The old saying that “history repeats itself” rang true during Sunday afternoon’s MLS Cup final. The New England Revolution reached the championship match for the fifth time in franchise history, and for the fifth time they lost, falling 2-1 in extra time to the Los Angeles Galaxy. No trends were bucked, no past failures were avenged and a gambler would have done well to look at the Revs history in the big game and bet the house on them falling short.
The Revolution have been the epitome of “close but no cigar.” They are futbol’s version of the Buffalo Bills, eerily close to being an exact replica, having lost four championship games in a span of six years (with a run of three straight) rather than four straight losses like Buffalo achieved in the early 1990s. Almost for additional narrative irony it seems, the Revolution’s starting goalkeeper on Sunday, Bobby Shuttleworth, played in college at the University at Buffalo.
This was the third time that the LA Galaxy had been the team to spoil New England’s chance to lift the trophy, having triumphed in MLS Cup final meetings back in 2002 and 2005. This was the fourth time the Revolution had lost in extra time. Plenty of other similarities and comparisons to previous losses can be drawn, but it’s difficult to tell if this latest setback hurts worse or if the repetitiveness makes it easier. Maybe all championship losses just feel the same.
The odds weren’t in the Revolution’s favor before the game began. Besides the history, there was the fact that the game was being played in L.A. in front of the Galaxy’s home fans. A road environment is always tough and the Galaxy had done a good job turning StubHub Center into a fortress. Counting the playoffs, they lost just once at home during the season, going 14-4-1.
The Galaxy featured an amazingly dangerous attacking duo in legendary U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan and Irish international Robbie Keane. For added drama the game was also Donovan’s final as a player, bringing an end to the most successful career ever forged by an American, even if he did spend the majority of his career on U.S. soil.
And for the first 78 minutes of Sunday’s game, the Galaxy played like the better team. Donovan raced through the midfield, pulling New England’s defense apart and picking out passes for his teammates to run onto. Only some sloppy play in the box from Keane, the newly named MLS MVP, kept this game from turning into a rout.
The Revs strength all season had been their ability to play on the front foot, launching wave after wave of attacking pressure and forcing turnovers in their opponent’s half of the field. But they looked nervous in the face of possibly achieving what no Revolution squad had done before. With no carryovers from those previous squads that had reached the finals, the Revs much-praised youthful team seemed too overcome by the moment to play their usual game.
The holes in the midfield were massive as the forward and wingers waited for distribution to come, and the holding midfielders held back trying to anticipate turnovers and not get caught on the counterattack. The result was one player, usually MVP candidate Lee Nguyen, having to try and weave through the L.A. midfield by himself to mount an attack. The Galaxy simply cut off all passing lanes and waited for a chance to nick the ball.
A sloppy first half from both teams sent the game into the final 45 minutes of regulation still tied at 0-0. The breakthrough for L.A. finally came in the 52nd minute. Youngster Gyasi Zardes, a hero in the regular season but a disappointment in the playoffs, finally scored a goal when he did well to maintain possession on the edge of the six-yard box before thumping a close-range effort past Shuttleworth.
Perhaps the goal was a blessing in disguise for the Revolution, as it forced them to chase the game and commit more players to the attack. They could no longer play cautiously and try to take the game to extra time (like it seemed they had been doing from the opening whistle), instead they had to play like they should have been from the get go.
This is around the time when New England coach Jay Heaps made one of the gutsiest decisions I have ever witnessed in sports. Heaps chose to bring off ineffective forward Charlie Davies (a man with his own miraculous comeback story, which is worth a read) and substituted on… rookie forward Patrick Mullins!? For a first-year player, Mullins had had an okay campaign highlighted by a nice run of goals in four straight games back in May. But he hadn’t scored in 18 straight appearances and had only played in two playoff games. Bringing him on here, in place of a player whose goals had helped guide the Revs through the playoffs in the first place, was a big risk. It would have at least been something for fans to question if it didn’t work out.
Heaps has certainly faced the pressure of having to account for his team’s failure in the past. As a defender in 2006, he missed the Revolution’s fifth and final penalty kick against the Houston Dynamo, which cost them the game in the closest they had ever come to winning an MLS Cup. Now as a head coach, he had a chance to make amends. The Mullins decision turned out to be brilliant. Rather than looking nervous on the big stage, Mullins looked creative and dangerous.
In the 79th minute, after a Galaxy chance had just been stifled, Mullins pounced on the counterattack. A delicious ball from captain Jose Goncalves, which was half clearance, half long pass gave Mullins the chance to get behind the defense. He raced into the left side of the box, but knew he would not have a good angle to shoot with defenders tracking him down. Instead, he kept his composure and made an excellent lay-off for onrushing Revs defender Chris Tierney, who angled a shot into the side netting off of goalkeeper Jaime Penedo to even the score at 1-1.
Out of nothing the game was tied. Even more surprising was that it was Tierney, the left back, who had done it. It was his second goal of the playoffs after having scored just once in the regular season. This stroke of luck flipped the momentum and the Revs nearly stole the game late after an ambitious shot from an off-balance Teal Bunbury, hit the crossbar and nearly went in.
Maybe that would have been the perfect way for New England to win; a lucky shot after so much misery in the finals. But when it didn’t go in and the game moved to extra time, there was always only going to be one winner. The Revolution were spent. Talismanic midfielder Nguyen had been subbed off with an injury and several other players were battling cramps with no more substitutions available to be made.
Even playing for the lottery of a penalty kick shootout seemed hopeless since it would have been pitting a group of players with experience and scoring pedigree (Donovan, Keane, Zardes, Ishizaki, etc.) against a group of exhausted youngsters who mostly specialized in setting up goals for players no longer on the field.
When the Galaxy’s goal finally came, a tidy finish from Keane after a tired Revs’ back line couldn’t catch him offside, there was something of an inevitability about it; the final act of a play that Revolution fans had seen too many times before.
There are still plenty of positives for the Revs to take from the season. It was such a roller-coaster of a campaign, from hot start to horrible stretch to amazing end of the season run, the roster can no longer be referred to as inexperienced when it comes to the grind of a long MLS season. The Revolution also established an identity for themselves of exciting, attack-minded team, which they can build on going into next year.
From a personal standpoint the loss was even a little bit easier to take. There was something poetic about Landon Donovan finishing out his career as a winner. The only man in MLS history to claim the championship six times. It was one last accolade to go with his impressive haul. If there was anyone to choose to hoist the cup rather than your own team, Donovan would be the first choice of most U.S. soccer fans.
Still, losing is losing and from the perspective of a fan it gets harder and harder to convince yourself next season will finally be the year, when history says you have no reason to believe.