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ON SOCCER

End was long time coming

CHICAGO -- It was cold here last night, with a stiff wind coming off Lake Michigan. I could hear the wolves baying in the darkness somewhere up beyond Evanston. It was a lonely vigil indeed inside the reborn Soldier Field, which looks like the abandoned love child of the Roman Senate and a flying saucer.

But someone had to bear witness, to provide an affidavit that the New England Revolution, your New England Revolution, still were playing soccer . . . somewhere. Let it be affirmed that the Other 11 on Route 1 took the league's best team 11 minutes into overtime in the MLS Eastern Conference final before falling, 1-0, on Chris Armas's goal.

You remember the Revolution, of course. They began the season against the Fire here back in April, fell asleep for two months, and dropped out of the regional sporting conversation. By the time they woke up in mid-September and started winning . . . and winning . . . and winning, everybody but the most dedicated Revheads was watching something else.

That's why they were playing a championship semifinal here on a Friday night, because Da Bears are taking over da joint this weekend. That's a big reason why fewer than 15,000 people showed up here to watch a team that hadn't lost at home since July.

Maybe if the match had been in late August, it would have been different. But Major League Soccer has become the summer guest that simply won't leave, sitting on the patio in shades and sandals with the fallen leaves piling up around him.

By the time the two survivors play for the title a week from tomorrow in Carson, Calif. ("Road to Carson" doesn't quite have that buzz, does it?), most folks will be out buying their Thanksgiving turkeys. That's more than a month later than last year's Foxborough final. If this keeps up, Santa may referee next year's match, with Prancer and Dancer calling the lines.

In England, in Italy, in Spain, in Germany, soccer can get away with being a nine-month sport because its supremacy is unquestioned, as baseball's was here half a century ago. But soccer, meaning spectator soccer, is a summer thing in the States, a fun family activity that's relatively easy on the wallet.

Once the season spills into September and the kids are back in school, though, the air goes out of the ball quickly. Ask the US women's team, which was playing to full World Cup stadia in the summer of 1999, but to half-houses this fall.

If you're a Boston-area soccer junkie, you had more than your fill here during the summer -- the Gold Cup with the US men, the US women playing Norway in the World Cup quarters, FC Barcelona and Juventus dropping by, the Breakers making their WUSA playoff run. You didn't need to join the Revolution's fife-and-drum long march through the countryside.

Much of that is the fault of MLS, which takes 30 play dates to eliminate two teams, then another month for playoffs. No other professional league takes so long to accomplish so little. In a fast-twitch society with a short attention span and a quick hand on the clicker, soccer can't afford to let itself get lost amid the more seasonal sports.

The Revolution certainly didn't help themselves with their midsummer snooze, which eerily resembled last year's Van Winkle job. Between June 28 and Aug. 30, the team didn't win a game.

By the time it did, the Red Sox were making their stretch run and the Patriots were about to begin the season. So one of this town's great sporting runs was obscured by the cheering from other precincts.

The Revolution are soccer's version of Silky Sullivan, the slow-starting, fast-finishing thoroughbred who captured everybody's imagination in 1958 when he came from 40 lengths behind to win an allowance race and from 30 lengths behind to win the Santa Anita Derby. When he ran in the Kentucky Derby, TV needed a split screen -- one for Silky Sullivan, one for the rest of the field.

The original Silky finished 12th out of 14 at Churchill Downs and people eventually lost interest. What was different about the Revolution was that most of the $2 dollar bettors stopped watching them somewhere in the middle of the backstretch, before they began their split-screen surge.

But I can testify that your New England Revolution were still running, running, running here last night -- until they slammed into a roadblock just off Lake Shore Drive.

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