The news on Monday that Revolution coach Steve Nicol had been let go was bittersweet for most. He was the longest tenured coach in league history, was considered by many the best talent evaluator in the league, and led what is considered the league's first consistently dominant team.
Changes in the way teams are allowed to sign players eliminated much of Nicol's ability to evaluate and sign players, and coupled with the retirement of a number of key players in recent years, the team had slid back into mediocrity, missing the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
After 10 years on the job, it was clear that a change was needed.
During the majority of the last decade when the Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots were all regularly in the playoffs and/or winning championships, one local team was often overlooked. The New England Revolution were a fixture in the MLS playoffs, and competed in four MLS Cup Finals from 2002 to 2007. They lost them all, some in excruciating fashion, but they fit right in with the rest of their local sports brethren who were competing at the top levels of their sport.
The man spearheading that golden era of soccer in New England was head coach Steve Nicol. Nicol joined the team in 2002. He was able to bring stability to a club that had previously had four coaches during its six years of existence and had never advanced past the first round of the playoffs despite elite talent.
In his first year Nicol led the team to an MLS Cup Final appearance, a brutal extra time loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy in front of over 61,000 fans at Gillette Stadium (still the largest MLS Cup Final crowd in league history). The team would return to the Final three consecutive years from 2005-2007, losing them all, the most gruesome of which was in 2006, when Taylor Twellman scored what appeared to be the game winner in the 113th minute only for Houston Dynamo forward Brian Ching to net the equalizer 60 seconds later. The Dynamo would win the title in a shootout.
Fun Fact: Ironically, the Revolution had lost their two previous MLS Cup Finals ('02, '05) on a golden goal (sudden death). But, the rule was changed for the 2006 season to that of regular FIFA rules (two 15 minute extra time periods, no golden goal). So, had the rule never changed, Twellman's goal would have brought home the teams first league championship. Sigh.
So what allowed Nicol such a success as a coach in the MLS? He worked mostly on a shoestring budget, even by MLS standards, so he wasn't able to go out and sign the best free agents. Nicol built his teams brilliantly through the draft, chief among them were first round selections Pat Noonan and Clint Dempsey. The latter rounds of the draft also proved to be fruitful as Nicol built the teams depth that way.
The trouble for Nicol and the Revolution stemmed from the fact that with the Kraft ownership group (understandably) not interested in opening the purse strings to keep these players for the long term, when their contracts were up and they were due large raises, the team simply couldn't afford to keep them. Coupled with the sudden retirements of long time cornerstones like Twellman and Steve Ralston, and a few misses in the draft, the talent pool evaporated almost over night.
Other factors, including the advent of the designated player (essentially a franchise tag that doesn't count against the salary cap) allowed other teams with more ambitious owners to sign high dollar players (Thierry Henry, David Beckham, etc), thus raising the talent level in the league and throwing the Revs further into a hole.
Maybe the biggest turning point for Nicol came in the past year though. The ownership, sensing that the Revs had fallen behind the majority of the league, went out and actually spent money in the past off-season. They brought in high level players like Benny Feilhaber and paired him with current cornerstone Shalrie Joseph on a team that was expected to make some positive steps towards returning to the playoffs. After an up and down start to the season, the wheels fell off in the middle portion of the year and the team again missed the playoffs.
The theory is that Nicol's voice may have grown stale in the locker room and that his methods simply haven't evolved at the same rate that the league has. If that's the case, then ownership is making the right moves. The next coach will need to have a strong understanding of the U.S. collegiate scene, and also will need to put in more effort in recruiting players from overseas (something that Nicol never did well).
The last few seasons shouldn't tarnish what Nicol built over the past decade. Despite not winning any of his four MLS Cup Final appearances, Nicol did win a US Open Championship (2007) and a SuperLiga title (2008) and was responsible for building the Revolution into one of the league's most dominant franchises over the past decade. Without him, it's fair to wonder if New England would even have a team in MLS, and the man who succeeds him will have some large shoes to fill.