402 · 10 October 02
The United States' latest (and arguably, first thoroughly thought-out) attempt at a world-grade professional soccer league opened play for its first season in 1996. The Kraft family, who own the NFL's New England Patriots, put in their investor ante to participate, if for no other reason than to have something to do with their crumbling hulk of an inconveniently-located sports stadium during a few more of the 350-or-so days a year during which it was not required for American football games and the occasional Rolling Stones residency, and so were issued a Boston team, which they promptly named the "New England" Revolution, to preserve the long-standing bargaining-position fiction that any momentary lapse of legislative pandering towards the family might provoke them to move their entire shabby circus to Hartford, Connecticut, which would have some crushing effect on the Boston-area economy and moral climate that I've never seen adequately explicated. The Krafts even wheedled their way into hosting the league's first championship game, and the adventure thus began in grand style.
That first year, however, the Revolution were not a very good soccer team. Their initial marquee allocations were defenders, their two goalkeepers were pretty and short (one each), the best midfielders were mainly known for their hair, their one Brazilian player quickly demonstrated why he was no longer employed as a professional soccer player in his own country, nobody ever fully mastered the nuances of the Irish coach's thickly-accented profanity, and in a season in which eight of ten teams made the playoffs, the Revolution were among the other two, blowing their first historic do-or-die season finale against the Columbus Crew with the aid of a pathetically undisciplined but perfectly emblematic first-half red card. The Cup final, played without them in a frigid rainstorm so severe that it caused a boat race to be canceled, was a memorable game but an unpleasant experience, and "Note to self: all finals from now on to be played in California" thought-balloons could be seen furiously glowing above the league executives' heads in the press box from all the way down in the stands.
Year two, however, opened with a spring's complement of bright new hope. In the second wave of international arrivals the Revolution were assigned once-great Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga and a couple of players from the similarly soccer-capable country of Argentina. Zenga, it turned out, could still play. The Argentines, it turned out, were pushcart operators or minor provincial bureaucrats or something, and not exactly world-class soccer-playing experts. In a season centered, emotionally, on a decisive twelve-game late-summer losing streak (including blowing a three-goal lead against a minor-league team in the Revolution's first US Open Cup appearance), the team nonetheless managed to squeak into the final playoff spot with a toe-poke from Paul Keegan in the second-to-last-minute of the regular season in Dallas. To nobody's particular surprise, they were promptly swept out by eventual repeat-champion DC United with little difficulty. Zenga retired, team officials allowed the best defender to be drafted away by an expansion team, and everything was basically back to the beginning again.
Year three was only uglier. The annual losing streak was kept to ten games, this time, and strategically scheduled for earlier in the season, but it didn't help much. The team finished dead-last in the now-twelve-team league, once again missing the playoffs. In year four the losing streak was only eight games long, but the team managed a new-low seven wins all year, finishing tenth of twelve only by virtue of heroic incompetence on the parts of the Wizards and the Metrostars.
Year five was the Revolution's golden age. A Colorado-cast-off named Wolde Harris set a still-standing goal-streak record, an unknown college draft pick named Rusty Pierce turned out to be the team's first enduringly worthwhile discovery, the annual losing streak was reduced to only five games, and the team finished the regular season at a franchise-best .500, good enough for the seventh of eight playoff spots. In their playoff series they even contrived to win the middle game, and these many years later, hardly anybody even remembers the 6-0 thrashing in the third game that ended the great season. Nor the mortifying 1-0 loss to a team of priests and street urchins in the Open Cup. Nor the Bermuda Triangle of a midfield, nor the team's continuing ineptness in all personnel matters. As I said, nobody remembers those things.
Year six? Six-game losing streak to begin the year, ninth of twelve and no playoffs again, meaningless season-finale canceled in the wake of world events. The Revolution did advance to the final of the Open Cup, although this sounds rather less impressive if broken out as four home victories, two of them against lower-level teams. The final was played somewhere else. They lost it.
In the off-season between years six and seven, the coaching staff went on a bizarre purge whose daring foresight became clear when the league announced the dissolution of its two Florida teams and the redistribution of their players through a re-draft in which the Revolution found themselves with three of the top six picks. When the chaos eventually settled, the team had the 2000 and 2001 scoring champions, a national-team central defender, the league's most durable wing midfielder and the captain of the previous year's best-organized side. The coach got his chance to mold the team to his desires from scratch, the Krafts built a new stadium and the league agreed to let them host the final again, and when a few analysts predicted that the Revolution would get to play in it, the absence of immediate hysterical laughter was breathtaking. For the first time, it appeared we would have a bona fide professional soccer team to watch in New England. Used to years of failure, the fans had no idea how to react.
