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Nicol's worth is truly priceless

WRENTHAM -- If you wish to congratulate a Kraft about being in charge of the hottest team in town, the immediate response might be, "Which one?"

OK, most people would be referring to the 7-2 Patriots, who are 3 points shy of being undefeated in their last eight games, and who, in case you haven't heard, are preparing for a game of some import at Gillette Stadium Sunday night. But there are others among us who would be referring to the New England Revolution, who are undefeated in their last nine games, and who will be playing in Chicago tonight for a berth in the MLS Cup final, the championship game of Major League Soccer.

The Revolution aren't supposed to be here. They suffered through a stretch this season in which they went 1-6-6. At this most crucial stage of the season, they do not have team Most Valuable Player and scoring leader Taylor Twellman, idled by a stress fracture in his left foot, nor do they have Joe-Max Moore, the decorated veteran of many a national team appearance who has messed up his left knee.

Hmmm. A Gillette-based team playing its way through serious injury with honor and valor. Where have we heard that before? Could it have anything to do with, yes, a coach?

"You have to give credit to Coach Nicol," maintains Revolution defender/midfielder Jay Heaps. "He never gives himself any."

Steve Nicol is a self-effacing 41-year-old Scot who was named interim head coach for the final 21 games of the 2002 season and who has done the job with distinction here in 2003. His extensive career in soccer includes a long stay in Liverpool, where he made 467 appearances and was an integral member of a side that captured four English League titles, three F.A. Cups (imagine an all-comers professional tournament in which the Yankees and Trenton Thunder were in the same competition), and the 1984 European Cup. He earned 27 "caps," as they say, for Scotland.

The key to everything that's happening now, say the players, was Nicol's refusal to abandon his tactical principals when things went south earlier in the season. When the team wasn't winning, no one suggested it was because the right players weren't playing or the right system wasn't being imposed. The Revolution are trying to do the same things they were doing in July. It's all coming out a lot better now; that's all.

"The biggest thing is the decisions the players are making on the field," Nicol maintains. "The guys have made better decisions."

"We've maintained the same formations," says Heaps. "The most important thing is that he stuck with his plan. As a player, you don't want a coach coming in after a tough loss and rearranging the furniture. That's the last thing you need, a coach losing confidence in you or what he believes in."

The cutoff line was Sept. 7, when the Revolution lost a 2-1 game at San Jose. The following week, they beat the MetroStars in Giants Stadium, next played a scoreless tie with Colorado at Gillette, and then pulled out a pivotal game against Columbus.

Trailing, 2-0, some 78 minutes into the match, the Revolution came back on goals by Moore, Shalrie Joseph, and, finally, captain Joe Franchino, his an overtime free kick, to produce a semi-miraculous 3-2 triumph.

"That was the key game," says rookie scoring sensation Pat Noonan. "Guys really stepped up."

Noonan is a 23-year-old Missourian via Indiana University who has compressed nine of his 12 goals against the MetroStars, and who scored two of the team's three goals in a two-game aggregate-goal triumph (2-0, 1-1) over the MetroStars spread out over the past two weekends.

Soccer alarmists might be noting that the Revolution advanced to this semifinal game against the Chicago Fire by going 3-0-1 against the MetroStars in their last four games (that's correct; the MetroStars were New England's foe in the last two regular-season games, as well). The question is whether the voodoo they have been doing to the MetroStars will be as successful against another opponent.

The players say, "Why not?"

"We're on a roll right now," Noonan says. "We're finding ways to win games. The defense doesn't take many dangerous chances and on offense we're finishing opportunities when we get them. We're getting goals early, and then we're playing well for 90 minutes, not 45."

"It's all about confidence now," says Nicol. "When you're playing like this, you step on the field and feel you're going to win. It's a huge advantage. You just feel as though you're going to win and win and win."

It's mixed in with something else; namely, the memory of the dark times, when the team was stepping on the field assuming the polar opposite. "It's like Coach K always says," reminds Heaps, who also played a little basketball at Duke when he wasn't kicking the smaller round ball around. "We had our nose rubbed in it, and we know how that felt. We know what it means to have some tough losses."

Not lately, however.

There's no more of this aggregate-goal business. It's win one game outright against Chicago and then advance to the MLS Cup in Carson, Calif., Nov. 23. The Revolution didn't start this Fire, but they believe they know how to finish it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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