After Wednesday's debacle in Philadelphia, Saturday night's match was always going to be about bucking the trend. Over a month of blown leads came to a head when a 4-1 halftime advantage still wasn't enough for the New England Revolution to win a game, and it was a painful and humbling experience for all involved. The Revs could have carried that burden back home last night and folded to a strong FC Dallas team, and no one would have been surprised.
Instead, they flipped the script and managed to make a first-half lead count, beating Dallas 2-0 on goals from Shalrie Joseph and Rajko Lekic and keeping their first clean sheet since July 20th. Breaking this long streak of drawing and losing on last-gasp goals was immense for this team and it showed in the locker room after the game.
"It's good to win," said Steve Nicol, putting it simply. "Overall, we've got to be happy."
Joseph started the party with his goal in the 14th minute, putting the finishing touch on a well-crafted move that he started himself. His through ball to Milton Caraglio allowed the Argentine striker to set up Monsef Zerka for a golden cross that plonked right at Shalrie's dreadlocked head and drilled into the bottom right corner.
"I made a great late run and Zerka played a magnificent ball in. I just had a diving header, tried to put it in the corner, I got great contact on it, and it went in for me and it felt great," he said.
The captain went on to talk about how important getting the early goal was after the Union match. "We needed that early goal to kinda calm us down, especially after Wednesday night's performance. It allows us to be more comfortable. It's allowed us to relax a little bit more."
It was a comfortable spot to be in, but nowhere the Revolution hadn't already been before. The mood was obviously tense as the second half wore on and Dallas continued to threaten while the boys and blue struggled to hold on to their one goal advantage, until Rajko Lekic swept home a flicked-on corner with five minutes remaining in regulation to put the result to rest.
"I saw it was to my left foot and, to be honest, I hate using my left foot," said the Dane of his strike. "But I thought, 'let me just try to hit it,' and it went in, and I was so happy."
The Revs were able to see out stoppage time and claim a 2-0 victory, picking up their first home win since May and their first shutout since July 20th. After a long streak of late-match collapses, the players and coaches could be forgiven for lacking confidence in their own ability to close, but it seemed that last night was just going to be their night.
"You kind of know when it's your night," said Nicol. "And to be honest, I sat there and felt as though we were going to get another goal. The key was obviously not giving one up."
While Nicol focused on the defensive effort as key to having things end differently Saturday night than it had in so many matches previously, the consensus around the locker room was that a shift in tactics, both mentally and in substitutions, was all-important.
"Tactically we didn't drop into a shell like we have been," said Benny Feilhaber, who patrolled the middle and provided an engine for the attack along with Shalrie. "It doesn't work. Unless you're an amazing team at defending 10 guys behind the ball and you have no brain lapses whatsoever and lack of concentration, it's going to be real tough playing 45 minutes sitting back and not giving up goals."
Coach Nicol has been criticized recently for making moves and employing tactics that force New England to bunker down very early in matches where they carry a lead. The results have spoken for themselves, but tonight the trend was halted and the major difference wasn't roster choices, it was smart substitutions.
"Stevie [Nicol] made some good substitutions," said goalkeeper Matt Reis, who posted his fifth shutout of the season and first since the win over DC United in July. "We weren't putting midfielders on for forwards. We weren't just conceding possession."
"We definitely didn't drop in 11 guys behind the ball," said Feilhaber. "We kept two forwards up there pressing their defense and didn't make it easy for them to build it out of the back."
Hopefully this may signal a shift in philosophy for the Revs going forward. It always seems as though they play like a team in the ascendance when they have a license to get forward and attack the goal, whereas playing defensively is more of a death sentence. As Matt Reis pointed out, the Revs stayed hungry in the attacking third and came away with a reward that's become all too unfamiliar this season: all three points.
"[The second goal] just showed how we were still attacking. We were trying to score goals. We weren't just sitting back. We didn't play the perfect game, but we got three points and we're not out of it yet."