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A Beaten Path?

Revolution's march to MLS title game mirrors the Galaxy's run of 1999

October 18, 2002|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

The story goes something like this: Team struggles out of the gate, coach gets run out of town, team responds, qualifies for a playoff spot and makes an improbable run to Major League Soccer's championship game under the new taskmaster, who is named the league's coach of the year.

Sound familiar?

Sure, the Galaxy wrote that script three years ago, when Sigi Schmid replaced Octavio Zambrano early in the 1999 season and steered the Galaxy to the MLS Cup title match.

But now New England has also followed the story line. The Revolution, under interim coach Steve Nicol, staged one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in league history and will meet its role model Sunday at Gillette Stadium for the championship.

"There's some similarities there, in terms of Stevie taking over during the season and then being named coach of the year," Schmid said of Nicol, who was feted by MLS on Wednesday. "If [the similarities] carry all the way through, that will be great."

Meaning the Revolution should lose the title game, just as the Galaxy did MLS Cup '99?

"Hey, if there's going to be similarities, then let's take it all the way," Schmid said with a laugh.

After all, a Revolution defeat this year would mean that the perpetually runner-up Galaxy, which is 0-3 in league championship matches, would finally have its title and could quiet talk that it is MLS' equivalent of the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings.

"The past is the past," Schmid said. "All we can do is alter the future."

The Revolution, meanwhile, changed its fortunes when it fired third-year coach Fernando Clavijo on May 23 and replaced him with Nicol, a first-year assistant.

New England, which was foundering at 2-4-1 when Clavijo was shown the door, responded immediately.

A day after Nicol took over, the Revolution was involved in the largest trade in MLS history, a six-player swap with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars that rid the Revolution of Ted Chronopoulos, Mamadou Diallo and Andy Williams, and landed it Daniel Hernandez, Brian Kamler and Diego Serna.

The next night, New England won Nicol's first game as Revolution coach, beating the Galaxy, 3-2.

The afterglow didn't last long, though, as New England stumbled, dropping three consecutive games and five of its next six.

In fact, the Revolution was in last place, seven points removed from the the final playoff spot, 12 points out of first place, at 7-14-1 after a 2-0 loss to Chicago on Aug. 18.

Then New England, which already had the league's leading scorer in forward Taylor Twellman (52 points), turned to its defense.

A strong finish, during which the Revolution surrendered only three goals in its final six games, helped it go 5-0-1 to close the regular season. The run enabled New England, which finished with league highs in goals scored, 49, and goals given up, 49, to sneak past its division rivals and win the Eastern Conference championship and accompanying No. 2 seeding for the playoffs.

Including its 3-1-2 record in the playoffs, with series victories over seventh-seeded Chicago and sixth-seeded Columbus, the Revolution is 8-1-3 in its last 12 games and has not lost at home since the Aug. 18 shutout.

And in six playoff games, the Revolution has yielded four goals and is trying to duplicate the feats of San Jose and Kansas City, teams that not only appeared in the MLS Cup title match the last two seasons a year after missing the playoffs but won it.

"I don't know if 'challenge' is the right word for us playing the Galaxy because we're enjoying this and we're not content to just be in the final," said Nicol, who is actually in his second tour of duty with the Revolution.

Three years ago, the former Scottish national team player was brought aboard to serve as the Revolution's interim coach for the team's final two games. He won both, but New England bypassed him for Clavijo, and Nicol left the organization, returning last winter.

The irony is not lost on Nicol, who still wears the interim tag and has the rare opportunity to give New England owner Robert Kraft championships in MLS and the NFL. Kraft also owns the Super Bowl champion Patriots.

"It's a completely different situation now than it was three years ago," said Nicol, 40, who spent the last three years cutting his coaching teeth as player-coach of the Boston Bulldogs of the Koming League. "I wasn't ready then; I had only been in the country six months. Now this is a good opportunity.

"We've become a team that started playing for each other, rather than for themselves, because they started buying into [the team philosophy]. We went from a team that didn't know how to win to a team that doesn't know how to lose."

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Revolution's Run

The New England Revolution completed a run from last to first place in MLS' East Division after Steve Nicol was named interim coach on May 23:

MAY 23

*--* W L T Pts GF GA Chicago 4 3 1 13 13 8 Columbus 3 4 1 10 8 10 N.Y.-N.J 3 5 1 10 12 15 D.C. United 3 5 1 10 11 14 New England 2 4 1 7 11 15

*--*

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FINAL

*--* W L T Pts GF GA New England 12 14 2 38 49 49 Columbus 11 12 5 38 44 43 Chicago 11 13 4 37 43 38 N.Y.-N.J 11 15 2 35 41 47 D.C. United 9 14 5 32 31 40

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