New England Revolution manager Steve Nicol sounded a warning for the rest of the Eastern Conference after seeing his side scrape into the playoffs in their final game of the season, vaulting over the Chicago Fire with a 2-1 victory on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.
Goals by Clint Dempsey and Steve Ralston were enough to put the Revolution into the playoffs at the expense of a Fire team who were badly outplayed on the evening by the home side.
"We're in [the playoffs]," said Nicol. "This is a whole new ball game. No team will be too keen on playing us in the playoffs. We won't make it easy for any team."
Nicol pointed to the Revolution's quick reply to Nate Jaqua's 56th-minute equalizer through Steve Ralston's seventh goal of the season two minutes later. Uruguayan midfielder Jose Cancela chipped the ball over the top for Ralston, who made no mistake as he met the ball with the inside of his right foot.
"The key for us was the second goal," said Nicol. "When you go ahead, you want to keep the pressure on the other team. To give up a goal so soon after we had scored the first, it wasn't very clever. We got it right back and we kept it tight."
Fire coach Dave Sarachan said his team started well, but then saw it all fall apart in the second half.
"I thought in the first half we had pretty good stretches where we kept the ball and other than the last five minutes, I thought that was the game plan," Sarachan said. "We didn't have a good start to the second half. We knew that they would make a push. We gave up the first goal but quickly came back for the equalizer. I felt that we were where we needed to be, and then we give away a bad foul and that leads to another goal. ... It's disappointing because I believed in this team and we just didn't get the job done today."
Nicol believed that the central defensive pairing of Avery John and Rusty Pierce played a crucial role in containing the dangerous Fire duo of Damani Ralph and Andy Herron. Jamaican international Ralph was noticeably off the pace, while Costa Rican international Herron looked considerably less dangerous after a pair of physical challenges he suffered in the opening minutes.
"I though the defense was rock solid," said Nicol. "We limited the Fire to scraps. Avery [John] and Rusty [Pierce] have been solid for us in the center of the defense, and they played well tonight."
Sarachan also pointed to the heavy load of his two strikers recently, who were two of four Fire players who were on national team duty over the past week.
"I think it was a factor. I thought about that going into this lineup and whether or not it made sense to use them," Sarachan said. "But talking to each of them they thought they had the energy to go and for the most part they did. But I think fatigue did play a factor in the second half especially."
The game-winning Ralston was thrilled with the prospects of another playoff run, although he admits that the late, dramatic entry into the playoffs is getting old.
"It feels great," said Ralston. "I just we could do it another way."
For Fire captain Chris Armas, it marked the first time he -- and the club -- have ever missed out on the MLS Cup Playoffs.
"We played 30 league games and lost 13, and that means we pretty much lost every other game. That's how we played this year -- up and down. It's disappointing because over the course of eight months you're working towards one goal and not knowing which team is going to come out and play on a given day, it's pretty frustrating. It's not for a lack of effort. Our guys work hard every day. But when it comes to concentration and little things that make differences in games, we let ourselves down," Armas said.
"I'm embarrassed because it's the first time we don't make the playoffs. The fans deserve better. We deserve better."
Kyle McCarthy is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Soccer or its clubs.