Revolution Ready to Take Another Shot

From left, Shalrie Joseph, Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman have endured heartbreaking postseason losses, including one to D.C. United in 2004.
From left, Shalrie Joseph, Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman have endured heartbreaking postseason losses, including one to D.C. United in 2004. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006

Just once, the New England Revolution would like to play in a memorable postseason match -- and finish as the winner.

In both the 2002 and 2005 MLS Cups, the Revolution was beaten by the Los Angeles Galaxy in overtime.

In 2004, in what is considered the most absorbing playoff game MLS has had to offer over 11 seasons, New England came back from three one-goal deficits before losing in a penalty kick tiebreaker to D.C. United in the Eastern Conference final at RFK Stadium.

Which brings us to this season, another big playoff game and another autumn showdown with United -- Sunday afternoon's conference title game in Washington.

"It was heartbreaking," Revolution midfielder Steve Ralston said, reflecting on the 2004 game. "It was a great game, it was back and forth, and unfortunately we were on the losing end. But that was a while ago and I would hope we've moved on."

Despite having to play in MLS's harshest setting this weekend, New England is primed to move forward and continue its pursuit of that elusive first championship.

After finishing the regular season with a seven-game unbeaten streak, the Revolution overcame the loss of two star players last weekend and rebounded from a two-goal deficit to beat Chicago on penalty kicks in a tense first-round series.

Four weeks ago, New England defeated United at RFK, albeit with little at stake, and has always found comfort attacking on D.C.'s roomy home turf.

"It's become a great rivalry with the intensity of the games and the atmosphere down there -- there's something to it, you know?" midfielder-defender Joe Franchino said. "And we knew if we wanted to get back to the Cup, we'd have to go through D.C. at some point."

At the start of the year, everyone else in the East figured they would have to go through New England to reach the MLS Cup. The Revolution had returned all its critical components from its 2005 runner-up squad and, on paper at least, seemed a step ahead of D.C. and Chicago.

But while New England endured seven- and six-game winless streaks, struggling to score consistently and becoming overly reliant on its defense, United built an enormous lead in the conference standings.

The Revolution's outlook dimmed further when all-star defensive midfielder Shalrie Joseph badly injured his right hand in a nightclub altercation. At the time, doctors told Joseph his season might be over, but he returned for the playoffs -- only to be suspended by the league for Game 2 against Chicago for an inadvertent elbow in the opener.

New England was also without its most dynamic attacking player, U.S. World Cup midfielder Clint Dempsey, for the decisive game after he sprained his ankle in the first game. Dempsey, who has scored a number of spectacular goals at RFK Stadium the last three years, is questionable to play on Sunday. While Dempsey, Joseph and forward Pat Noonan have been sidelined at various points of the season, the Revolution has been steadied by an emerging central midfield star, England-born Andy Dorman, and an influential bench that includes lanky Bermudan wing Khano Smith and newly acquired Mexican forward Jose Manuel Abundis.

Forward Taylor Twellman (11 goals) remains one of the league's top scoring threats and fifth-year coach Steve Nicol, a former Liverpool defender, is MLS's longest-tenured coach.

"They are pretty dangerous," United Coach Peter Nowak said. "Their combativeness, their intensity -- you never relax against them."

The Revolution players are motivated by the prospect of playing their final game together. Dempsey and Joseph, a native of Grenada, have attracted interest from European clubs and may very well depart MLS when the international transfer window opens in January.

It leaves this fall as the final opportunity to win a championship.

"It might be the last time we're together and we don't want it to end this weekend," Franchino said. "This is a special group and we've really rallied around each other."

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