Twellman Gives the Critics a Swift Kick to Remember

By Mike Wise
Monday, November 6, 2006

What a tremendous weekend for Maryland kickers. Dan Ennis and Nick Novak drill game-winning field goals with no time left for the football locals, and then the biggest boot of all from a onetime Terrapin:

Taylor Twellman's swivel-and-fire goal in the MLS Eastern Conference futbol final.

Have you seen the replay of this shot? At dusk on Sunday, moments after Novak pumped pandemonium into FedEx Field and a day after Ennis punched through a 31-yarder in Death Valley to stun Clemson, a guy who once played ball in the shadow of Byrd Stadium trumped them all.

Twellman was running away from the left post in the match's fourth minute when he completely reversed course as a pretty crossing pass neared. In one motion, the airborne forward spun 180 degrees and launched a rocket past D.C. United goalie Troy Perkins from about 15 yards out.

Eighty-six minutes of damage control later, the New England Revolution's most dangerous threat had gained a good measure of redemption. That goal was essentially a two-for-one special. It sent a once-tortured team to its third MLS Cup final and also jettisoned the perception that one of the league's great scorers can't find the net in big games.

Before this season, Taylor Twellman wasn't exactly TNT in the clutch. He didn't score in New England's two MLS Cup appearances and he was shut out during last year's playoffs. The guy has racked up 75 goals in 130 regular season games over five years, but entered this postseason having scored just four times in 13 playoff matches.

The numbers became irrelevant last week. He sent Chicago packing, ending the penalty-kick shootout with a goal after his late, first-half score helped force overtime. Early last night, his beauty held up for an hour and a half.

"That was a pure goal-scorer's goal," Steve Nicol, the New England coach, said through a Scottish accent thicker than his tortoise-shell spectacles. "You won't see a better goal than that in any league. I must tell you, anybody saying anything negative about Taylor in big games now looks a wee bit silly."

Twellman wasn't buying the idea that last night's goal changed how people perceive him as a player. It's a hard point to argue, too, given he was the MLS regular season and all-star game MVP in 2005. Still, it provided a salve during a rough, emotional year.

In one week last May, Twellman lost his grandfather to cancer and his chance to represent the U.S. in the World Cup. He was left off the national team roster three days before Jim Delsing, a major league pitcher for 17 seasons, passed away. His said his father, Tim, a former North American Soccer League player, and his grandfather were the reason he was able to cope with the professional disappointment.

"They always told me, 'Don't look at the past. Move forward,' and that's what I did," Twellman said. "To be honest, my grandfather [dying] took a lot off [the national team] situation. It didn't seem as important. I just figured it wasn't meant to be. I thought, 'Oh well, their loss. The Revolution is paying my bills, so that's where I need to focus.' "

If there was irony last night, it was watching Freddy Adu pulled from the match with almost 30 minutes left while Twellman stayed on the RFK pitch to fend off United's desperation.

In a league with no compunction about pushing its children, Twellman is an example of youthful promise fulfilled. At 26 years old, this season he became the youngest MLS player to score 75 goals. Each year with the Revolution, he has developed and grown into a bona fide star.

Adu, advertised as a 14-year-old wunderkind less than three years ago -- the kid who was supposed incite new levels of passion for soccer domestically -- may have played his last match for United. He was crushed when Peter Nowak controversially took one of his team's most creative players out of the match, especially after playmaker Christian Gomez cramped up and had to come out in the final 10 minutes.

Adu will be 18 years old next June, old enough to fulfill his dream of playing overseas. MLS does not have to sell him until his option years arrive in 2008. But if the league receives a deal it can't refuse and Freddy goes, he should look no further than Twellman's experience for a possible glimpse of the future.

Twellman gave up his last two seasons at Maryland to pursue his European dream. He played reserve games for 1860 Munich -- then a middling side in the Bundesliga -- but did not find real stardom until he came back home. He and the Revolution took their postseason lumps over the years, including a devastating shootout loss here in 2004 to advance to the Cup final.

But Twellman and his team persevered and yesterday removed the stigma that they can't quite get it done when it counts. With one lightning goal in the match's infancy, he gave New England what it hopes will be a third-time's-a-charm chance for a title. That's growing up in MLS.

Those game-winning field goals by Ennis and Nowak were indeed huge. But in a stunning weekend of Maryland men getting it done with their right foot, no kick resounded louder than Taylor Twellman's.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company