The United States vs. Mexico: one of football’s greatest rivalries.
Intense, intriguing; passionate and pulsating, fierce and fiery – the tussle for the Concacaf crown has been feverishly contested for decades, transcending international competition and filtering through to club level.
While their neighbors to the south had dominated the soccer scene for generations, the U.S. has gradually bridged the gap – the ever-increasing quality and interest in the sport further intensifying an already-raging feud.
As we build up to the newest chapter in this fascinating narrative with the eagerly-awaited 2023 Leagues Cup tournament, we look back on an unforgettable tale in New England Revolution history, which saw the Revs overcome the most testing of circumstances to triumph in an outrageously raucous and wildly controversial Major League Soccer vs. Liga MX showdown: the 2008 North American SuperLiga.
Fifteen years ago (almost to the day), Steve Nicol’s Revolution went into battle both on and off the pitch – ultimately emerging victorious over old nemeses in the form of the Houston Dynamo to clinch the club’s second major trophy, and helping to earn an honorable moral conquest for all MLS players. This is the extraordinary story of a rollercoaster ride – from dirty elbows to a diverted airplane; turbulent skirmishes and a trophy lift spurned – as told by those involved …
The story begins in 2007 with the birth of a new competition: the SuperLiga – an eight-team tournament pitting four teams from MLS and four from the Mexican Primera División against each other in a bid to grow the sport in North America, spotlighting this renowned rivalry, and providing a platform for MLS players to showcase their quality. Needless to say, there would be nothing ‘friendly’ about these clashes, and with a highly publicized $1 million award to the winning team, there was “serious prize money” on offer, as MLS Commissioner Don Garber had boasted at the launch event.
Though an enticing incentive for any player, often some things in life are too good to be true, and that proved to be the case with a controversial catch: though the Mexican players would share the prize money in full should they succeed, conversely, a triumphant MLS team would only receive a 15% percentage of the profits – the rest to be collected by the league.
Understandably, MLS stars felt they were being treated unfairly, and prepared themselves for a fight – not just on-field with their Liga MX counterparts, but with the league: ready to show what they were made of, on both counts. With pride as well as prize money to play for, there was plenty of fuel added to a roaring fire, stoking the flames which ultimately served as a burning motivation for those across MLS, including the Revolution, who had been selected to compete in the tournament for the first time in its second edition.
New England legends Taylor Twellman (to this day the Revs’ all-time record goalscorer) and goalkeeper Matt Reis (the club’s highest appearance-maker between the posts) assert players across North America were excited by the prospect of the SuperLiga showcase, heading into the tournament with a point to prove, eager to spotlight their talents on the pitch, but also ready to stand up for what was right off it.
Taylor Twellman: “For many of us in the league, USA vs. Mexico was always something that was intriguing. The national team was still at a level at that time when we were on a real good run against Mexico, but people still believed, and I think rightfully so, that Liga MX was better than Major League Soccer. So, when we heard about the SuperLiga, we were all excited. Then you hear about the prize money, and you think: ‘Okay, this is going to get interesting!’ The majority of our team was American, but we had some foreign players, and even they were as much into it as any American player was because they were pro-MLS.
“Anything in Concacaf, you’re going to have to expect the unexpected; you’re going to have to have your composure. The moment the ball’s rolled, the whistle is blown, you’re like: ‘Wait a minute here!’ It was always like that – any Concacaf game we played for the national team – never mind the Revs – always turned into a s*show, but during that time at the Revolution, we were not shy of anyone, we were never scared of anything. Sometimes, it got the best of us, but this time it didn’t.
“The Leagues Cup is exponentially different than anything the SuperLiga was about, anything the SuperLiga was – but if not for the SuperLiga in 2008, we're not sitting here talking about Leagues Cup. So, there is part of us that can reflect and say: ‘That's pretty cool, right?’ but at the time, I'm not sure any of us thought it was pretty cool!”
Matt Reis (who would go on to be named the tournament’s State Farm ‘Portero Supremo’ – ‘Supreme Goalkeeper’): “The SuperLiga was one of those things the MLS was trying to do to stoke the fires of the rivalry between Liga MX and MLS; to see where everybody stood outside of the Concacaf Champions League.
