Is this the year New England finally breaks through to win the league title, and one of its players breaks new ground by winning the MVP award?
Since losing the 2002 MLS Cup to Los Angeles in what then was its brand-new stadium, the New England Revolution has tried to shrug off a stigma as soccer's version of the Buffalo Bills, who lost three straight Super Bowls. Defeats in the last three championship games have tagged the Revs as accomplished losers, despite a remarkable record (85-60-50) since Steve Nicol took over as head coach during the 2002 season, and they lag in the middle in league attendance.
Those fans who do show up, though, are well-steeped in ways to honor their own. Nearly every Revs player is saluted with a banner or poster at home games, and a flag unfurled at the SuperLiga final played in Gillette Stadium showed the pride Revs fans feel for one of their adopted sons.
"Supah Revs" is the club's signature cry, chanted by its fan club, the Midnight Riders, and once popularized by a defunct fanzine, "Pictures of Chairman Mao." Held aloft in the stands that night appeared a flag of red, yellow and green — the colors of the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada — framing capital letters that read "SUPAH SHALRIE."
"He's strong, he's a leader, and he's honest," says teammate Khano Smith, a native of Bermuda. "Stevie Ralston is our captain but Shalrie's our emotional leader. He's the one who gets us going if things aren't going right."
Around MLS, and CONCACAF as well, there's little need to add the last name. Once the Revs signed him in December 2002, a month after losing their first MLS Cup final, Shalrie Joseph soon emerged as talented, dedicated and unique. Blessed with size (6-foot-3, 180 pounds), strength, touch and vision, he's the perfect package to battle as well as dazzle in the modern game.
"He's always in there, always at training, always putting in the work, especially playing in the middle and playing on turf is very, very hard to do," says Revs keeper Matt Reis, a teammate of Joseph since 2003. "He's done it and done it well."
This season, Joseph passed the milestone of 150 league games. His low-water mark of 23 games played occurred in 2004, when a broken nose, strained hip flexor/quadriceps and international duty took him out of league action. Revs head coach Steve Nicol marveled at his performance in the 2005 MLS Cup, which he finished utterly exhausted, dazed by a concussion, and stitched above his left eye to close a gash. He'd been hobbled during the playoffs by turf toe and sore ankles.
"He probably shouldn't have been in there at all during the playoffs, but there's no way he was coming off the field," said Nicol during the 2005 post-mortem. "That's the kind of person he is."
When asked about the physical discomfort and psychological anguish he was feeling, Joseph said, "We can win the Cup next year and a lot of the pain will go away. Guys don't want to feel like this every year."
He and the Revs have yet to exorcise those ghosts, though they won the U.S. Open Cup last year and added the 2008 SuperLiga trophy to their cabinet. Holders of the league's best record heading into the final third of the season, and with yet another fleet of young players grafted onto a strong core of veterans, the Revs may have their best chance ever.
ACHIEVING GOALS. "I think I'm doing well, and there are still a lot more goals that I want to achieve," says Joseph, who as a young child endured the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 and moved to New York 11 years later.
"The main goal in MLS is to win the MLS Cup. We've been to the final four times now and won the Eastern Conference six years in a row, but at the end of the day we haven't won it yet. This year the team's been playing well. Even though we had some key injuries early in the season, we have the best record in the league, and we're looking forward to the second part of the season."
He's a fixture at All-Star Games, during which MLS opponents are grateful for a rare chance to play with him, rather than having to chase, evade or tackle him.
"He's good," says Galaxy and U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "Being on the field with him is fun. Dominant is the right word because defensively he's a handful but then when he gets the ball, he moves, he moves the ball for you, and does things that make it easier to be a forward and not have to do the other stuff. He's very good. I'd like to trade for him."
Most teams and their head coaches share that sentiment, but New England – despite nibbles from foreign clubs and a sticky contract negotiation last year – has been able to keep him. Yet, both he and the Revs have failed to clear a final hurdle; New England hasn't won the league title, and interest from abroad has cooled. A bid from Glasgow Celtic, which faced him at the 2007 All-Star Game, failed to secure his services after offering a $1 million transfer fee.
Agent Ron Waxman, who has represented Joseph throughout his MLS career, refuses to speculate on his future. The four-year contract (including options) Joseph signed last year, worth $300,000 in base salary plus an undisclosed share of allocation money, binds him to MLS through the 2010 season. He had started out on a minimum contract, a punishment inflicted by the league for trying out in Europe in 2002.
He's not itching to leave, not at age 30 and playing for coaches he respects and teammates he admires. Things get so loose with the Revs that for a time last year, a few players joined Nicol, a Scotsman, and assistant coach Paul Mariner, a native of England, for a truncated version of cricket: indoors, as in the locker room. Joseph won't confirm that he, Smith and former Rev Avery John, a Trinidad & Tobago native, gave a Caribbean lesson to their British mentors.
"We played some cricket with Stevie and Paul in the locker room," he recalls, laughing. "We got a piece of foam rubber to use as a bat and some tennis balls, and set up a wicket, you know, just to have some fun.
"We like to play together and a lot of guys get together off the field to eat or go to a club. I think maybe that's why we've been so successful, we really do have a lot of guys who like to be together and work hard together."
TURNOVER. A few of those guys leave every year, yet the Revs roll right on. Clint Dempsey left after the 2006 season; last year, the club didn't aggressively pursue Pat Noonan, who briefly left for Europe before coming back to MLS to play for Columbus, and John also moved on.
