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Revs overcome experience gap but suffer MLS Cup heartbreak again

CARSON, Calif. — Despite a chasm of MLS Cup final experience separating the New England Revolution from the LA Galaxy, the away team didn’t look out of place in a 2-1 extra-time loss Sunday. The Revs matched LA’s shot total and gave the Galaxy a couple late scares that nearly swung the result the other way.

“Of course, they played at home, and they made a lot of pressure, but I would not say that their players play crazy and we have no chance,” New England midfielder Jermaine Jones said after the game. “They have good players, and for these players we have respect, but this game was an open game.”

Just one player in New England’s starting 11 had been on this stage before: Teal Bunbury was an unused substitute in Sporting Kansas City’s 2013 win. Andy Dorman, a veteran of the Revs’ three consecutive losses from 2005 to 2007, came on as a substitute for Lee Nguyen in second-half stoppage time.

On the other side, half of LA’s 30-man roster won the 2012 MLS Cup, and seven of its starting 11 had final experience.

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​Bunbury had the best late chance before extra time, following teammate Chris Tierney’s response to Gyasi Zardes’ opening goal. His ambitious chip over goalkeeper Jaime Penedo’s head and toward the back post pinged off the crossbar in the 85th minute.

Those inches separated New England from a stunning comeback victory, but history showed this match would probably have to be resolved in extra time.

The Galaxy and Revolution played the additional minutes in both 2002 and 2005, with LA winning both without needing a penalty shootout.

Still, New England had reason to be confident at the 90-minute mark.

It took nearly half an hour, but the Revs took control from the Galaxy before the end of the first half. Nervy defending, particularly from Andrew Farrell, gave way to the same on the opposite end.

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Jones said once New England’s less-experienced players stopped respecting stalwarts Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane too much, the match opened up.

“A lot of what they were doing was long balls and trying to get the second balls,” he said. “I think [LA center back] Omar [Gonzalez] had a lot of touches, but he always kicked the ball long.”

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As a result of the Galaxy’s longer play out of the back and New England’s nervy passing game from its own defenders, the central midfield often missed out on the flow of play. Nguyen, an MLS MVP finalist, didn’t have his usual metronomic effect, making it possible for his team to remain competitive when he left the match due to leg cramps.

It turned into a track meet rather than a chess match, and New England was prepared to fight.

“I think the first half and maybe after 60 minutes,” Jones said, “you can see that we can battle with them.”

Patrick Mullins, a two-time MAC Hermann Trophy winner at University of Maryland, embodied the lack of fear in his team. The 22-year-old rookie came off the bench for the third time in the 2014 playoffs, taking Charlie Davies’ place when New England needed a goal.

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He worked his way behind the LA back line in the 79th minute and looked up to see Tierney streaking past his mark in the penalty area. Mullins cut the ball back on the ground and onto Tierney’s left foot, and the Revs’ longest continually serving player scored.

“My role on the team the past stretch of games where we’ve been doing well is to be a spark off the bench,” Mullins said. “I’m confident in my abilities. I know I’m a good player, and I know I can play at this level. … Was I fearless out there? I wanted to go out and make sure I did the best I could for the team, and I think I did that.”

Sunday marked another inescapable failure in a championship game for New England. Five times it has been to the MLS Cup final, and all five times, it came out on the losing end. Manager Jay Heaps has experienced each of those losses, four times as a player and now once as a coach.

After its most recent loss in 2007, the Revolution dropped two Eastern Conference semifinals in a row to the Chicago Fire and then didn’t make the playoffs again until 2013. Goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth said he could appreciate the franchise’s recent progression despite a similar outcome in the crucial match.

“We’re a young team, and if you look at it now, we have a lot of guys that have MLS Cup final experience,” he said. “We’re going to have guys that have been there and done it, and we have to rely on those experiences to try to get back here.”

Jones characterized the difference between the teams as minuscule. After playing in MLS since August, he said players need to understand that any team can win in the playoffs.

“I don’t want to say that they have more quality,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like the LA Galaxy killed us with their movements or something. … I think the big point is that everybody can see that if you’re concentrated, you really can battle with everybody in this league.”