literally -- and tested the seams between the infield and the soccer pitch. They pressed the sand that covered the infield sprinkler hole. From afar, it was easy to read their uncomfortable body language. Clint Dempsey's body language said something else, of course, something like, "I've got a great idea for a goal celebration."
After about 10 minutes and a short discussion about how the lines and angles screwed up everyone's perspective and how the penalty spot was about two yards to the left of center, the team headed into the locker room. Except for two players: Michael Parkhurst and James Riley, the Revs' No. 1 and 2 draft picks respectively, both out of Wake Forest.
They stayed out on the field, discussing this and that. Maybe they were talking about the hotel, or about seeing the Washington Monument that afternoon. (All weekend, I felt like Clark Griswold. "Big Ben. Parliament." No matter where you go, the Washington Monument is there.) They pointed toward the corner flag over by home plate, and glanced up at the vertical RFK stands, which can seem to swallow the field on some days. They looked like two brothers chatting about nothing and everything, and Anspaugh would've shot it with a Hallmark Special filter of some sort, like you see on those late-night Skinimax flicks.
Rooks. Newbies. Plebes. These are their titles, technically. But based on their play so far, you'd be hard-pressed to call them novices. They have filled in two of the Revolution's biggest holes entering this season -- the center of the back line and whatever flank Steve Ralston was not on.
Playing at center back, Parkhurst has been nothing but steady. Sure, he had a tough first half in the opener at San Jose, letting Brian Ching get away from him, but he recovered nicely and has since been solid all around. He has speed and reads the game like a veteran. In a three-back system, he possesses the calm presence of a Frank Yallop, who once perfectly explained to me the defender's place in the universe: "At the end of the day, if no one says anything about you, you've done your job."
Well, since that tough first half in San Jose, Parkhurst's name has rarely been mentioned. He must be doing his job.
Riley's name, on the other hand, has been called over and over. Originally drafted as a left back, he has slotted onto the right flank, and had a hand in three of the Revolution's nine total goals this season. He's quick, can ping a cross-field ball with either peg, and on the field carries a quiet fearlessness that says he's unafraid to make his mark in this league.
Now, as the color commentator for the Revs, I've had the chance to watch these two for three games. I'm not ready yet to tab Parkhurst as the national team's future center back, as one Revs fan suggested in an e-mail. He has done well against the quick forwards, but Ching the bruiser ate him up, and today he has to go up against the biggest striker in the league, Chicago's Nate Jaqua.
And Riley, who reinforced his mental toughness working as repo man in college, must prove his physical toughness. He stands 5-foot-10 but only carries 150 pounds. Can he endure a full season in this punishing league, with all the travel?
Are they the last pieces to the New England championship puzzle? Perhaps. Today offers the best test of that theory, The Revs take their unprecedented undefeated record into Soldier Field against the suddenly hot Fire. Six months ago, if someone had told me that the Revs-Fire would ever be a battle for first place this season, I would've cut him off the ouzo. But the Fire are playing a tough, knockdown, drag-out brand of soccer. Lots of Route 1 has led to two grinding one-goal wins in a row.
This is the first time that the Revs' rookies, Parkhurst and Riley, will stand at the end of Route 1, playing on four days' rest, in front of the unforgiving Section 8 Fire fans. The real MLS life. This is another moment, something not out of an Anspaugh. More like Peckinpah. It's at moments like this that rookies are made or lost.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.