“The tournament was touted as a ‘million-dollar prize’, but for us in MLS, we were only supposed to get $150,000. At that time in the league, as players and a Players’ Union, we were fighting for everything. Altogether, we just said: ‘This isn’t right. We should have at least had a say in some of this.’ We went back-and-forth with the league, and with Don, and everybody else, about what was fair. That kind of attitude of those players at that time really showed the solidarity to try and push the league forward, and push soccer forward in America. Since the beginning, we had been trying to work with the league, fighting for respect and fighting for what we felt was right, and this was one of those cases. We were working to try and show that: one) we could definitely win the tournament, which we ended up doing, and, two) that there was value in American players.”
As a result, there were certainly no inspirational speeches required in the locker rooms.
Steve Nicol, head coach: “There was a lot of motivation, which from my point of view was great. Part of my job is the motivation side to make sure they're ready when the game starts, and when everything is going on around them, it makes my job easier. I think from our players’ point of view, the disparity and the basic wage in MLS at that time was nowhere close to the Mexicans’, so, that was an incentive for players to show that they were as good if not better, and that they deserved to be looked after better, and show the owners and everybody else that they deserved to get paid more than they were.
“It became a bit of a motivation for the players to basically tell everybody: ‘Shove it! You think we're second-class citizens, so we're going beat the so-called first-class citizens, and show that we deserve more.’ It was a slap in the face for the players, and I’m glad they took a stand and sent a message to MLS.”
Shalrie Joseph, who finished the tournament as joint-top scorer: “Myself and the team were excited about the competition factor, and as a player, you want to play as many games as you can. We had the opportunity to play against some of the best teams in Mexico, they came over, and we had a lot of fun with it. There’s always a huge rivalry between the USA and Mexico in any sport. Then, hearing the prize money was $1 million made it even more exciting, [but when we learned of the discrepancy], I thought it was a slap in the face to the players. We definitely talked about it – we used it as motivation to make sure we got to the final, and won it all. This was the predicament they put us in, and we didn’t use it in a negative way – we just used it as motivation.”
The tournament hosted on U.S. soil, a ravenous Revolution lined up in Group B against 2007 victors Pachuca CF, two-time Primera Division champions Santos Laguna, and MLS Western Conference winners Chivas USA (a former Los Angeles-based team and subsidiary of Mexican club CD Guadalajara). From the off, temperatures flared. A 1-0 triumph over Santos, courtesy of Kheli Dube’s 70th-minute strike, yielded the first of many red cards shown throughout the competition, as Juan Pablo Rodriguez was dismissed in the first half for an elbow to Sainey Nyassi – the first signs of frustration with the Mexican sides driven by the desire for the full cash prize, and disgruntled to be struggling against alleged ‘inferior’ rivals.
For left back Chris Tierney (now the Revs’ Director of Soccer Operations), the tournament was a baptism by fire. Selected in the first round of that year’s MLS Supplemental Draft, the Wellesley, Massachusetts native debuted for the club in the group stage – the start of an incredible 11-year career with his hometown team, and a thoroughly eye-opening experience.
Chris Tierney: “It was 2008, my rookie year. There was always this debate in U.S. Soccer about how we would do against Liga MX teams. I remember when they announced the tournament, we were all excited to see how we stacked up – and it turned out we stacked up pretty well, given that we won the tournament. I just remember those being really intense games, high-level games, super competitive, chippy games – but it was a fun tournament.
“It did excite us as players because at the time, the perception of MLS was that it was far inferior to Liga MX, so to be able to prove that wrong on the field was a great thing for any MLS team that had a chance to play in the tournament. We were in it to win it, we really wanted to test ourselves against Mexican teams. I think a lot of the players in the locker room had this feeling that we were being treated as inferior by the Mexican clubs, and that they thought it was just going to be a walk in the park, so we were really motivated to do well, and our staff was as well – Steve Nicol rolled out first-choice teams for pretty much the whole tournament.
“I think that we definitely felt a little bit disrespected by the approach of some of the Mexican teams early on in the tournament – they rotated a lot of their starters – but as we advanced, it was really the best XIs against each other in all of those games. You saw that once things started to not go the oppositions’ way in certain games, the games got pretty ugly, and they were not happy about losing to MLS teams.
“It was definitely a case of being thrown right into the deep end as a professional player, getting thrown into a really competitive environment, but luckily, we had a lot of really good senior players at the time – I had a lot of help from senior pros who guided me through the experience, which was great – so I kind of slotted in nicely. I think I managed to show well in that tournament, which gave me more opportunities in league play, and eventually to have a longer career in the league, so it was a great starting point for me.”
