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Saving grace

Goalkeeper Reis has made the most of his opportunity with the Revolution

FOXBOROUGH -- Matt Reis has never easily accepted the apprentice goalkeeper's role. Reis has been battling the label of backup, though that has been his position for most of his collegiate and professional career. But Reis's profile could be changing after he saved two penalty kicks as the Revolution eliminated the Columbus Crew from the MLS playoffs last Sunday.

Reis concluded that match with a cut over his right eye after clashing with Edson Buddle, who scored the tying goal in stoppage time. Reis is preparing for tomorrow's Eastern Conference final at D.C. United with a bruise under his right eye and three stitches above it.

"Say it's 16 stitches," Reis said after practice at Gillette Stadium earlier in the week. "It sounds better. Anyway, I'll have a scar to remember the game by."

There will be other reasons for Reis to recall the match. Reis became the third MLS goalkeeper to twice stop penalties in a match. Though neither attempt, by Ross Paule in the 24th minute and Tony Sanneh in the 73d, were well struck, Reis's ability to anticipate the shots was impressive.

"There are a few reasons to forget that game, too," Reis said. "It was a great victory, a hard-fought victory. We made them play our game, outworked and outbattled them, and my teammates only let them have four shots on goal -- unfortunately, two of them were penalties."

Reis regretted having dribbled far out of the penalty area, then losing possession, allowing Columbus an open shot in the second half. It was the type of adventurousness discouraged in the US and Europe. But goalkeepers with mobility and superior foot skills are often on the verge of such indiscretions.

"There is a balance," Reis said. "You have to make sure not to spray the ball out of bounds every time. I want to give the team the gifts I have that nobody else can provide. But you have to be careful not to try too much, to not be too adventurous. You have to play within yourself and not do something to hurt the team."

Since Reis replaced Adin Brown, who is out for the season with a concussion, the dynamics of the team's defense have changed. The Revolution virtually reverted to a 3-5-2 formation, Reis often acting as a sweeper. Reis is comfortable with the role, since he played striker until he was 16.

Goalkeepers for championship teams usually are either long-established starters or tall, rangy types who can almost physically intimidate the opposition. Of the final four goalkeepers in the playoffs, only Los Angeles's Kevin "El Gato" Hartman has been a consistent starter this season. Reis, D.C. United's Nick Rimando, and Kansas City's Bo Oshoniyi spent much of the last two seasons as either backups or on the injured list.

Hartman is a major reason Reis left Los Angeles to join the Revolution last year. Reis spent two seasons at UCLA, then five more with the Galaxy, as Hartman's backup. Reis emerged from the bench to lead UCLA to the NCAA championship in 1997, and was the Galaxy's starter for nearly half the 2001 season and a third of the 2002 season. But Reis has watched far more games than he has played in the last 11 years, including the Galaxy's 1-0 overtime win over the Revolution in the 2002 MLS Cup final at Gillette Stadium. After that, Reis requested a move to the Revolution, though Brown had just completed a spectacular season.

"Kevin had established himself in LA as the most successful goalkeeper in the MLS, and for good reason," Reis said. "I thought my best opportunity to play was in New England, because, over the years, Adin has had a host of injuries."

Reis followed his brother, Michael, into the goalkeeping position. "He is five years older than me and my parents used to take me out of school to watch his games. When he went to play at St. Mary's [Moraga, Calif.], I used to warm him up for games when he came to Southern California."

Reis arrived at UCLA in 1993, a year after the departure of US national team goalkeeper Brad Friedel. Reis redshirted one year, then was a reserve for three seasons behind Hartman and Chris Snitko. Reis became accustomed to winning at UCLA, then was reunited with Hartman and coach Sigi Schmid with the Galaxy, the only team to qualify for all nine MLS playoffs.

Reis might have taken a risk by moving to the Revolution, which had never compiled a winning record before last year.

"There is a winner's mentality here," Reis said. "The nucleus of the team that went to the [2002] final is here and that feeling is still in the locker room, because the game was played here at Gillette. I noticed it last year in the Eastern Conference final -- we are never too high or too low. There is a steady flow. Even in Columbus, the locker room wasn't berserk. Even in San Jose [a 2-2 tie after surrendering two stoppage-time goals], we weren't too low. The mentality has been to get to the playoffs and win. We know that, even in the 11th hour, as long as we have a chance mathematically, we have a chance to win the whole thing.

"It comes down to four games. From February [training camp] in the Azores until now, it's a long time to play for four games. But that's the setup."

The Revolution discussed practicing penalty kicks last week, but coach Steve Nicol ruled against it. Before last week, Reis had not stopped a penalty kick for the Revolution.

"Some goalies are good at spotting the way the kick is going to go," Nicol said. "Matt generally goes the right way, but if they get enough meat on the shot, you can be in the right place and not stop it."

Said Reis: "After 11 penalty kicks, I was due, if not overdue, to stop one."

Reis is 6 feet, and Rimando, who succeeded Reis at UCLA, is 5-9. None of the Final Four goalkeepers compares in size with Brown (6-5), who remains the MLS's best goalkeeping prospect for export. But this group illustrates that in a country that is becoming known for exporting goalkeepers, even journeymen can perform at a high level.

"Matt has good size, but what separates him from bigger guys is that he is more athletic and quicker," said Revolution goalkeepers coach David Vanole, who coached Reis at UCLA. "He is a good soccer player.

"Goalkeeper is the deepest position we have on the national team, and Bruce [Arena] is looking for guys who are getting weekly competition. The mentality is different if you are a reserve. If Matt continues to be a starter, I wouldn't be surprised if he got called in. He is almost 30, so he is getting into his prime."

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