Yet through drafts and discoveries, the Revs have perhaps the strongest fleet of young players in the league. Rookies Kheli Dube and Chris Tierney are contributing, and so are Sainey Nyassi, Kenny Mansally, Amaechi Igwe, Adam Cristman and Wells Thompson, all of whom were acquired last year. Injuries knocked Taylor Twellman out of action for the first half of the season and Michael Parkhurst left in late July to play for the Olympic team, yet Nicol and Mariner found ways to plug the holes.
"Stevie and the coaching staff have done a good job every year of adding new players," says Joseph. "Over the years we've lost a lot of key guys. To add guys like Dube and Mansally and Sainey shows that Stevie and Paul want to add to our good nucleus, players like Ralston and Michael Parkhurst and Matt and Khano Smith. They've been a part of the team for three or four years, now."
Events like the 2008 All-Star Game in Toronto remind him of where he might be, even if he's happy where he is.
"You see it every week on TV, with all the people coming out and making noise," says Joseph, who went on trial with clubs in Italy and Germany during the Revs 2002 season after they'd drafted him in January. "It's a great atmosphere, like you see in Europe, and we need more places like this in MLS."
The league, not to mention the U.S. national team, needs more players like Joseph, described as a top-class player and person by nearly everyone. By representing Grenada in qualifying competitions for the Gold Cup, he lost any chance of playing for the United States, which he could do by gaining U.S. citizenship.
"I was just thinking about it today, being around the players," he said a day before lining up for the All-Star Game. "It is probably one of my biggest regrets. I regret I didn't get a chance to play with the United States. I look forward every time playing with players like Landon Donovan on the All-Stars, I think he's probably the best player in the league right now.
"I played for Grenada because that's where my roots are, that's where my parents are from and where I was born, and at the end of the day I'm proud to be representing my country. It's always nice to go home, you know. People recognize me."
NARROW ESCAPES. Joseph recognizes how close he came to not making it as a professional soccer player. Surviving a military operation, as it turned out, might have been easier than what followed.
When he was 5 years old, he and his family took shelter in their house during the U.S. invasion. "I remember hiding below the bed, all the noise and all the bombs dropping," he says. "It happened so close, maybe a few hundred yards away, we could hear the bombs and the explosions. Whatever was going to happen, we were right there, hiding under the bed.
"At that age, you don't really know exactly what's going on or why it's going on. We were just trying to get groceries and water because you never know about the future. I don't remember how long it was, maybe two or three days until we could come out.
"The first thing we did was play soccer. I didn't notice anything different. All the kids were just happy to have a chance to go outside to play soccer or cricket."
In 1994, he joined his mother in New York, where, as it turned out, other dangers lurked. As a tough teenager who'd been drawn away from a scuffling, knockabout existence in Grenada, a blighted Brooklyn neighborhood – Crown Heights – presented all the trappings of trouble: cars and gold and money, and only illicit means to acquire them.
His peers skipped school to play soccer and peddle drugs; he had no interest in college and no ambitions other than to be a professional player, and no idea of how to accomplish that goal. Not many coaches scout for players in this portion of the inner city, but Nick Dimitrievski, in charge of Bryant & Stratton Junior College in Syracuse, made contact. Shalrie's mother, Ann-Marie Joseph, did the rest.
"I hated school with a passion, you could say, but at the end of the day I listened to my mother, who kept pushing me to have something to fall back on," Joseph says. "In those days, I had no plans for anything else. Soccer was always going to be my first choice, my first love."
Moving to a Division I school didn't thrill him, either, at least at first. The program at St. John's University and its coach, Dave Masur, represented an opportunity he wasn't convinced he wanted.
"He was one of the guys who made a big impression on my life, I thank God I met him," says Joseph.
"When I was in Syracuse, I missed my home, I missed my family. When St. John's called me, I didn't really want to go to school, so I thought the opportunity to go to junior college would be better for me. After I visited St. John's, I wasn't really interested in the other schools. I just came straight to St. John's. I didn't hesitate."
The college life didn't turn Joseph into a model student, though he did earn a degree in sports management. Masur played him at forward, midfield and in defense to exploit his versatility and athleticism, and he earned All-American honors as a senior. In college, Joseph also balanced his life, measuring the demands of soccer with those off the field.
He and Smith enjoy visiting restaurants and clubs in Boston, yet Joseph lives in the suburb of Dover with a couple, Betsy and Leo Alden-Dunn, whose three grown sons all played soccer as kids.
"They look after me, they're like my second family, taking care of me," he says. "I've known them for a while. When I first came up here, they got to know me, they're fans of the team. They're great people."
Nearly everyone associated with Joseph – teammates and opponents, his coaches and those on opposing teams – share that same opinion of him. He's as selfless as they come, the consummate professional and ideal teammate. Often mentioned as a league MVP candidate, an honor usually bestowed on an attacking player, Joseph increased his prominence by scoring three goals in SuperLiga play. He's been voted to All-Star teams and the MLS Best XI numerous times. Fierce final or friendly, he brings it all, every time.
"You saw it again tonight, he's just so dominant in the middle of the park," said Reis after the All-Star Game. "He plays the role so well it's like we have two guys in there. He showcased everything, all his skills and how good he is.
"Even though [Cuauhtemoc] Blanco got the MVP, I think most soccer aficionados will look at the game and see how dominant he was in the middle of the park and give him the nod."
This might be the year those aficionados who hold the vote nod their heads in his direction come October.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)