It's been seven long years, but the New England Revolution are finally headed back to the MLS Cup Final. They certainly didn't make it easy, but in the end, a 2-2 home draw with the New York Red Bulls was enough to send them through 4-3 on aggregate, where they will face the winner of the Western Conference's series between Los Angeles and Seattle.
Even without league-leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, the Red Bulls grabbed goals from Tim Cahill and Peguy Luyindula. The Revs equalized each time, though, off a pair of short-range headers from Charlie Davies, served up by Chris Tierney's excellent left foot.
"We're excited about getting there obviously," said Jay Heaps after the match. "What a game. It was two teams, it was almost like a heavyweight fight, two teams going at it."
The comparison was not unfounded. Each team slugged at the other over the ninety minutes, and while the match was perhaps less chippy and brutal than the first leg, it still took a physical toll on all twenty-two players on the pitch.
New York drew first blood in the 26th minute thanks to the Designated Player-connection of Thierry Henry and Cahill. Henry turned nicely at the top of the box and played a short ball over the defense to Cahill, who had drifted away from Jose Goncalves. It looked like Goncalves had recovered well enough to body Cahill away from the ball and let Bobby Shuttleworth collect, but Cahill somehow stuck his foot between Goncalves' legs and poked the ball past Shuttleworth to take the lead.
It was a nervy moment, but not a time to panic.
"Obviously we didn't follow exactly what we wanted to do, we didn't want to give up the first goal or the second goal," said Heaps. "But I really liked the way we responded. It shows a lot of hunger in our guys and we're excited to be able to get through."
The Revs struck back in the 41st minute with what looked like a rehearsed play. Tierney played a short corner to Lee Nguyen, who immediately laid it back to Tierney for a whipping, in-swinging cross to the six. Davies ghosted away from his marker and snapped a header down and behind himself to the far post. The ball may have hit his leg or his stomach on the way through, but somehow it managed to squirt untouched through a sea of New York defenders and into the back of the net.
The aggregate score was now 3-2, but the Revs needed to be cautious, because another Red Bulls goal tied the away goals tally. Unfortunately for the home side, it came in the 53rd minute.
A cross intended for Cahill missed him thanks to a tussle with A.J. Soares, but it deflected off of Andrew Farrell in the box and rolled out into the middle of the eighteen. Goncalves failed to track Luyindula, who pounced and cleaned up the loose ball to level the aggregate score and the away goals.
The Revolution squad that lost eight games in a row in the summer may have folded at this point. They probably would have conceded another goal, and been left ruing chances missed and a golden season gone wrong.
This Revolution squad, though, did none of the above.
In the 70th minute, a Tierney cross was bizarrely mishandled by Luis Robles and Ambroise Oyongo, who appeared to impede each other. After Teal Bunbury almost slotted home, the ball eventually found its way back out to Scott Caldwell, who calmly laid a ball to the left back to Tierney. The Wellesley native's whipping cross was right on the head of Davies, who once again nodded home to restore the aggregate lead and propel the Revs into the final.
"Words can't really describe it for me," said Davies. "It was such a long season, so many ups and downs. But we've always stuck together, and we've continued to get better.
"For me personally, it's unimaginable, really. After these five years of really just grinding it out. Things would go against me, there's a lot of tears and pain and sadness, but through it all, I just continued to fight and stick with it, and things have turned out for the best."
From there, the Revs saw out the final twenty minutes with aplomb, despite some handbags and shoving in stoppage time that saw Oyongo and Lloyd Sam receive yellow cards.
Several players covered themselves in glory during this match. Shuttleworth had yet another banner day despite giving up two goals. He only made two saves, but it was his decisiveness off his line and command of the box that truly highlighted his performance, as he consistently robbed Cahill of aerial opportunities off the deadly service of Henry, Sam, and Dax McCarty.
Davies, though, received the game ball from Heaps, and the coach - born and raised locally, with four MLS Cup Final appearances as a New England player under his belt - felt the striker earned it.
"Even yesterday, I got on him in training. He was kind of taking it light and I really wanted to see him get up to where he was tonight," said Heaps. "From the opening whistle, the number of times he got behind their back line early and then the two chances. Charlie Davies can score and I think that when he gets in those areas, he's going to put them away."
New England will face either Seattle or L.A. in the MLS Cup Final on Sunday, December 7th.