New England Revolution 2007 Review: Taylor and Steve and Me

New England Revolution
Record (W-L-T): 14-8-8; 51 GF, 43 GA
Source Material: Schedule/match reports; roster

I’m going to play this one a little loosey-goosey – e.g. relying less on specific match reports, player bios, etc. – and touch on things I don’t normally do. Why? First of all, because I can; I follow the New England Revolution more closely than any other Major League Soccer (MLS) team. Second, this represents my first conscious attempt to say goodbye to a team I’ve supported..well, followed, since the late 1990s. As such, an element of the personal enters into the thing. And, to mention the most loosey-goosey aspect, the end of my era with the Revs feels to me like an end of an era for the club. To put it bluntly, I don’t think they’ll be back for a fourth straight crack at MLS Cup.

With New England, it seems useful to consider the team through my odd relationship with one of their talismanic players: Taylor Twellman. I view Twellman through the sharpest of love/hate lenses. The love part is easy: the man scores goals, something one llikes to have on one’s team generally. But the hate part looms large – arguably larger. And here it is: I find Twellman dead boring. For all his take-a-touch-and-shoot efficiency, Twellman dribbles with the grace of a horse running on pavement; his passes too often recall kicking a playground ball at a brick wall. Bottom line, he has mastered two facets of the game – eluding defenders and finishing – and, to some weird aesthetic part of my brain, such talents are too transferable to “sports” in a generic sense. In other words, the sense that Twellman is a jock first and soccer player second stands as my dominant impression of him as a player.

What I think about Twellman mirrors my impression of the team as a whole: the Revolution team in my head is efficient, athletic, and, when you get down to it, dull. I can think of few less inspiring things than a generic New England goal: ball goes down the flank, wide player crosses to Twellman, Twellman scores. The occasional switch-up aside – say a long-bomb from Jeff Larentowicz on a dead-ball or one of Pat Noonan’s weird headers – the template seems fixed.

It goes beyond this actually. In spite of the fact they only posted six of these during the regular season, I remember every New England game as a 1-0 win, crushingly dull affairs in which Taylor Twellman – who else? – scores an early goal after which the team battens down the hatches. And I write that with a few good ones in my head – like the 3-2 thriller they won early in the season against the Los Angeles Galaxy to pick a favorite. I remember those games pretty clearly and I love it when the Revs play with that kind of pace and originality. They played the same way in the first half of MLS Cup and it was freakin’ awesome!  We all know what came next, of course…and, more to the point, it’s a rare day when they get it really right.

As I review this past season, a deeper issue comes to the fore. Even in a playoff/post-season system, a mid-table team is a mid-table team. By that I mean that although the Revs topped the East for a while, they never looked like they’d win the Supporters’ Shield and never looked at risk for missing the playoffs. Absent the need keep current on the standings – e.g. the number of points they’d need to make the post-season, etc. – I just kind of watched each successive game without a larger context. This means I got subjected to just shy of 30 discrete doses of Steve-Nicol-brand soccer. It’s a wonder I stayed awake.

This is, to be fair to the team, a little weird. The Revs came second in scoring, which, theoretically, should make for exciting games. They won more than they lost, they have talented players, were deserved post-season competitors, and on and on. But thinking about the talent only returns the conversation to my biases. Shalrie Joseph, the team’s other talisman, has impressive and genuine talent, but he has always been effective first and inspiring second. I still get a kick out of watching Noonan – when he’s on, at least, and it’s been a while – and Michael Parkhurst still blows my mind, but the rest of the line-up possesses the artistry of an beer ad – e.g. a direct, even crude attempt to get to the business as quickly as possible is the game.