Matchday Two earned another narrow victory with plenty of drama: Khano Smith’s 96th-minute penalty snatching the points in dramatic fashion, after Julio Manzur had handled in the dying embers, to defeat reigning champions Pachuca in Foxborough. It was an excellent start for the Revs with two wins and two clean sheets, but with MLS teams entering the tournament midseason, and the Mexicans in the midst of preseason, the squads were in varying shape, and Nicol had to manage minutes carefully.
Nicol: “Initially, I was a little worried about the extra games. We had a squad of 20 but we probably had a real playing squad of 13, 14. Making too many changes would have really affected us. The focus was always MLS Cup, and having all these extra games was the one thing I worried about – but like everything else, when you start playing in it, and then you see how important it is, you obviously want to win it. From a coaching point of view, I was always a little worried that I was playing the first team instead of maybe resting some guys, but when you end up winning it, that obviously makes it worthwhile.”
Steve Ralston, club captain: “It was always good to test yourself, you wanted to play against the best teams. To go against those teams was a great challenge, and something we looked forward to. We took it seriously from game one. At that time, it was a little bit different to the approach for the Open Cup, where in those days the club usually played a lot of players who maybe weren’t getting regular minutes or opportunities, in the early stages – but this was pretty much the normal starting lineup from game one. The mindset was to take it seriously, and we wanted to win.
“I remember Kheli’s goal a little bit – Nyassi squared a ball and I think I flicked it, or dummied it, and he scored. I remember moments, the goals. We probably had an advantage [over the Mexican teams] – they were in preseason, and we had a lot more of the home games, so the ball was definitely in our court.”
Six points from six ensured Nicol’s side would advance to the knockout stages if they were to avoid defeat against Chivas USA in the final group game in Fullerton, California – the only game the Revs would contest away from Gillette Stadium. However, the team did not have the ideal preparation for the fixture (apparently depending on your point of view) with their plane diverted en route to Los Angeles because of an emergency situation which saw a passenger strip naked and attempt to open an emergency exit door – thankfully not a Revolution player, but another astonishing subplot to an already entertaining tale.
Ralston: “I was trying to forget that one! It was … interesting. We were in the back of the plane playing cards, and somebody came to the back and said: ‘Hey, there’s a naked guy at the front of the plane!’ Sure enough, there was. We went up there and the flight attendants were telling him to sit back down, covering him in some blankets. Then he made a mad dash for the door, and tried to open the door. We were in the sky! Fortunately, the guy didn’t have the strength to open the door, and he was tackled by Mike Burns [VP of Player Personnel] and a few others – I think Matt Reis might have been part of that. I remember we got diverted to Oklahoma City, and when we landed in L.A. later on, they had some champagne for us, so that was nice.”
Twellman: “I think it’s the best preparation for a game! It’s one of those remarkable stories of the Revolution during that time that needs to be told in a book. Having to subdue a naked person on a plane is probably a story that everyone will still be talking about in 15-20 years from now. It was one of Matt Reis’ best tackles of his life! I will say: if there’s anybody that’s going to be naked on a plane at the 2023 Leagues Cup, it’s going to be on a charter flight, and it’s going to be someone within a team … It will not be on an American Airlines flight!” (Let’s hope it doesn’t happen at all…)
Nicol: “To be honest, we just thought it was funny! The funniest bit had to be ‘Burnsey’ [Mike Burns], who was sat down the front with Craig Tornberg [General Manager], and after they got hold of the guy, the steward asked Burnsey if he would sit next to the guy to keep an eye on him! He replied with: ‘Are you serious?! I don’t think so!’ so one of the stewards had to sit next to him!”
Once the shock had subsided, New England would ‘bare’ down and grind out the result needed to progress to the knockout stages, as Joseph struck again to claim a point against Chivas USA, answering Ante Razov’s opener with a header in the 78th minute to send his side through – a performance Nicol was particularly proud of.
Nicol: “I remember the Chivas one – as long as we didn’t get beat, we were through. I thought we handled that game well. We were a better team than Chivas, but we didn’t have to go chasing the game. When you’re constantly drumming home about trying to do what you do consistently all the time, to then ask your players to just be cautious – ‘Don’t make any mistakes and we’ll be fine’ – I thought the players handled that well. For 99 times out of 100, I’m asking them to get after it, and be positive, and then all of a sudden, I’m saying: ‘We don’t need to extend ourselves here, we don’t need to make mistakes because we don’t necessarily need to win the game – just don’t lose.’ They did well.”
With just a single goal conceded in the tournament at that point, the Revs were forging a reputation as a tough team to break down, much to Reis’ pride.
