WASHINGTON – Steve Nicol refused to publicly accept the notion that the mental scars of past disappointments had frozen his New England Revolution into submission and threatened to turn the club into Major League Soccer's version of the Buffalo Bills.
Deep down, amid the swirling emotions and gnawing disappointment, the Revs head coach may feel differently.
The Scotsman carried the tight expression of a man trying gamely to keep his emotions in check after his team slipped to its third straight MLS Cup final defeat. For all the drama of last year's penalty-shootout loss to the Houston Dynamo, Sunday's setback to the same opponent will continue to hurt more than anything.
Coming from a city where success right now is expected rather than hoped for, thanks to the remarkable efforts of teams across a variety of sports, second place is even tougher to accept for the Revolution. It is worse still because Nicol, who enjoyed spectacular success with Liverpool during his playing days, knows his players had victory within their clutches.
A few key factors – nerves, a reluctance to change a style that was no longer working, the never-say-die spirit of their rivals plus a smattering of panic – combined to break New England's hearts.
Up 1-0 at halftime, the Revolution were in control and full of confidence after putting together an exceptional opening 45 minutes. Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz were in complete command of the central midfield, snapping off Houston's occasional probing attacks and setting up their own strikers with telling deliveries.
The 20th-minute header by Taylor Twellman (who, ironically, is a Bills fan) put Nicol's team within touching distance of the franchise's first MLS title. However, just when New England should have further stamped its authority en route to a complete victory, it allowed itself to be thrown off course by the Dynamo's extra sense of tenacity and pressing play.
The signs started to show 10 minutes into the second half when the normally unflappable Joseph lost possession twice within a matter of seconds. Then Jay Heaps, another calm head in normal circumstances, failed to keep hold of the ball in the danger area and Houston's hopes began to swell.
Textbook in strategic organization for most of the season, the Revolution defense finally buckled under the added strain as the Dynamo's tying goal came as a result of some poor concentration in the box. Dwayne De Rosario's low-flying cross found Joseph Ngwenya, who whiffed on a shot with his left foot but knocked the ball past goalkeeper Matt Reis with his right.
In a regular-season game, or even earlier in the playoffs, the Revs would have cleared such a ball swiftly and with minimum fuss. On this occasion, they fell asleep and paid the price.
"We started the second half really slowly and it played into their hands," Joseph said. "They started pushing forward and we couldn't match their intensity. We got some bad luck. They got some breaks and we didn't, but we should have finished it off in the first half."
From that point on, the men in orange from Texas looked to be the only likely victors. New England players' heads were a mess, and, despite Nicol's assertions, it is unrealistic to suggest the ghosts of 2005 and 2006 had not infiltrated their thought processes. That skewed mentality was highlighted by Khano Smith's foolish headbutt on Dynamo defender Craig Waibel, a reckless move that could have been punished more severely than the resulting yellow card.
The freedom of movement that the Revolution enjoyed in the first half now was stunted, with Houston taking over and driving forward. Joseph no longer was the midfield master; Dynamo playmaker De Rosario assumed that mantel. His bullet header for the go-ahead goal in the 74th minute proved to be the ultimate difference and a fitting touch of class for a final.
That was of little consolation to the vanquished.
Afterward, the New England locker room was a scene of depression, with stunned expressions hanging on the players' faces. Once again, their season had ended in the most painful fashion possible.
What must not be lost amongst the tears and gloom is the fact that the Revolution put together a superb season with consistent high-quality league play and the franchise's first tournament triumph in the U.S. Open Cup. However, regret of another missed opportunity in the championship game – not pride in the performances that took them there – will be New England's constant companion until April when the 2008 campaign begins.