[SUPERLIGA]Losers of all four MLS Cups in which it has played, the New England Revolution is doing everything it can in other competitions to eradicate that stigma of falling at the finish line. It beat FC Dallas, 3-2, in last year's U.S. Open Cup final, and Tuesday night the Revs gave their home fans another crown by edging Houston on penalty kicks, 6-5, in the 2008 SuperLiga final at Gillette Stadium after a 2-2 tie.
Houston's Nate Jaqua and the Revs' Steve Ralston traded goals in the first half of regulation, and after 90 minutes ended, 1-1, Kei Kamara and Shalrie Joseph headed home four minutes apart in the first period of overtime. The second period produced no further goals to leave the score, 2-2; each team converted three of its first five penalties, and held serve in rounds six and seven of sudden-death.
In the minutes after Chris Albright pounded the decisive penalty past Pat Onstad and Revs keeper Matt Reis turned Corey Ashe's rising shot onto the crossbar came scenes to be permanently etched in team history. There were bear hugs of joy and exhilaration and exhaustion, as not even euphoria could move tired legs to jump and dance, but the most poignant images were the subtler ones.
Captain Ralston took the SuperLiga trophy over to team operator-investor Robert Kraft, who later posed with Coach Steve Nicol holding the trophy in his right hand with his left arm bent in a strong-man, bicep-flexing pose. Kraft's son, Jonathan, embraced anyone within range. Albright soldiered through a TeleFutura on-field interview in Spanish, knowing full well the scathing reviews he'd receive from his teammates once they'd viewed his labored efforts.
Both teams took the field well short of full strength. In China with the U.S. Olympic team were New England defender Michael Parkhurst, and defender Pat Ianni and midfielder Stuart Holden of Houston. Also missing were several vital defenders: Jay Heaps of the Revs was suspended, Eddie Robinson (hamstring) and Richard Mulrooney (knee) were injured and didn't make the trip. Flown across the Atlantic to officiate the match was English referee Howard Webb.
In a rejiggered back four, New England started shakily and fell behind when defender Amaechi Igwe, playing in the middle with converted midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, tried to clear a harmless long ball and instead scuffed it right to Jaqua, who belted it low past Reis in the 18th minute. Igwe coughed up the ball again a few minutes later, but Brian Ching redirected Jaqua's diagonal ball off the post.
On three occasions Dwayne DeRosario could have scored. He hit the post in the fourth minute, tested Reis with a drive the keeper saved elastically, and then rounded the keeper late in the half and rolled a low shot on frame that a backtracking Albright whacked out of danger. Chris Tierneycleared a Jaqua effort off the line to rescue the Revs yet again.
Ralston ratcheted up the cost of those misses four minutes before halftime by nailing a vicious volley from a Mauricio Castro cross past Onstad from a sharp angle and just inside the post. Another memorable scene ensued: Ralston marching a few steps past the goal toward the crowd, his face carved in a fierce scowl, his clenched fists and arms raised in exhortation.
A furious first-half pace gave way to more calculated play as caution and fatigue set in. Both coaches used a pair of subs as the second half waned, and Nicol brought on Adam Cristman in stoppage time.
Reis committed a rare error to give Houston the lead in the 98th minute. He came out confidently for a Ching cross, but at the edge of the six-yard box Kamara's leap reached the ball first and he headed it cleanly into the empty net. Houston, though, lacked the poise and experience to lock up shop.
Four minutes later, the Revs equalized again as the Ralston-Joseph combination struck for the third time in SuperLiga play. This time, it was a Ralston free kick about 40 yards out on the left side that he floated into the goalmouth. Onstad didn't come out, and Joseph overpowered Bobby Boswell to bounce a header inside the far post.
In the shootout, Reis fired over the crossbar with New England's second attempt but got that one back by stoning DeRosario. Reis then saved from Ching to give New England the advantage, only for Onstad to stymie Khano Smith and give Ricardo Clark the chance to tie the shootout, 3-3, and force sudden-death, which he did.
After each team converted two more kicks, Albright's booming shot edged the Revs in front, 6-5. Reis dived right to apparently get a slight touch on Ashe's shot, which shook the crossbar so hard it was still vibrating when Reis rolled up from his dive and screamed in celebration.
About the only unsettling image was that of an empty SuperLiga platform, on which the winning players are supposed to chant and dance as a glittering backdrop of confetti is fired into the sky behind them. Instead, league commissioner Don Garber handed the trophy quickly, without fanfare or photo opportunity, to Ralston, and as the confetti spewed upward Revs players hugged each other or high-fived their fans in the first few rows. Since the game ran late because of overtime and penalty kicks, maybe in his haste to depart, Garber had to cut short the pleasantries.
Yet in light of terse public statements by which Garber defended the MLS-mandated portion of SuperLiga prize money (15 percent) allotted to the players, his abrupt awarding of only the second trophy in Revs' history didn't live up to the spirit of the moment, nor the accomplishment of beating three Mexican league teams as well as the nemesis that downed New England in the last two MLS Cups.
Aug. 5 in Foxborough, Mass
New England 2 Houston 2(New England wins, 6-5, on penalty kicks).
Goals:Ralston (Castro) 41, Joseph (Ralston) 102; Jaqua 18, Kamara (Ching) 98.
New England -- Reis, Tierney, Igwe, Larentowicz, Albright, Castro (Smith 71), Joseph, Ralston, Nyassi, Mansally (Twellman, 58), Dube (Cristman 90)
Houston - Onstad, Barrett, Boswell, Waibel, Davis (Wondolowski, 110), Clark, Cameron, Mullan (Ashe, 79), De Rosario, Ching, Nate Jaqua (Kamara, 72)