TORRANCE, Calif. -- The first loss was painful but tolerable.
The host New England Revolution entered the 2002 MLS Cup final with a .500 record as heavy underdogs against the Supporters Shield-winning LA Galaxy. The Revs took the match to overtime before falling to a golden goal scored by Carlos Ruiz.
After the second loss, however, Taylor Twellman hit his limit. In 2005, the pregame roles were reversed, but the result remained the same. New England was expected to defeat the bottom-seeded Galaxy but lost 1-0 on an overtime goal scored by a Guatemalan (this time it was Pando Ramírez).
"It was in the middle of 2006 and it was right around the time of the World Cup [roster] decision that didn’t go my way and I thought, 'You know what? I’m tired of this crap," Twellman recalled. "I went to a metal shop in Boston and I remember asking, 'Would these medals turn into a nice chain?' I wanted to turn it into a dog chain, like for the backyard."
The reigning league MVP handed over his two silver MLS Cup medals to the proprietor.
"It wasn’t enough for a full dog chain … I remember the response: 'You may need one more to pull it off.' It never registered to me at the time that I might lose two more [finals]. I just gave them to him," Twellman, now an ESPN analyst, told SI.com. Losing four finals in six years -- that’s inconceivable (outside Buffalo). But it happened to Twellman and his Revolution teammates. He abandoned his silver medal from the 2006 setback to the Houston Dynamo in his locker. A year later, after New England blew another lead and lost to Houston 2-1, Twellman tossed his medal into an RFK Stadium trash can.
"I don’t know why anyone would keep them anyway. Who remembers second place?" he asked.
Revs fans certainly remember. And so does the club’s 38-year-old coach, Jay Heaps, a former defender who was one of three players (along with Twellman and Steve Ralston) to play in each of New England’s four Cup defeats.
Heaps called the 2002 run a "great story." In '05 and '07 the Revs "should have won it," according to the coach, but faltered late. Heaps added that his three-year-old son recently found the '05 medal, sans ribbon, at the bottom of a toy chest. But it’s the 2006 loss that really lingers for Heaps. He called it "personally devastating."
Twellman broke a scoreless tie in the 113th minute at Pizza Hut Park (now FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium) but Houston equalized a minute later through Brian Ching. The Dynamo led the ensuing shootout 4-3 as Heaps stepped up to take the 10th kick. The rugged right back was far from the usual suspect in that situation but several teammates had deferred and Heaps bravely accepted the responsibility. He rolled his effort into Pat Onstad’s waiting arms.
"I wanted to win the game any which way I could," Heaps said.
"Eight years ago, if you’d have told me after he missed that penalty, and it was one of the worst penalties I’ve ever seen, that he would coach the team back to MLS Cup…" Twellman said. "I sat in that room watching him cry and go through the grieving and the phone calls after, [and] he was a man. He took it like a man. I still tell him when it comes up, 'You weren’t afraid to fail.'"
Shalrie Joseph and Andy Dorman are the only current Revs who have experienced MLS Cup disappointment, and neither is likely to take the StubHub Center field for Sunday’s final against the Galaxy. But those losses, perhaps unfairly, remain part of the organization’s DNA. Heaps told SI.com that he’s proud of the way his old New England teams are remembered. They were talented, balanced and tough to play against, and they featured an MLS who’s who: Matt Reis, Michael Parkhurst, Carlos Llamosa, Clint Dempsey and Daniel Hernandez also were among the club’s silver standouts.
But their legacy is a testament to the power of those final 90 (or 120) minutes. Championships change perception. It doesn’t say much about those Revolution teams that they lost those four individual games. But it does impact how they’re remembered.
"I think we’re proud of what opposing players would say about us. If you were playing New England at that time, you know it was going to be a tough game," Heaps said. "But there’s no question, if we’d won two or three of those games, the team would be regarded as a dynasty, not just as a really good team. I think winning the big game matters a lot."