It was soon evident, however, that no new habits needed to be learned. The star-studded new team was a total mess. The 2000 scoring champion showed up overweight and undermotivated, the 2001 scoring champion showed up looking seven years older, the national-team defender left to play with the national team, the captain seemed to have forgotten everything he once knew about organizing. After a gutless 5-2 collapse on a Wednesday night in Colorado, the coach was fired and a panic-button trade jettisoned the 2000 scoring champion (along with the team's only remaining original player and its only play-making midfielder) for another team's two worst headcases (one of whom promptly suffered a suspicious season-ending injury) and an anonymous utility player. The 2001 scoring champion was benched, for good measure, and the new "interim" coach unveiled his secret master plan for rebuilding (yet again) the team, which appeared to involve collecting all the league's defensive midfielders, and then simply lining them up across the top of the penalty area. With a quarter of the season remaining, the team was once again comfortably ensconced in last place, only a formality away from the traditional playoff elimination. The sole compelling justification for not simply forfeiting the remaining games was that a tireless rookie forward named Taylor Twellman was actually in contention for, of all things, the 2002 scoring championship, which would be a good investment in future painful ironies. The Revolution did at least led the league in both goals scored and goals allowed, so at least it wasn't boring watching them lose.
And then something very strange happened. The words "incredible" and "brilliant" are overused and devalued. "Incredible" should mean that a thing is genuinely difficult to believe, not just that you're pleased about it. "Brilliant" should mean that somebody had an idea almost nobody else could have, not just that a stubborn trial-and-error procedure finally didn't fail. The Revolution pulled out a merely-surprising late-goal victory in Chicago in late August, and the eleven-game sequence that it began has been the apotheosis of "incredible" and the antithesis of "brilliant". Steve Nicol's patiently-coached strategy of kicking the ball to the other team and then not letting them do anything useful with it is neither complex nor sophisticated, and the assortment of players he's entrusted it to bears little resemblance to the cavalcade of all-stars with which the season was meant to be conducted. Twellman, who left college early only to spend two years in Germany consigned to reserve squads, actually did win the scoring championship. Harris, who seemed to spend 2001 playing under sedation, woke up again. The headcase defender acquired in that horrible trade had been insisting for years that he was really an attacking midfielder, and when Nicol called the bluff it turned out that it wasn't one. A gangly central defender two other MLS teams had passed on, retrieved from minor-league exile late in the summer, became one pillar of a suddenly impregnable defense, and a shaggy goalkeeper whose "potential" people had mostly quit talking about finally decided to follow through on it and become the other. An ex-college-basketball-star formerly notorious for flank-exposing missed slide-tackles at midfield unexpectedly matured into a dominant right back with textbook positional sense. The anonymous utility player and his even-more-anonymous backup both proved invaluable. The Revolution won four and tied one to set up another do-or-die season finale at home, this time against the supposed beneficiaries of the much-maligned trade, the Metrostars, and closed them out in an assured rout that wasn't even as close as 3-0 makes it sound. The right other teams faltered as the Revolution surged, such that the win over the Metrostars clinched the team's third-ever playoff spot. But it's still a ten-team league with eight-team playoffs, and a six-game "surge" from tenth to eighth would not be "incredible". Other results pushed the Revolution to sixth, but only by a one-point margin over seventh, and a two-point margin over eighth, and they still finished below .500 again overall. But when the Fire beat the Crew in the last game of the regular season, the next day, it meant that the Revolution won the Eastern Conference (by a zero-point margin plus tie-breakers), and thus secured theoretical home-field advantage all the way through the playoffs to the waiting final. The scene of the team receiving the Conference-champion's chalice before the first playoff game was plenty surreal, but still not quite incredible.
And when, with their new trophy watching, they baffled the Chicago Fire to win the first game of the quarterfinal series 2-0, that wasn't quite incredible yet either. In the second game, in Chicago, trying to defend a lucky early goal, the Revolution looked disorganized and frantic again, and Chicago scored two to win and even the series. The national-team defender, nominally the most mature and experienced player on the field in a Revolution uniform, got himself pointlessly ejected at the very end, and then pushed an assistant referee on the way out to earn himself an extra-game suspension. All this good work, and yet the verdict on the season and the players and the coach and system and everything was still poised as a wave. Lose game three, and it collapses back into the arms of the other six thankless seasons. Win, and this is the best Revolution team ever.