Having lost the emotional immediacy of living near the team, I kind of count on interesting players to keep up my attachment and I think the last player to do that was Clint Dempsey. When he left after 2006, the bond still ran through players like Parkhurst, Noonan, and, significantly, Steve Ralston. Ralston plays a big role in all this, mainly because, his solid 2007 numbers aside, I believe his career is winding down. That moribund vibe – something that felt more real after this latest loss – leaves me thinking the Revs have reached an end point of sorts.  The truly big guns – guys like Twellman and Joseph – will be around for a couple years to come, but Parkhurst doesn’t look like he’ll be around for more than a year. Given that, you take Twellman, Joseph, and Pat Noonan arguably…and then what? Who’s in the pipeline? Where are the up-and-comers for the Revolution? More to the point, at least from my perspective, where are the non-Nicol-ball players, the guys who will make this team exciting to watch? I don’t see them coming; near as I can tell, Nicol distrusts that kind of player.

Long story short, I think this current group of guys has had their shot. In a way, I stuck around this season to see an old warhorse like Steve Ralston lift an MLS Cup – and I gave up on that some time in September.  Who am I kidding?  They got closer than I ever thought they would. But barring something coming out of left field – e.g. Nicol signing/drafting a totally atypical player (e.g. an exciting one) – New England won’t be back for MLS Cup next year. Between this and the arrival of an MLS team closer to home, now seems like as good a time as any for me to move on.

In the event Ralston finally wins something, though, you can bet I’ll be cheering for him.  And, yeah, Twellman deserves something better than the scoring record he’ll one day surpass…

Notable Streaks
– The most remarkable thing about the Revolution in ’07 is how consistent they were. While they did sneak in a three-game winning streak back in June, they alternated results more than anything else. Here’s a sample pattern (from June to July, league play only): TTWLTWTW. The only oddity there is the number of ties; take a sample elsewhere and you’re likely to see more wins.
– The post-Open Cup win slide looked significant at the time: the Revs went three games winless heading into the playoffs. Didn’t matter in the end, thanks to a little 1-0 win “magic.”

What Went Right
– Good advice after any relationship ends: recall the happy stuff. I got to see the Revolution lift the U.S. Open Cup in my last year as a declared fan.
– The offense clearly performed and well. (Then again, if you want to see something insane, check the goals totals from 1998. DC United’s league-topping 56 goals for 2007 was on the low side for that year; that, my friend, is offense.)
– His numbers don’t show the kind of year Shalrie Joseph had. He’s got to be the most influential midfielder in the league.
– Consistency: I hinted at this above, but only one team topped this one from start to finish – and, by finish, I mean MLS Cup. So that’s Houston…my apologies to DC United fans.
– The latest rookie class didn’t “wow” me, but Adam Cristman and Wells Thompson, especially, became important parts of this team. Nicol may not always draft brilliance (Dempsey, Parkhurst), but he nearly always drafts competence and composure.

What Didn’t
– Defense, a key strength of yester-year, slipped a little this season; maybe that’s why they surrendered two in MLS Cup as opposed to affecting their usual lockdown. They were on the good side of the average, but they let in eight more goals in ’07 than they did in ’06 and six more than they did in ’05 – and the latter was over 32 games.
– Like a lot of people, I’d point to a slowing Jay Heaps and an occasionally dodgy Avery John for this.
– Most people flag the absence of a playmaker and Ralston’s default assumption of that role as a problem. But that goes back to a deeper problem: the fact there’s only one Steve Ralston and three positions the team needs him to fulfill. Khano Smith and Wells Thompson just didn’t bring enough to take the burden off Ralston.

Key Men (as in the Ones You Want Back)
Taylor Twellman: No, he’s not my favorite, but any team would be nuts to part with this cat.
Michael Parkhurst: Hold onto him as long as you can. And switch to a 4-4-2.
Matt Reis: Very good at his job. Seems like a good locker-room guy to boot.
Shalrie Joseph: The real soul of the team. Twellman scores, but Joseph does damn near everything else.

Jeff Larentowicz: Improving rapidly this one.
Adam Cristman: Keep him around, see if he blossoms.

Anyone Who Ought to Leave
Steve Ralston: Personal sacrilege, I know, but I’d trade him in a heartbeat if I thought I could get the right kind of player for him.  Besides, he could then go to a championship team.

What They’re Needin’
– Simple. A playmaker. Someone to provide an alternative to Ralston.
– Defenders. At least a couple and real good ones. Trade Noonan or Khano Smith if you have to.

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