Reis: “As a goalkeeper in the defensive side of the game, if you can win games 1-0 sometimes, that’s all you need. We had a well-oiled machine, and a stout defense, and any time you’re in a tournament, if you don’t give up very many goals – you see it in other sports, like hockey for example, that have a goalkeeper – usually the team that wins a World Cup, their goalkeeper usually has been one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament. We did our job in the back, and we got the goals, and we needed them – I remember Khano scoring a late penalty [to win 1-0 against Pachuca]. If you can make saves and keep your team in games, and be solid and not give up anything soft, it helps teams win games.”
At the sharp end of the pitch, midfielder Joseph would shine throughout the tournament with three goals to his name, plus a successful penalty in the Final shootout. Such was his impact, he became a target for opponents’ frustrations – on the receiving end of several nasty tackles, including the altercation that sparked appalling scenes in the semifinal – but the Grenadian didn’t mind the attention, preferring to let his football do the talking.
Joseph: “It definitely got to a point where it was rough tackles, a lot of verbal back-and-forth, some pushing and shoving. That’s what it was about back then in the league. It was a little bit less strict than it is now – you could afford to get away with things – but whenever you play in a rivalry like that, it comes into play.
“It’s in the back of your head but for me, I didn’t think twice about the way opposition players treated me on the field. It’s a sport, and I was always a guy who could dish it out too, so I was able to take some and dish some when it came to that side of the ball. For me, it was a matter of respect – I think they respected me a lot, and they knew what I was capable of, so they tried to limit me getting on the ball, trying to get into my head. It got dirty – they were kicking me, pushing me; trying all kinds of methods to try and get me off my game. Sometimes it’s not even about the game – it’s just a matter of: ‘Can you battle? Can you compete at that level?’ and we had some good players, and good fighters on that team. We were able to match the intensity, and the fight they brought.
“It’s great that I scored some goals, it was good that I was able to help and contribute towards the team, but at the end of the day, it’s all about lifting trophies. I think I fared well but it’s about how you end a season, or a tournament, and most importantly, we won the trophy.”
Reis insists a lack of sportsmanship from opposing teams was nothing new – the Revolution simply had to collectively rise above it, channeling their fighting spirit to focus on the task at hand, and crucially maintain composure, especially with suspensions set to slice through an already-slim roster.
Reis: “We played a lot of games at home against some of the Mexican teams. They were always just chippy. We would go down to preseason trips to Costa Rica and Mexico, and we would get in fistfights almost every single game, because we were a good team, and these guys felt like we were beneath them – that they should be rolling us over – and yet there we were winning. That just angered people, and that’s when the tackles started flying in, elbows started flying in, elbows when no-one’s looking … In the moment, you’re a team, and you’re protecting your players, your teammates, and it was always a thing where games get heated.
“You have to try and be aware of it. I remember one play in a game – I think it was a free kick we were defending, and one of their players was on the edge of the wall. He just hauled off and punched Pat Phelan straight in the head! There was all sorts of stuff like that going on, and winning those kind of games is a sign of a good team – we proved we were one of those teams, and we showed it in that tournament. All in all, it’s a great representation of Concacaf, and what as players you have to expect going into World Cup qualifiers, or Champions League games away in some of those countries.”
The players’ answer when asked of the key to overcoming such challenging circumstances is unanimous: ‘Steve Nicol.’ While the head coach encouraged his players to stand up for themselves and battle back when needed, he ensured it would not be the Revs who sparked violent scenes – only fighting to win, with the focus on the football.
Nicol: “At the end of the day, whatever talent you have will come out, if you go about it the right way. That was the message: regardless of what competition we played in – a league game or a cup game – if we always turned up and made sure that at the very least, we fought harder than the opposition; then win that battle, the talent comes out. That’s what happened – we made sure that if we wanted a fight, we’d fight, but that if they wanted a game of football, we could play football as well. We already had that fighting spirit, and when you stick all the other motivations on top of it, you end up getting the team that just doesn’t want to lose.”
That mindset was imperative in the resulting semifinal, as New England locked horns with familiar foe in preseason adversaries Atlante. That ‘friendly’ contest against the Apertura champions five months prior in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico had been anything but: the Revs received 10 bookings with Jeff Larentowicz and Chris Albright both dismissed, while the Liga MX side picked up one caution, and also had a man sent off.
