Having lost twice as many games as they had won with only a month of the regular season to go, New England Revolution wereone of the worst teams in Major League Soccer. Results had not improved under caretaker boss Steve Nicol, who had taken over from Fernando Clavijo in May.
But Nicol, the ex-Liverpool stalwart, was confident they would. Sure enough, Revolution started winning, scraped into the play-offs, and kept going untilthey reached the MLS Cup Final, staged in their own fabulous new Gillette stadium. They lost the decider – Los Angeles Galaxy scoring the only goal deep into overtime – but Nicol had done enough to earn a one-year contract.
After this year’s exploits, the former Scotland international is arguably the most successful British coach in the States since they dominated the NASL scene in the 1970s. Several northern European coaches have floundered in MLS after imposing a direct, combative style of play on teams who would naturally evolve around a South American playmaker. But Nicol’s British style suited his squad – they were well-organised, mean, and in Steve Ralston, one of MLS’s most under-rated players, had someone whooffered a superb supply of crosses to the likes of striker Taylor Twellman, the League’s second highest scorer in 2002 with 23 goals.
“When I took over, we started to go about things in the right way but we weren’t getting the results,” says Nicol, who led Boston Bulldogs to the Division 3 title in 2001.
“It took eight or nine games before we started a winning streak. We cut out the mistakes, got a settled team and learned how to win games that were going against us.”
The Revs’ mainly young, American players work hard and appreciate that Nicol knows what he is talking about. After 473 senior appearances for Liverpool, including two European Cup Finals, he should do. “I read a quote recently which I agree with: ‘It’s harder to work with players who think they are better than they actually are,'” says Nicol.
“That gives you problems. But my players work hard, listen and pull together.”
Nicol inherited a hotch-potch of a squad, three of whom left and three of whom joined the day after he took over – such is a coach’s life when the League does the buying and selling.
“The central contracts thing in MLS was an eye-opener but once you get used to the system, you adapt to it and it becomes the norm. I’ve made it my team already – you don’t have to bring in tons of new players to do that, just get them playing the way you want them to.
“Spending three years with Boston Bulldogs helped an awful lot. By far the biggest thing about it was being able to make mistakes with not many people being interested. It was a vital time to learn, and I couldn’t have done that in England.
“I was enjoying playing at Doncaster, but I found myself wanting to say things and questioning why we did things a certain way. But you have to keep your mouth shut and wait for a coaching opportunity to come up. The first one was in Boston. It wasn’t a conscious decision to come to the US.”
Nicol, however, is not planning to return to the UK in the near future.
“I brought the wife and kids for a year and we’re still here. It’s fantastic. I’m applying for my Green Card now (to allow him to stay long-term). My only aim is to do well where I am. I’m miles away from the finished product but I’ve got nearly four years’ experience now.”
Club New England Revolution (USA)
Born December 16, 1961, in Irvine
Playing career Ayr 1979-81, Liverpool (Eng) 1981-95, Notts County (Eng) 1995, Sheffield Wednesday (Eng) 1995-98, Doncaster (Eng) 1998
International caps 27
Managerial career Notts County (Eng) 1995, BostonBulldogs (USA) 1999-02, New England Revolution (USA) 2002-