| Friday, October 18, 2002 20:43 EST
Style meets grit in MLS Cup 2002
By Marc Connolly
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - At first glance, this year's MLS Cup final between New England and Los Angeles can be easily characterized: Left Coast versus East Coast. Proven vs. Upstart. Names vs. No-names. MLS Cup standbys vs. MLS Cup neophytes. Ruiz vs. Twellman.
Soccer Ron Jaworskis can even look at it systematically: 3-5-2 vs. 4-4-2.
Perhaps the best way to look at this matchup is the same way fans in both regions viewed the epic Lakers-Celtics battles in the mid-80s: Style vs. grit.
"I think it's very fair to say that," says Revolution's star striker Taylor Twellman, who pronounced himself fit to play on his sprained right knee. "L.A., by far, is the best team in the league this year. They have style and we have grit. But, hey, that's part of our game, and it'll make it exciting to watch."
No one is doubting that.
"This is perhaps the most exciting competition in the history of our seven years," says MLS commissioner Don Garber, who beamed on Friday afternoon when talking about this matchup and the attendance figures that are close to 50,000 and expected to approach 60,000 (Gillette Stadium soccer capacity).
And grit? No one is turning their nose up at such a style. Not anymore.
The Revs certainly didn't have me at hello. They needed to grow on me, get into my head and pound away at my set-in-stone notions of what they were capable of and what they were not.
Like many, I didn't give them a chance down the stretch when they needed to virtually run the table after falling to the bottom of the standings in mid-August. Of course, they went 5-0-1 to not only clinch a berth in the playoffs, but storm into the party as the second seed.
Like many, I told anyone that would listen how Chicago would breathe with new life now that the regular season was over, and how New England would serve as a punching bag for the Fire as the first step in a long run through the draw. Instead, Steve Nicol's squad played with continued rejuvenation and won two out of three.
Like many, I found myself respecting the Revs more and more throughout the Columbus series, yet quietly believed the Crew would put it all together at nearly every turn, whether it was after New England didn't get a win at home in Game 1 or after both Jay Heaps (red card) and Twellman (knee) went down in Game 2. As you know, Nicol and his collection of MLS journeymen and playoff neophytes triumphed despite everything.
Like many, I'm now a believer.
There's something about this squad. There's almost a hypocritical aspect to their play.
They're not pretty and show hardly a trace of flash, yet they scored what ended up being the series-clinching goal against Columbus on a breathtaking backheel pass on a quick one-two combo at the top of the box engineered by Leo Cullen and Steve Ralston.
They play with eight and nine men behind the ball at nearly all times and their defenders should have the words "Stay At Home" on the back of their jerseys, yet there's Heaps sneaking up the right flank to provide the top two scoring opportunities in Game 1 of the Crew series and then scored the lone goal three days later in Game 2.
They have a keeper that looks like he just walked out of the woods of Montana, yet Adin Brown plays the most cerebral of games back there and has been the unequivocal Reason Number One the Revs are still playing soccer this late in the fall.
They don't look imposing or fast or overly athletic, yet speedsters like Jeff Cunningham and Freddy Garcia were chased down and challenged by players like Rusty Pierce and Joey Franchino, and World Cup stars like Brian McBride and DaMarcus Beasley were kept in check.
Carlos Ruiz, right, along with strike partner Cobi Jones provide the gusto for the Galaxy.
If the Revs are to cap off the unlikeliest of runs and triumph in the same fashion their Gillette Stadium neighbors did last February in the Big Easy then they'll have to put the clamps down on defense even more tightly. The bend-but-don't break theory doesn't seem to apply to backlines that take on the scoring machine that is Carlos Ruiz and his wise-old partner-in-crime Cobi Jones.
"Those two have so much speed," says Franchino, a member of the Galaxy for over two years before moving to New England in 2000. "That's the first thing you notice with Cobi and Ruiz."
The second thing one would have to notice is their combined finishing talents - Jones (3 goals and 13 assists in 18 games) with the quick crosses in the box or one-touch thru-balls and Ruiz (24 goals in 26 games) with the ability to pounce on anything and to create his own luck around the goal.
"It won't be easy with that forward line, we know that," says Brown, who only has allowed two goals (one being an own-goal) in six playoff matches. "They have Cobi and Carlos, but then again, we have Tay and Wolde (Harris)."
Twellman and Harris have formed an unlikely, yet highly successful partnership. Neither player is a true playmaker or an absolute force in the air. Instead, they both simply work for each other and often backtrack as far as they need to into the midfield to kick-start the offense. Twellman is comfortable with his back to the goal and doesn't mind getting physical with the defense, something that will certainly be the case against the L.A. back three.
"That group is a big reason why L.A. is in the final," says Twellman, looking to add to his regular season total of 23 goals and another two in the postseason. "There's Alexi (Lalas) back there, sure, but also Danny Califf, a sort of roommate of mine from college (University of Maryland). They play together well. The goal scorers get the press, but defense is what wins championship and it's the reason why both of our teams are in the championship."
Lalas plays the middle in a pseudo-sweeper role, flanked by Califf and Ezra Hendrickson in a revamped 3-5-2 that Sigi Schmid switched to early this season.
"In this world, sometimes the best thing to do is to simplify things and simplify the rules," says Lalas, returning to the place where he started his MLS career in 1996. "This (setup) focuses on my strengths."
Without a doubt. Lalas was never known as a speed demon even in his younger goatee-wearing days. Now at 32, looking more like a banker than a rock star and with a new-found inner peace from taking a year off in 2000, his speed would be a problem on the outside or as a central defender with a lot of marking responsibility. In this formation, he's able to utilize his vision of the field, leadership and timely runs into the attack while Califf and Hendrickson clamp down on opposing striker duos.
Lalas thinks it's a joke that his squad is considered the favorite.
"Who is the underdog - them or us?" says Lalas. "They got 60,000 coming to see them. We're doing this the hard way (on the road). We're playing what we feel is the hottest team in the league."
Califf, the enforcer of this backline, thinks that the environment created by their fans combined with playing an already energized bunch will be a challenge to match.
"We're going out with the mentality that we're going to have to match their intensity," says the 22-year-old defender. "We're going to have to match their willingness to win. That stands out with them. They are committed to defend and will put their lives on the line to win the game. For us to win, that effort has to be matched or else."
Agreed. No one will outfight Nicol's boys. If it's matched, then what a snakepit it will be. The type we've seen for years in U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifiers. For L.A., it'll come from a group of professionals who are out to avenge their past MLS Cup misfortunes and to finally hoist that coveted trophy. For New England, it'll come simply from all the trials and tribulations the group has gone through in the past year with the trades, the injuries and, of course, the coaching change at midseason.
"This team fights through adversity," says Twellman. "To come from where we've been - from worst to first - and everything else has been cool to watch and we've opened people's eyes."
Revs 1-0 on a goal by -- who else? -- Taylor Twellman, in perfect "Wills Reed" style.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Jay Heaps, left, and Daniel Hernandez, right, will play key defensive roles for the Revs.