The headlines surrounding the New England Revolution's 2007 season will probably focus on the team's fourth MLS Cup defeat in six years. But those headlines gloss over a championship season filled with more success than failure.
It's easy to latch onto the familiar theme. Signature losses have dominated the Revolution's history for the past six seasons. From Carlos Ruiz's overtime strike in 2002 through Dwayne De Rosario's header to seal Houston's second consecutive title, regular season success turns into postseason distress at every turn in New England.
This time was supposed to be different for the Revolution. Burgeoning confidence from the team's first title in the U.S. Open Cup sparked the team to its third consecutive MLS Cup Final and led to a first-half display that saw New England create chances and enter halftime with a lead through Taylor Twellman's header.
Twellman's goal represented the first goal the Revs scored in regulation time in MLS Cup and signified the team could shake its championship game misery.
"We played some great football," Revolution head coach Steve Nicol said. "We went into the locker room with the lead and we should have been well clear. We got ourselves into a position to win."
As it did in the three previous instances, the position to win didn't turn into MLS Cup glory.
"We played better in this one," Revolution defender Michael Parkhurst said. "But it doesn't make the loss any better. Words can't describe the feeling of losing again. It's frustrating. You think, 'Is it going to happen for us?' We felt confident. For some reason, it wasn't meant to be."
But there's more to the 2007 campaign than that MLS Cup loss. If you ask Nicol about his club's season, he'd say that it ended just like it started.
"The first game and the last game were mirror images of each other," Nicol said. "We lost the first game in Chicago, but we outplayed them. It was the same thing in the final. We just didn't get the result."
The season-opening loss in Chicago sparked a seven-match unbeaten run (5-0-2), one that would stand up as the team's best run of the season.
"If not for the points alone, it got us excited for the season," Parkhurst said. "It's a fresh start for us. You don't want to start off poorly and have guys pointing fingers."
No wagging fingers were required as New England led the league at the All-Star break. Nicol coached the MLS All-Stars against Celtic FC and included Parkhurst, Shalrie Joseph and Matt Reis in his side.
"We had stretches where we didn't play that well and the results didn't reflect that," Ralston said. "We won three games in a row once all season. We'd like a better stretch. We never really got to that point this season."
After the All-Star break, D.C. United caught fire in August and September and New England struggled to keep pace despite six wins in that same period (6-3-1). United's surge dumped the Revs into the runner-up spot where they completed the season.
Nicol said fixture congestion affected his team's form during that portion of the campaign and noted any team would struggle to deal with the amount of games his side played during the summer months.
U.S. Open Cup success added three matches to the schedule as New England overcame the Rochester Raging Rhinos (USL-1), Harrisburg City Islanders (USL-2), and Carolina Railhawks (USL-1) during those months to set up the team's fifth chance at a title.
And for the first time, New England would claim the crown.
Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman each tallied and Wells Thompson scored the game winner in the 57th minute as the Revs defeated FC Dallas 3-2 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas on Oct. 3 to claim the club's first-ever major trophy.
While the Revs couldn't lift MLS Cup, Parkhurst said the Open Cup crown gave his team something to take away from the season.
"It was very special for us," Parkhurst said. "We knew what it meant to the club. We've been fighting for a trophy for a long time. We put in our starters in every game. We wanted to win it and win MLS Cup this year."
The victory initiated a subtle shift in how the team approached the rest of the season. Changes occurred in midfield and defense, shaking up a team that prides itself on consistency.
The defensive core of the team, the rock-solid foundation upon which the Revolution built their success, started to crumble as the season came to a close. In the three regular season games after the Open Cup triumph, the team shipped seven goals.
"It's kind of strange," Parkhurst said. "We were pretty consistent for most of the season. There were a few games against Kansas City (a 3-3 draw) and Houston (also a 3-3 draw) at home where we let up a few goals, but that was it. Toward the end of the year, we gave up a lot of goals. It was weird. A lot of unlucky bounces and freaky things happened to us at the same time."
Part of the defensive struggles occurred farther up the field as the midfield struggled to keep possession of the ball. Most of the blame fell at the feet of Andy Dorman, as his slashing style doesn't lend itself to the positional discipline required to maintain possession in the Revolution's system. The Englishman had started 61 consecutive games in the center of midfield before being benched for Thompson on Oct. 6 after his stellar, All-Star worthy early season form (seven goals) tapered away.
"When Andy's producing the goals, he's got to play," Nicol said. "If that's not happening and he's getting dragged out of position, then that's not working anymore and we need to make a change."
Nicol slid Steve Ralston into Dorman's spot to rectify the problem.
"I've been moved around all over the place," Ralston said. "I've played some right midfield, some left midfield, some in the center, and some in the back. It took a while for me to get used to it, but I'm willing to do it for the team."
The change didn't pay immediate dividends in midfield or defense, as the Revolution stumbled into the playoffs (0-2-1 after the Open Cup final). But Parkhurst said his side used its experience to kick into gear for the playoffs.
"We were able to turn it around late in the year," Parkhurst said. "We knew we'd need some shutouts in the postseason."
The defense pitched three of them in dismissing New York and Chicago from the playoffs with two Twellman goals to set up more MLS Cup heartache.
"There were so many high points this season that it's a shame it ended the way it ended," Parkhurst said.
Ralston pointed to another MLS Cup Final appearance and the Open Cup final triumph as reasons to look back at this season fondly.
"The wounds are still fresh," Ralston said. "But we've made it to MLS Cup three years in a row. We can take pride in that."
Some pundits have indicated that they don't feel New England can ever get over the hump, pointing to this MLS Cup Final defeat as proof that the Revs can't seal the deal. Ralston dismisses those claims and suggests this latest setback may spur his team on even more.
"I think it makes us stronger," Ralston said. "People talk about how we can't win the big game. But we've won big games. We've been in the Eastern Conference final for the past six years. Why can't we get there and do this again and win it this time?
"We're right there on the cusp," he continued. "Maybe we need an extra piece to the puzzle. That's up to the coaches."
This offseason will see some changes to the Revolution side. San Jose plucked James Riley off the substitutes' bench to tear away some of the defensive depth. Nicol released former starter Marshall Leonard after he failed to recover his form after a serious Achilles injury. Avery John is out of contract, though Nicol said the team wanted to retain him if possible.
Dorman won't return either after he rejected the team's contract offer.
"We offered him a good contract and he turned it down," Nicol said. "He wants to go home to England. He's done a great job for us over the years. We wish him well."
Nicol and assistant Paul Mariner traveled to Argentina for two weeks to scour the country for potential roster additions.
"You're constantly looking for better than what you've got," Nicol said. "We want more goals. We want more possession. We want more defense. We want everything. It's a process of going through players and weighing ability, personality and finances. There are a lot of things that need to work out."
If the team can't find anyone in South America, Ralston points out that Nicol and Mariner have a good record of uncovering contributors on draft day. Thompson and Adam Cristman joined the team through the draft this season, adding depth and starting matches at points this season.
"We've had the same core of guys for a long time," Ralston said. "The coaches have done a great job in the draft. We find guys and fit them into the system."
Parkhurst said that no matter who Nicol and Mariner unearth to supplement the squad, he wants his team maintain the core that has experienced so much success over the past six years.
"Hopefully, we can keep the chemistry together," Parkhurst said. "We have a lot of fun playing for each other."
Kyle McCarthy is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.