Once again, the Revolution would go on to clinch a 1-0 win – once again thanks to a Joseph effort on the half-hour – and once again, this fixture would be remembered for its fire, as unsavory scenes broke out in Foxborough. Following a mass brawl after the final whistle with punches thrown (‘What is this – hockey?’ the Sun Chronicle reported at the time), the game ended with six red cards: five for Atlante (three in the final minutes and two post-match), and one for the Revs in the unfortunate Jay Heaps. To this day, no-one knows the reason why the defender (and future club head coach) received the red that ultimately ruled him out of the Final. Still, overall – with only three cautions – the squad handled the situation well with lessons learned from previous experience.
Twellman: “It was weird, but it was always like that. We knew about Atlante from the preseason game – I was with the national team, but I knew there was a scuffle – so much so that Stevie [Nicol] brought it up. He knew it was coming, because if you think about it, Jay was the only one that got a red card, so we’d learned something, even if they didn’t.
“Jay was never shy to make sure everyone knew and heard where he stood, which is why he’s one of my favorite teammates ever. I think he got caught up – I don’t think there was anything awful from him. After the game, we were all like: ‘Wait a minute, why did you get a red?’ but he was in the thick of it. We knew why the other guys had got one … but it wasn’t one of those where he’s raising the roof, or he’s doing other things that Jay used to love to do. It was almost like the ref was like: ‘Here’s a red, now you get one too …’ but it was five for them. I remember all of Jay’s reds, and I remember when Jay was being an absolute knucklehead – and this one, I don’t remember that being the case, so that should tell you something!
“It’s tough in that situation. I mean, it was never hard for me because I was the most selfish person – as long as I was taken care of, I was fine! My teammates will appreciate that quote! But you don’t want to do anything stupid, because if you do, it might not feel that way in the moment – but 24 or 48 hours later when you’re suspended, and not playing in the more important game, you look yourself in the mirror, and you’re like: ‘Really?’ so I think the majority of us had that composure.”
Recalling the chaos of the post-match melee with players, staff and security embroiled, Nicol was naturally unimpressed, though unfortunately unsurprised.
Nicol: “The opposition didn’t do themselves any favors. As far as their reputation was concerned, they came across as cowards to be honest. The punches that were being thrown were cowardly. None of the opposition were facing anybody up and having a go – they were all running behind throwing cowardly punches. Otherwise, we’d have had a lot more people suspended – if anybody wanted to fight us, we would fight, but when somebody is standing behind you hitting you, it’s very difficult to react, especially when they were running away after they did it.
“When those things happen, referees just guess – they feel obliged to do something, and end up giving people cards who probably didn’t deserve it. Heapsy would stand up for himself if he had to, but I don’t know if that was the case. As far as I remember, the goalkeeper was the one who instigated it – I can see him now: he was just a lunatic and cowardly. The challenge for the [first] red card is something I saw coming. They could sense they weren’t getting anything, and I figured that eventually somebody would lose it. It didn’t come as a surprise.”
The clash proved another learning experience for youngster Tierney, who also credits the senior players in the squad for helping to keep the Revs’ emotions in check.
Tierney: “I just remember the games being incredibly intense, and then really turning dark when things weren’t going their way. There were red cards, some incidents on the field … It’s always a difficult balance, especially when you know you’re moving on, and the other team really has nothing left to play for – they’re going to try and leave an impression, and get players sent off, and try to bring you down with them – so I think overall we did well to try to control ourselves. Again, you lean on senior players, and we had really good ones that realized it wasn’t worth engaging at the expense of us losing players for the next game. At certain points, you have to defend yourself in those situations. We did that in the right way, but those games were crazy.”
Thankfully, there were to be no such scenes in the SuperLiga Final – instead, the showcase at Gillette Stadium proved a glorious display of sportsmanship (on and off the field) as two MLS heavyweights went head-to-head: the previous two MLS Cup Finalists in the Revs and Houston Dynamo. The Texans had enjoyed the upper hand in previous years, having triumphed in the two domestic Final meetings – lifting the trophy on penalties in 2006, and with a 2-1 win in 2007 – but with this Final on Foxborough turf, the stars aligned for New England to exact revenge. Yet, the atmosphere between the two clubs was of a civil nature – the two sides united in their fight for fair treatment by the league. Ahead of the game, the two sets of players came together to plan a powerful expression of solidarity: agreeing to share the prize money, refuse a trophy lift and medals, and swap jerseys after the final whistle.
