FOXBOROUGH -- The only reigning MVP in town is not yet his usual dynamic himself, and he certainly knows why.
''It's tense," says Taylor Twellman. ''No matter how you look at it, it occupies your mind a lot. I know I've been unfair to my teammates. I even had sinusitis, and the doctor said it was due to stress."
So what's going on? Team USA coach Bruce Arena will select his team for the 2006 World Cup Tuesday. Though Taylor Twellman of the New England Revolution is the defending Major League Soccer scoring champ and defending MVP, he isn't sure if he'll make the cut, and he can't get it out of his mind. Three games into the new season, he is scoreless, and that's just not Taylor Twellman, a man who was put on this earth to score goals.
American-born soccer players dream of representing the country in the world's most intensely followed sporting event (the Olympics are a clear second), but Twellman is not just any old American-born soccer player. He is from a soccer family, one of a handful of second-generation players who have come out of the ever-expanding soccer culture that began to blossom in the '60s, with the North American Soccer League (NASL). His father, Tim, was a 10-year NASL veteran. Soccer was a vital part of the sports menu for the St. Louis-born striker. That, plus baseball (his maternal grandfather, Jim Delsing, was a 10-year major leaguer who could not shake the identity of being the man who pinch ran for Eddie Gaedel, Bill Veeck's midget), basketball, and golf (his uncle Jay owns a PGA Tour card). Taylor Twellman is your basic red, white, and blue sports machine.
Now Taylor Twellman is going to score, and score often; everyone agrees on that. He will probably start Sunday, when the Revs, who feel as if they've been on the road for five years, finally make their 2006 home debut at Gillette Stadium, against the Chicago Fire, one of their fiercest rivals. Twellman has scored more career goals against the Fire (nine) than any Rev in history.
He actually got off the schneid -- sort of -- in a recent practice, scoring twice in a 4-1 conquest of Harvard. With a two-week gap in their schedule, the Revolution booked games against Connecticut, Boston College, and Harvard, beating UConn as well as losing to BC, whom Twellman gives full credit for being much more prepared to play than he and his mates were.
Hey, props to the Eagles. They defeated a team that has gone to the MLS Cup each of the last two years, not some bottom-feeder. The loss appeared to awaken coach Steve Nicol's squad, which looked much sharper against Harvard.
The Revs enter Sunday's game banged up, however. Among the impaired players are captain Joe Franchino (hamstring), Pat Noonan (hamstring), and Steve Ralston (groin). But Clint Dempsey, another player hoping to get the okey-dokey from Arena, and Twellman are feeling OK, and the Revs aren't asking for sympathy cards. They're just happy to be playing at home for a change.
This is one team that lives up to the famed Bill Parcells dictum: ''You are what your record says you are." The Revs are 1-1-1, having scored and surrendered the same number of goals -- 1. This, acknowledges one and all, is what they have thus far earned. It is universally assumed they will start playing better. They have too much going for them, starting with a first-rate coach in Nicol.
''Steve Nicol and [assistant coach] Paul Mariner have helped me so much," Twellman says. ''They were each first-rate players in their day, and when they speak I am bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, soaking up everything they're telling me."
As a former striker for England, Mariner can speak eloquently about what it takes to be a world-class striker, which Twellman happens to be.
''A striker needs to be tough-minded and very thick-skinned," Mariner explains. ''You're talking about playing before thousands and thousands, and even a hundred thousand in the big matches, and knowing that you can't always succeed. You're not going to succeed on all your chances."
''Taylor Twellman," he continues, ''is a predator in the box. He makes good runs to the box, and when I'm talking about runs, I mean a year here or there. He's a master of quick movement. He's probably the best in the league as finishing as far as the half-yard is concerned."
Twellman says there are different categories of strikers. ''There are the tall, target strikers," he says. ''There are the small, quick strikers. There are the active strikers. And there are strikers who try to find space, who don't dribble a lot."
At 5 feet 11 inches, and a listed 168 pounds, he is not a tall striker. But he is unafraid to stand his ground in the box, and he is noted for his heading, for, he says, good reason. ''It's pretty much a locker room joke that I have the biggest head on the team," he says.
Year by year, the Revolution are earning their keep in this town. The players know they'll never be at the Brady-Ortiz-Manny-Schilling-Bruschi-Pierce level, but they are slowly finding their niche in this great sports area. Their own success has helped, of course, but nothing would benefit the game more in this country than a fairly deep run in the World Cup. Team USA has a tough draw (in Group E with Italy, Ghana, and the Czech Republic), but its current FIFA ranking is an exalted fourth, which has to mean something. Four years ago the US was eliminated from the World Cup in a highly competitive match with traditional power Germany. There is no doubt the Americans can play.
But the Americans on the Revolution are realistic enough to know where they fit in the pecking order. ''Especially in this stadium," points out Twellman. ''You need to win a championship in order to get noticed. You want to go to the weight room," he says, ''and it's 'We won three championships; what have you done?' "
Of course, he's kidding, and the truth is the profile of Twellman and his mates has grown, and will continue to do so. Soccer isn't going backward in this country. Soccer specific stadia are starting to spring up, and we are producing young stars such as Landon Donovan. And we've got young veteran stars such as yes, 26-year-old Taylor Twellman, pride of the New England Revolution and the MLS.
What they all long for is the day when they can stop explaining soccer and, yes, defending soccer. I mean, they play the world's most popular game.
''It does get old sometimes," Twellman says, ''but we all know that to be a professional soccer player is to be an ambassador for the game. And we accept it."
Class is class. A week ago Manny wasn't hitting, but we all knew he was going to hit, and he is. Taylor Twellman hasn't scored yet, but everyone knows he will soon start scoring.
A goal or two against the Fire Sunday would be nice. Bruce Arena will be watching.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.