With his side's exit marking the end of Major League Soccer's brief representation in the 2006 CONCACAF Champions' Cup, New England Revolution head coach Steve Nicol is ready to turn his attention to the beginning of the new league season which, initially, means preparing for an MLS Cup Final rematch with the Los Angeles Galaxy on April 1.
However, in the aftermath of Carlos Hernandez's last-gasp free-kick winner for LD Alajuelense on Wednesday, Nicol admitted that he was disappointed that his team was not also preparing for a Champions' Cup semifinal clash against Club America of Mexico.
"We had the chances to win the tie over the two games," said Nicol on Friday. "In particular, we should have hit the net in Bermuda and that is what cost us in the second leg. Over the two legs I think we showed we were better than them without having our strongest side out there."
Nicol refused to blame the timing of the competition for his side's goalless showing from 180 minutes of soccer, instead focusing on the conditions that his side encountered: "impossible" field conditions and a ball that was lighter than those regularly used in MLS, which made maintenance of possession difficult.
Furthermore, Nicol added that he felt that his options on the bench were limited, though he conceded that his team tired towards the conclusion of the game.
"The other options on the bench were either guys who weren't 100 percent fit or ones who were very inexperienced," Nicol said. "We felt that, if we could get the ball and get it out of our own half, that we had the right men on the field."
Disruptions have blighted the Revolution's preseason so far, said Nicol. Injuries to regular starters such as Michael Parkhurst, Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston, who made a return to playing action in Alajuela, have been compounded by regular absences from the squad by the likes of Taylor Twellman and Clint Dempsey, who have commuted back and forth from international duty for the USA.
"It has been frustrating to never have the team we want together and that is likely to continue with another international game coming up (USA plays in Germany on March 22 while the Revs are in Costa Rica for another preseason camp)," said Nicol. "I expect to lose two or three players then as well. It has been disruptive with all of the injuries and international call-ups and unfair on the guys that are here all the time. We have had to overcome a lot of things." Despite the obstacles, Nicol has been pleased with the overall level his players have shown in the buildup to what they hope will be a season that has a happier ending than last year's. It also appears that the light at the end of the injury tunnel may be getting closer too. Marshall Leonard's return to fitness will give Nicol an offensive-minded alternative to Tony Lochhead on the left. Khano Smith, another left-sided player, hopes to return to full training at the end of the month after a knee injury.
On the other flank, the return of Ralston is a huge boost to the Revolution. The U.S. international, who is now the league's longest serving player following the retirement of Mark Chung, was a surprise starter on Wednesday. In the hour he played, he showed signs of the form that may yet help him force his way back into Bruce Arena's World Cup plans. For his coach, the pleasing thing was just to have the veteran back as an option.
"The main thing with Ralston was that he felt capable of starting. We felt it would give the team a boost to see someone with his experience out there," Nicol said. "We knew we wouldn't get 90 minutes out of him so we left it up to him to tell us when he had had enough. There was no reaction to the injury, he just came off because he was tired."
Describing his side as "anxious" to do well again this year, Nicol noted that he is continuing to explore options to improve his squad, but would comment no further on the immediate prospect of any new faces heading to Gillette Stadium, other than to say there are a "couple of things" he is currently looking at.
For the time being, however, his emphasis is on working with what he has and that will be the theme of the next three weeks, as the big league kickoff draws ever closer.
"We need to work on keeping the ball more," Nicol said. "Physically we are in good shape, and three more weeks will only improve that further."
Andrew Hush is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.