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Steve Nicol: Dead Man Walking?

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 17:   Head Coach Steve Nicol of the New England Revolution leaves the field after the 1-1 tie against the Houston Dynamo at Gillette Stadium August 17, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Gail Oskin/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 17: Head Coach Steve Nicol of the New England Revolution leaves the field after the 1-1 tie against the Houston Dynamo at Gillette Stadium August 17, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Gail Oskin/Getty Images)
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Having taken half a day and a poor night's sleep to deliberate and pacify the murderous, emotionally-based reactions within, it is time now to think clearly and analytically about what went on last night. Not a reaction to the whole game, mind you - CMajor should be along for that sometime today - but a reaction to the undeniable and no-longer-ignorable conclusion that is being drawn across the board in New England Revolution fan circles and maybe, just maybe, to those less passionate about the team. I speak, of course, for the conclusion that Steve Nicol's illustrious tenure at the helm in Foxboro has reached it's end, and he should be fired.

Whether it happens today, tomorrow, or at the end of the season, the second half of last night's 4-4 draw with the Philadelphia Union was the nail in the coffin for me and, seemingly, a number of Nicol apologists who follow the Revs. Once again, New England carried a lead in the second half. Once again, Stevie signaled an intent to bunker in and try to absorb interminable amounts of pressure at an unreasonably early stage in the match. And once again, the Revs conceded an equalizer within the dying minutes of a match they should have had wrapped and sealed.

To illustrate my point, I will turn to one of Coach Nicol's post-game comments yesterday. When asked if he expected Philadelphia to come out swinging like they did in the second half, he included the following in his response:

"We wanted to try and start the second half the way we started the first half and take it straight at them."

New England's performance out of the gate after the interval paints an incredibly contrary picture to that statement. Philadelphia owned the run of play for the entire second half and grabbed their second goal in just the 54th minute, less than ten minutes after play resumed. It was readily apparent even then that the mentality of the entire squad had changed from offensive and bloodthirsty to scared and defensive. Then, instead of deterring his team from falling into that pattern, Nicol brought on Pat Phelan for Rajko Lekic, the most dangerous striker on the field, in the 58th minute.

If a coach wants his team to take the game to their opponents and play with the same explosive offense that they displayed in the first half, it would seem totally counterproductive to replace a potent attacking weapon with a recognized defensive option just thirteen minutes into proceedings. It can't even be said that the goal changed Nicol's mind; he was actually preparing to bring Phelan on before the goal was scored but was delayed for an unknown reason by trainer Sean Kupiec.

Either the team fell apart and didn't play to Nicol's explicit plan, or the aforementioned quote is a case of him blatantly lying to the press. Allow us, for a moment, to assume the former. Some may argue that the current Revs squad lacks the quality and experience to carry out the plans of their coach, but I disagree. Especially in its current iteration, a squad featuring seasoned vets like Matt Reis, Shalrie Joseph and Ryan Cochrane along with bright talents like Milton Caraglio, Benny Feilhaber, Rajko Lekic, Monsef Zerka and quality young players such as Kevin Alston and A.J. Soares should be more than capable of seeing out a three goal lead and playing more or less to their coach's instructions.

This leaves only the assumption that Nicol's commands were either willfully ignored or misunderstood. The first guess would suggest that Stevie has lost the locker room, something I don't see happening, at least not on such a devastating scale that his players would deliberately and obviously disobey him. On the other hand, the second guess implies that Nicol is not a competent coach. I'm not sure anyone who has been paying attention to MLS in the last decade could argue that he is wholly incompetent, but it is possible that he's being exposed for crippling tactical inflexibility and an inability to judge players on a consistent basis given his current circumstances. Remember, the most successful period of time he presided over occurred with Paul Mariner at his side, and there are more than a few analysts and fans out there who are beginning to believe that one cannot be successful without the other. Sometimes there must be a yin to a coach's yang for him to flourish, and not having Paul at his side may be exposing Stevie's weaknesses.

Let us now assume that Coach Nicol was deliberately lying to the press. First of all, that's a little mean-spirited, but given the state of affairs in Revsland lately I'm not sure anyone who usually joins me in the press box would be all that surprised. Second of all, though, that ties right back into the argument that Stevie is unfit to lead this team anymore. Anyone with eyes and half a brain can recognize the pattern that's been forming over the last month or two. The Revs jump out to an early lead and often look threatening while they do it, but as the second half begins and wears on, they rapidly pull back into a total defensive effort that invariably results in them conceding a late equalizer and/or winner. The mentality and tactical shift involved starts at the top, and Stevie's substitution patterns also lend credence to the hypothesis that he encourages his team to become cautious and defensive far too early in matches. Most worryingly, he doesn't appear to be learning from this. If it's obvious to everyone else, how can it not be obvious to him?

This isn't the first instance of Nicol's stubbornness holding the team back. One could cite the insistence on using a 4-5-1 when it obviously wasn't working earlier this year, or the bizarre way that he has favored Zak Boggs on the right of midfield with options like Sainey Nyassi, Ryan Kinne and Ryan Guy rotting on the bench or on the practice field as examples of his intractability getting in the way. Any of the reasons I've listed here could be enough to form a basis for at least vetting out other candidates, if not outright replacing the coach.

Now I know a lot of people are going to blame outside factors. Lackluster roster options, poor front office personnel and decision-making, and an apparently disinterested ownership group definitely haven't made it easy on the former Liverpool and Scotland legend. The fact that the Revolution organization on a whole looks like a bad situation right now is not up for debate. Some will argue that no one could do better given the circumstances, and maybe that's true, but given what's been going on lately, doesn't the club owe it to the fans to at least try?

Sometimes change for change's sake is a good thing. I'm certainly not sitting up here on my high horse and trying to tell anyone that Stevie is a bad coach - his record speaks for itself. I'm just no longer sure he's still the right coach, and that's all that matters.