They won. That much isn't really incredible, either, because soccer games can be won and lost in all sorts of weird ways. The part that started to become harder to credit, though, was that game three was an exact duplicate of game one. In Chicago it looked like the Fire had solved the Revolution. The undefeated run had been a fairy-tale; the defeat in Chicago was an abrupt return to reality, complete with football lines and turf burns. Chicago have better players, an unflappable coach, a winning history, a championship. And yet, with every excuse for disintegration, the Revolution came out and played the exact same strategy again, executed it correctly, and in doing so proved that Chicago hadn't solved anything after all.
But the playoff schedule is merciless, and four days later the Revolution were back on the field to open the semifinals against a Columbus team rested from having swept their quarterfinal series. The game was brutal and costly. The gangly new central defender, trying to rise to the challenge of compensating for the national-team defender's suspension, got himself red-carded, and the Revolution held on desperately for the last seventeen minutes to salvage a scoreless tie. The result was remarkable, maybe. Adequate, at least, since it guaranteed a third game, back home, for the right to play at home again a week later for the Cup.
Game two was Wednesday night. It's still Wednesday night now, for me; I watched the game before sitting down to write. I was going to tell you about some more hyper-cryptic foreign heavy metal bands this week. That was my plan before the game started, anyway. But after the game, I find I can't believe it, and I so seldom confront anything I can't believe that I temporarily can't process anything else. The Revolution won, which means with a win or tie on Saturday they would win the series and on the 20th I would be sitting in the fourth row as my team plays for the Cup. What I can't believe, though, is not what they've accomplished, it's what it has cost them. They scored a goal in the third minute, tonight, and then sacrificed themselves to its defense for an hour and a half. They lost a defender to their third ejection in five games, so for nearly an hour they were playing ten against eleven. Another defender later limped off with leg cramps, and Twellman, the league's leading scorer reduced to running back and forth at midfield just trying to give opposing defenders a quarter-second less time to weigh their feeder passes, finally had to leave with a sprained knee. The revelation midfielder sat out the game entirely because he's in caution-point jeopardy, and so is the captain. The injuries and the cards are not additional hardships, they are the unmistakable signs and inevitable results of a team playing beyond the limits of their abilities. Steve Nicol has given the Revolution a system by which players slightly better than they are could constitute a winning soccer team, and these players, doggedly pursuing his hopeless plan because nobody has ever offered them a better one, are consuming themselves in the effort. Adin Brown is playing on a fractured foot, Carlos Llamosa has to think faster than he runs slower, Daouda Kante is trying to support the collective weight of a team he wasn't even on three months ago, Rusty Pierce is an anthology of pending muscle-pulls, Jay Heaps will be lucky if he's only out one game, Joey Franchino and Daniel Hernandez are each a card away from missing the final even if the team makes it, Brian Kamler and Braeden Cloutier are exactly the people that carry this league thanklessly on their backs, Steve Ralston led the league in assists during the regular season and by the end of this game was playing right back, Harris and Twellman run themselves delirious and are lucky to get two scoring chances in a whole evening. They have two games to go. I don't know if they have two games left in them. I know they don't have three. I don't know if they have one. I have tickets, and a seat behind the bench.
I've been asked, more than once, how I can be a music fan and a soccer fan, when there is usually, at least in this country, such a gulf between art people and sports people. To me the two are complementary. Sports are symbolic settings of the struggle for survival; art is what you win the right to do if you can survive with less than all of your energy. What these soccer players have done together, no matter what happens next, is already as remarkable a human achievement as anything that will ever be done in front of spectators, without lives at stake. It's better than the US's World Cup run (and as good as Korea's), it's better than the Krafts' other team winning the Super Bowl last year, it's better than all the Tiger Woodses and Michael Jordans. When the best win, what do you learn? Maybe the Revolution will win the Cup, maybe they'll lose it, maybe they won't get to try. I care desperately, and then again I don't. This team no longer has to prove anything to me. As of the final whistle in tonight's 1-0 victory, all the time and energy and emotion and money I've spent on them, and will spend, has been earned. A championship, this year or some other, would be sweet and poetic and magical, but no more profound. Sports teach this lesson and we too often miss it: true victories are relative, not absolute, functions not of what you reach but how far. At best you can enter into a game, agree to temporarily forget its limitations, and become momentarily, fractionally, infinitesimally super-human. I know it's impossible, and yet I've seen it happen, and there I am suspended.