As New England Revolution boss Steve Nicol has prepared his team for this Saturday's season opener, he's had one simple message: Forget about last year. Nicol's side kicks off the regular season on Saturday against defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy in what is sure to be an emotional occasion at The Home Depot Center.
The celebration of the Galaxy's second MLS Cup triumph, which will be marked by the presentation of championship rings to its players, will be overshadowed by a real sadness and sense of loss for the California club, as it goes into the new season without its president and general manager, Doug Hamilton, who died so suddenly and tragically in March.
With everything that will be going on around them on Saturday and in the coming weeks, Nicol is keen to ensure his players do not see their role in events as being merely incidental. The Revs will be part of a different kind of event next weekend as the opponent of the New York Red Bulls in their home opener, with all the fanfare that is likely to entail. Next comes a tough test at Kansas City, with its mouthwatering forward line of Josh Wolff and Eddie Johnson.
Despite the tough schedule, Nicol has no secret plans or aims concerning what he wants from this trio of tests.
"We want to win them. It's really simple. We want to start out strong, be solid, so it's probably those three in that order," Nicol said this week. "We know (we'll be on the road) before we start. It would be easy to make that an excuse but we can't do that. We have to show the other team, our fans and ourselves that, wherever we play, we can get the job done."
Nicol will be pleased to have Matt Reis fit and in goal against his former club, after the Revs' No. 1 gave his side a scare by limping off in a recent preseason game in Costa Rica. However, Reis' right hamstring has responded well to treatment and, barring any recurrence of the injury, he will start.
Ahead of Reis, in the continued absence of Michael Parkhurst, who did return to training this week but is still a couple of weeks away from match fitness, Daniel Hernandez will continue to play in central defense and, if the look being presented this week in practice was anything to go by, is likely to be flanked by Jay Heaps and James Riley.
In midfield, Shalrie Joseph will be partnered in the center by Andy Dorman, whose last minute goal stole a 1-1 tie for the Revs in Carson on July 4 last year. Captain Joe Franchino will play wide on the left, while Steve Ralston will slot in on the right. His return from a strained quadriceps, along with that of Pat Noonan, who has recovered from a hamstring problem and will rotate with Clint Dempsey in support of Taylor Twellman, is a huge boost to the Revs.
"It's huge. I think any team in the league would want Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston in their starting lineup -- we certainly want them," Nicol said. "They've got a couple of games behind them. I think it should be enough, hopefully it will be."
Last season, just five goals were scored in five hours of play in the three games between the sides. The omens for Saturday night do not suggest a feast of goals either, with both sides feeling their way after a long preseason that saw each fail to progress beyond the quarterfinals in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup.
"It's more about us but obviously we need to be in tune with what they might do. I don't expect them to be playing a whole new way so we do have some idea of what they might put in front of us," said Nicol, who preached the importance of his side maintaining possession on the large playing area at The Home Depot Center.
"It's important that we keep the ball. When you're playing on a big field you have to let the ball do the running rather than us because that's what will take it out of us. The more we possess the ball, the more running the opposition is doing. On that field, keeping the ball is key, as it always is, but especially there."
Andrew Hush is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.