Later today the New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls will face off in the second leg of their Eastern Conference Final series at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA. The Revolution enter the match having defeated New York, 2-1, last weekend in New Jersey. Obviously the immediate issue at hand is the Revolution advancing to MLS Cup (to face either the L.A. Galaxy or Seattle Sounders), and they can do this by winning the match outright, playing to a draw, or even with a 0-1 loss as New England would advance to to the newly-implemented away goals rule in MLS. Beyond this, however, I think there is something else at work.
I believe that should the Revolution win this match and return to MLS Cup for the first time since 2007 supporters of the club will look back upon this victory as the beginning of a new era for the club. Remember, this is the club- the franchise- that I and others were leaving for dead as recently as this past March. The club was coming off several poor seasons in a row, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the acquisition of players, the building of a soccer-specific had become a running joke, attendance was plummeting- I could go on and on.
And here we are, barely eight months later and everything seems to have changed- everything. On the field the club is perhaps the most dynamic side in the entire league. They can attack, they can defend, they can pass the ball, they hold onto leads, they come from behind to win- you name it, they can do it. They also have their first group of legitimate stars since the days of Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston, and Pat Noonan. Jose Gonçlaves is as good a defender as there is in the league, Lee Nguyen has emerged as the best midfielder in the league, and the signing of Jermaine Jones- the clubs first true “designated” player- has had the impact that supporters have been telling the club it would for years. Add that to the emerging quality of goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth’s game and a cast of supporting characters- Rowe, Fagundez, Caldwell, Mullins, etc.- who are young and talented and the future seems very, very bright.
Off the field the club has signed an agreement with Rochester Rhinos to develop players, they have signed an agreement with Sporting Clube de Portugal which should benefit most clubs on and off the field, and, most recently, it appears that the construction of a soccer-specific stadium in South Boston (“Southie”) may turn out to be reality rather than rhetoric. Oh, and did I mention that over 30,000 tickets have been sold for today’s match? That’s the kind of $upport that will make it a lot easier for the Kraft Family to commit to a new $tadium.
More importantly than all of this, for the first time in their history the club appears to finally be tapping into New England’s century old soccer culture. New England, and specifically places like New Bedford, Fall River, Providence, etc. where the foundation of soccer in this country and to this day there are communities all over New England where it’s not the “big four” sports that rule the day, it is the beautiful game. Some of them are in gritty, seen-better-days cities like the ones I just mentioned, some are in leafy middle and upper middle class suburbs, and some are in small rural towns where the sport is played year-round regardless of the obstacles to it. Trust me on this last one, I lived it. There is a core of “local” players at the heart of the club (Davies, Caldwell, Tierney and Fagundez). They are finally courting one of New England’s oldest, largest, and most football-mad ethnic groups- the Lusophone community of Portuguese, Brazilians, and Cape Verdeans by signing Gonçalves and working with Sporting. They are beginning to understand, accept, and embrace supporters groups and supporters sections and as a result both are finally growing and flourishing. They are beginning to understand that while signing a designated player for millions of dollars is an investment, not an expense. For example, in addition to making them better on the field, Jermaine Jones is also giving the franchise even more by promoting it on what seems to be a full-time basis- follow the club on Facebook or Twitter and you’ll see what I mean.
So, yes, I’ll be watching and hoping for a result that will put the Revolution in the Cup, but I’ll also “keep watching” to see if, just maybe, today was the day that “it” all began.