MLS fans who are familiar with the playing career of New England Revolution manager Steve Nicol understand his policy of keeping the ship tight at the back and going forward when necessary rather than through any design.
For the two and a half years under Nicol's regime, the Revolution have mostly functioned under that guise as they have achieved unparalleled success for the franchise.
However, at some points earlier in the season, the defensive solidity had deserted the Revs.
Late goals, most notable in matches against D.C. United and San Jose where the Revolution gave up late goals to concede results that looked comfortably in the bag, have ravaged a Revolution backline that spent half the year adjusting to the loss of Carlos Llamosa prior to finding an adequate replacement.
Midseason signing Avery John has mostly shined for Nicol's side, cementing his place as one of the two key central defenders. The Trinidad international is partnered by Rusty Pierce, who has shrugged off injury to return to fine form. The duo created a strong partnership in central defense that has helped to solidify a rotating backline due to injuries and loss of form.
"I feel that the back four has really tightened up [in the latter part of the season]," said Pierce. "We are all on the same page. We're doing better."
Now facing a task of having to shut down the threat presented by Columbus Crew attackers Edson Buddle, Jeff Cunningham and Kyle Martino, the central pair will once again certainly be examined. But on the plus side, the Revolution really haven't faced the Crew since the back line rounded into form, the last meeting between the clubs coming on Aug. 7.
The physical nature of John and Pierce has unsettled opposing forwards in past weeks. Against Chicago in the must-win season finale, the duo silenced Damani Ralph and Andy Herron, who had hit for four goals in his past two matches.
"I don't know anyone who likes tough tackles," said Pierce. "Herron was getting in his fair share. To be fair, he was working hard and he kept at it."
Revolution midfielder Steve Ralston noted that his side admirably protected a lead for 32 minutes to ensure the Revolution's third consecutive playoff bow.
"We were on a high after the first goal," said Ralston. "I was worried how we'd react to the second goal. We had quite a few games where we had the lead and we gave it up."
Nicol was quite pleased with his central duo after the performance.
"I thought the defense was rock solid," said Nicol. "We really limited them to scraps. I don't really recall a chance they had when you're thinking, 'He should have scored.' Obviously, that's pleasing. Avery [John] and Rusty [Pierce] have been solid for us and they were extremely good."
Kyle McCarthy is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Soccer or its clubs.