Stolica’s classy finish does the trick

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Before Ilija Stolica ever stepped on the field for the New England Revolution, head coach Steve Nicol lauded the Serbian forward’s experience and eye for goal. The 31-year-old showed both on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, scoring his first career MLS goal in his first start to lift the Revs to a critical 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo.

Stolica’s 62nd-minute goal was a rare moment of quality in an otherwise uneven affair, with the Revolution (3) and Dynamo (2) managing just five total shots on target between them. After a drab opening 45 minutes, the second half looked like it would provide more of the same, but Stolica’s stunning strike arrived from out of nowhere to help the Revs extend their unbeaten streak to eight games in all competitions.

“It was kind of a strange game to be honest,” said Nicol. “Both teams were kind of coughing it up to each other. But obviously we had plays, we won the game one-nil, got three points and we’re going to move on.”

Points continue to be the primary objective for the Revs (6-9-3, 21 pts.), who have fought their way back into the playoff picture by taking 10 points from a possible 12 in their last four games. Even Stolica – who made his debut with the Revs as a substitute last weekend against D.C., just 24 hours after stepping off the plane from Europe – was well aware of the importance of claiming three points against the Dynamo.

“It was a tough game,” he said. “It was maybe not a good game to watch, but we needed that one, and I think we deserved it more than them. The team that would score first would win for sure. I was happy that we did it.”

For the first 60 minutes, it didn’t look likely that either side would make that breakthrough. The best chances until that point were hardly chances at all, with a few near misses at each end providing the occasional moment of excitement.

But Stolica brought the home fans to their feet in the 62nd minute, showing the quality which helped him score 96 goals in 264 professional appearances prior to joining the Revolution. A clearing header from the Dynamo backline fell kindly to Sainey Nyassi, whose volley attempt went directly to the feet of Stolica at the top of the box. The Serb used his first touch to settle the ball and his second to lash home a right-footed shot from 20 yards, placing the ball just inside the left post.

“In that moment, you don’t have enough time to think; you just react,” Stolica said. “I saw the ball coming to my left foot and struck with my right foot.

“I’m very happy to score the winning goal,” he continued. “It’s really a great feeling, a great satisfaction for me. I was very happy to hear an ovation from the crowd when I was coming out.”

Matt Reis had to stop just two shots to make Stolica’s goal stand up, as the veteran goalkeeper recorded his 50th career shutout with the Revolution. Both of those saves came in the first half, as the Dynamo failed to register a shot on goal in the final 45 minutes.

After picking up back-to-back wins at home, the Revs will now head on the road for five of their next seven league games, beginning with a two-game swing through Chicago and Kansas City next week. While the Revolution has pulled itself back into playoff contention with its recent turnaround, the club is well aware of the importance of the upcoming road trip.

“[The upcoming games] can make or break our season,” said Reis. “If we can get points out of these next few games, we can put ourselves in a really good spot to get that final spot in the playoffs.

“We’re doing things right,” he continued. “Our team defense is great – guys are blocking balls in front of me and the stuff that’s getting through is very manageable … We’re really focused on limiting their chances and by doing that, that’s going to give us a great chance to win. The last couple of games, we’ve done that.”