Steve Nicol needed a plan going into Saturday’s match against the Rapids.
With his tired team playing its third match in seven days, the Revolution manager had the unenviable task of figuring out a way for his team to come out of Colorado with, at very least, a point in their pocket.
Knowing that his players wouldn’t be at their sharpest given the grueling schedule, the unforgiving altitude of Commerce City, CO (elevation: 5,164 ft.), and the sweltering temperatures (game time temperature: 95 degrees), the manager kept it simple.
“We wanted to keep it in front of us and try and stop them from getting in behind,” said the Revolution manager. “I thought we did a great job on that.”
Colorado came into Saturday’s match fresh off of a 4-1 thrashing of New York on Wednesday and, undoubtedly, wanted nothing more than to continue their goalscoring exploits. And, Nicol, to his credit, fully expected this.
By unleashing a malleable 4-5-1 formation that featured central midfielders Stephen McCarthy and Pat Phelan dropping back to counter Colorado’s speedy attack, the Revs allowed the game to come to them.
It was a brilliant tactic, as the Rapids played right into the Revs hands. Sanna Nyassi, coming off his first career hat trick, came out anxious to score at the onset. But with a number of Revolution defenders in his way, the speedy playmaker found very little space to operate.
“In the first half, even in the second half until the penalty we were defending pretty well,” said Revolution midfielder Benny Feilhaber. “Everything was in front of us and nothing was too much behind us.”
With much of the play in front of them, the Revs had to rely on the counterattack and set pieces to find offensive success. And that objective worked to perfection in the 25th minute.
From a Kevin Alston throw in deep inside the Colorado end, McCarthy flicked it off his forehead and over to Feilhaber, who nodded it through for the early lead.
“(Stephen McCarthy) was perfectly positioned and he just flicked it on to me,” said Feilhaber. “And then I was perfectly positioned to just right there and headed it in. So it was an easy goal, but the tough part was actually getting there (through the Colorado defenders).”
As the Revs entered halftime with the lead, Nicol couldn’t help but be pleased with his team’s cohesive display through the first 45 minutes.
“We came out at halftime delighted,” said Nicol. “We started the second half exactly the same as we did the first.”
But then, things took a turn for the worse just after the hour.
In the 63rd minute, Nyassi poked into the Revs area ready to score before Chris Tierney chopped him down from behind. Tierney was red carded and a penalty was awarded, which Caleb Folan slotted through to level it at one apiece.
With only 10 men left to defend against Colorado’s pace, the Revs were looking at predicament: stay true to their approach or sit back and kill the game by dropping back further?
Sensing the need to make some minor tweaks, Steve Nicol countered speed with speed by inserting Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally shortly afterward to give his team a fighting chance against the Rapids.
But there was little the Revs could do when Kosuke Kimura launched a 70-yard free kick that bounced over a poorly-positioned Matt Reis and crashed into the net to make it a 2-1 game in the 82nd minute.
It was a fluke goal that Nicol could only chalk up to the high altitude, as well as the silver Jabulani ball, which is only used by each year’s defending champions at their home park.
“(That) second goal only happens here,” said Nicol. “The ball that we used was impossible for the players to play properly.”
Regardless of the ball or the conditions, the fact remained that the Revs were down with time expiring and their chances to level dwindling.
Enter Mansally. In the 89th minute, the enterprising striker speared into the box, where he was immediately brought down by Scott Palguta.
And just as it was nearly a half hour previous, referee Geoff Gamble pointed to the spot, where Shalrie Joseph banged it through moments later to deliver the undermanned Revs from the brink and help them earn a valuable road point.
It was a gutsy performance by a group of players who stuck to the plan from start to finish and, by and large, neutralized Colorado’s dangerous attack.
“You see the character of (our) players,” said Nicol. “We didn’t stop pushing and we got some free kicks rightly so. And to be honest, I think we deserved to get the point at the end of the day.”
Brian O'Connell is covering the Revolution for ESPNBoston.com. He is the co-founder of New England Soccer Today (www.nesoccertoday.com), which covers professional soccer within New England. He can be reached at BOConnell21@aol.com.