have as much to gain from this type of game as we do. I'm sure a lot of his players probably didn't want to play a college team on a Thursday. At the same time, we have one of the more talented teams in the country and we put a lot of emphasis on training in the offseason, so we knew that we could get out here and at least run with them."
Run with them they did. After Twellman scored in the 33rd minute of the first half, UConn even it up early in the second half on a strike by Chuckwudi Chijindu in the 62nd minute. After several minutes of hard fouls and a bit of talking going back and forth between the teams, Nicol saw one of his own draft picks score the game-winner for UConn.
Easton Wilson, a wide midfielder who was selected in the third round (33rd overall) in the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft by the Revolution and will be joining the team in May after he finishes his degree in chemistry, got behind the defense on a nice one-two combination with Chijindu and served the ball across the six-yard box. The pass ricocheted off John and into the open net for an own goal in the 80th minute.
While many of the Revolution players were far from pleased when the final whistle blew, rookie defender Jeff Larentowicz could relate to the UConn players and their excitement, being that he just finished his senior campaign at Brown University in nearby Providence, R.I.
"It's a big deal when you're in college to play in a game like this," he said. "When I was a sophomore at Brown, I remember stepping onto the field against the Revs and thinking, Wow, that's Joe-Max Moore. It was a bit of a challenge for us that day. That's why I give UConn a lot of credit. They've always been one of the better college teams around, but today they were simply a tough opponent for us, whether they were a college team or a professional team."
Larentowicz, who was a central defender in college and played at right back on Thursday, said that the Revs came into the match needing to work on being organized and keeping their shape in the 3-5-2. But by the end of the afternoon, Nicol noticed a few other flaws from his reserves.
"Today we saw that we need to be a bit fitter and a bit stronger," he said. "When you get tired, you have to rely on your game."
While the Revs have the weekend off and do not return to action until April 23 when they face MLS Cup champion D.C. United, UConn moves down the coast to take on the MetroStars on Tuesday.
And if the play of the Huskies proved anything on Thursday, it'll hardly be a walk in the park for Bob Bradley's reserves next week.
Maybe there is a good reason these matches still take place.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.