The Revolution couldn’t do it, and their run soon ended. Concussions forced Twellman into retirement. Heaps and Ralston hung up their boots as well, while Dempsey and Parkhurst went abroad. Lean years ensued. As the losses piled up, questions arose about Robert and Jonathan Kraft’s commitment to fielding a contender. The criticism was especially pointed when Heaps, then the club’s TV analyst, was named head coach following the 2011 season. He had no experience and was working full-time as a stockbroker.
But he was not afraid to fail.
"Was Jay hired partly because he was the hometown kid and [came] at a discount? Sure. But it’s up for Jay to make it work. That’s his biggest success," Twellman said. "I’ve gone to the last two college combines and Jay is brought up every single time I talk to college kids. He has something where young players want to play for him. It’s infectious. Whatever he’s doing, he’s made it an organization that young players want to play for."
Said winger Chris Tierney, who’s been with New England since 2008: "I think you can look to Jay taking over as when a lot of things changed. Credit Jay. I can’t imagine there’s a staff that works harder than his does and yeah, the club took a lot of stick for that but it’s really worked out. From when Jay took the job, things changed immediately in terms of our level of professionalism. It ramped up.
"Jay pushed for things in the locker room -- a new video system, getting the room redone -- small things that make you feel like you’re in a more professional environment."
Heaps remembered the strength of the core he played with and set out to build one of his own. He put his trust in several younger but talented players, saw the potential in castoffs like Charlie Davies, Teal Bunbury and MVP finalist Lee Nguyen and then, when the time was right, added U.S. national team veteran Jermaine Jones to the mix. The club’s investment in Jones surprised many, but Heaps said the owners’ commitment was always there.
Along with GM Mike Burns, Heaps built a team that was hard to play and fun to watch, more so than the ones on which Heaps played. He instilled a culture, and New England has noticed. Regular season attendance at Gillette Stadium has risen nearly 30 percent over the past four years.
The Revs have respect once again. But not a title, and the Krafts are still desperate for that as well.
"I know how committed they are to soccer, and I know since the day I joined the club that they’ve done a heck of a lot more for soccer than anyone gives them credit for," Heaps said, adding that whenever a potential "big-name" designated player was discussed, "not once did we hear, 'Oh no, you can’t do that because it’s too expensive.'"
Heaps said an MLS championship would "mean a lot to me and the [Kraft] family, not for what the media may say about it, but for how bad they want it, how important it is to them. That’s why I work as hard as I can, because of how committed they are."
The Krafts have been champions already of course -- three times, thanks to the New England Patriots. And those three Super Bowl trophies are just part of an amazing 15-year run in Boston that's seen the Bruins, Red Sox and Celtics also win titles. Only the Revolution have missed out, which has frustrated players and fans who’ve worked to lift pro soccer’s stature in a competitive marketplace.
"The Patriots have a couple of tough weeks and everybody’s saying Tom Brady’s done. It’s what have you done for me lately. But fair enough," defender Chris Tierney said. "People pay good money in Boston to watch their teams and they want to see winners."
He would know. Tierney, 28, was born in Wellesley, Mass., and went to high school in Dedham. He said he had birthday parties at Revolution games as a kid and that he was “heartbroken” watching from the stands when Ruiz’s golden goal eluded Adin Brown in 2002. Tierney, who has one goal and two assists in this year’s playoffs, endured and survived the lean years in Foxborough. He has a big game to prepare for. But the emotions aren’t far beneath the surface.
"It’s weird to be involved in it from this angle because for so long, even all through college [at Virginia], every time the Revs were on I’m finding a way to watch the game," he said. "You try to put aside your fan boy identity a little bit and focus on doing the job. But yeah, it isn’t lost on me how important it would be to win this."
There’s reportedly been progress for the club’s quiet pursuit of a soccer-specific stadium, with a site in South Boston now under consideration. The momentum is building, and it’s not hard to start daydreaming about the boost a championship might provide after so many years of yearning.
"I’m trying to not think too much about it now. When it’s over, I’ll think about the weight of it for me. I’m trying to prepare like it’s any other game," Tierney said. "But to be part of a team that brings a championship to this organization and the city of Boston would be a dream come true."