Without the subplot of the MLS vs. Liga MX rivalry, and with the two teams determined to produce their best with a positive representation of North American action, the match itself proved an enthralling, evenly-contested encounter. Nate Jaqua opened the scoring for Houston, capitalizing on a defensive error, before Ralston leveled with four minutes left of the first half, firing home from a seemingly impossible angle. With neither side able to find a winner in normal time, the game headed into extra-time, and yet again, the Revs battled back from a goal down, as Joseph netted a pivotal equalizer just after the 100th minute, heading home Ralston’s free kick to cancel out Kei Kamara’s header, forcing the lottery of a penalty shootout.
A goal and assist to his name, it was a special game for captain Ralston. Though he remembers the night fondly, he is exceptionally humble of his contribution.
Ralston: “We were down 1-0 – Nate Jaqua scored for them – and then I was fortunate to score. [Mauricio] Castro chipped the ball in, and I came running at the back post and volleyed it to make it 1-1. It was one of those: hit it as hard as you can, and it went in! It was good, it was a big moment to tie the game up, and I felt like it gave us some momentum. It happened right in front of the Fort end, and it’s always fun to score down there, so it was a big moment, and I was happy that it went in.
“Then we were down 2-1 in overtime: Kei Kamara scored a goal – he leapt into the sky and headed a ball over Matt. Then late in the game, we got a free kick, and I just hit a hopeful ball in the box, and Shalrie went up and headed it in.”
Riding the momentum of Joseph’s dramatic leveler, and with a passionate home crowd behind them, the Revs were re-energized, desperate to defeat the Dynamo and lift their second piece of silverware, portraying a remarkable resilience to twice claw themselves back into the contest against the side that had inflicted so much heartbreak in previous years – refusing to suffer at the hands of Houston for a third consecutive time.
Ralston: “We were able to keep fighting back. There were a lot of motivating factors for us – first of all, playing the Houston Dynamo in the Final, having lost the previous two MLS Cup Finals versus them; the money issue was another, and of course, you always want to win a Cup Final. We’d been to Finals, we’d gotten over the hurdle the previous year, winning the Open Cup; we were at home – we didn’t want to disappoint the fans, and let them down. All those things combined gave us the edge. We just felt like in this game, we were destined – we had this feeling that we were going to win.”
Twellman: “That’s one thing I’ll hold my hat on: 90 minutes playing against us was pure hell, whether you wanted it or not, and we thrived on that, we survived on that many times. From the moment Steve Nicol became head coach, it was: ‘We’re going to play every game, and make it miserable – some are going to be ugly, some are going to be great.’ Steve Nicol would always find a way, especially in knockout round tournaments – he always found a way to push the right buttons and he did so his entire career here.
“It’s amazing that we fought back because you would think that being down twice to the team we’d lost two MLS Cups to, that the team would have been flat, that the team would have fallen off – but that energy was never there. Being at home helped; with any Revolution home goal, the emotion was high. When we tied it the second time, we almost knew we were going to win on penalties, because you’ve got the energy – the crowd was into it, and the fans deserved that moment. They had been through it all – four MLS Cups; they’d had some dire moments in the biggest games – so for us to have come back, that energy picked up, and that carried us through the penalties.”
While Twellman and co. may have felt confident ahead of the shootout, the crowd at Gillette Stadium would have been forgiven for fearing a case of déjà vu, especially when goalkeeper Reis (normally a reliable spot-kick specialist) blazed his attempt over the crossbar, after Ralston and Craig Waibel had converted their opening efforts. However, after Joseph and Chris Wondolowski had also proven successful from the spot, Reis superbly saved Houston’s next two strikes to hand his side the advantage.
Smith, whose injury-time penalty had claimed the points against Pachuca, was this time unable to clinch the game from 12 yards, and Ricardo Clark sent the tie into sudden death. With the next five attempts dispatched (birthday boy Larentowicz, Tierney and Chris Albright on target for the Revs), Corey Ashe stepped up – only to smash his shot off the crossbar, winning the game for New England with an exhilarating 6-5 shootout triumph. History was made as the Revolution became the first MLS team to claim the SuperLiga crown, and as the hero of the hour, it was a moment Reis will never forget.
Reis: “For me, penalty shootouts were always fun, because as a kid, I would take penalties, and then as a goalie, it’s always fun because – much like goalscorers scoring a goal – when you save a goal, there’s a big momentum shift in the game. Those are big moments, and stepping up and performing in those big moments is always fun, and you know that you can help the team out if you do save a penalty. Those guys hit some really good penalties – I’d love to see the video of it, but it’s crazy to see what they called ‘high definition’ back in the day … Now, you try to watch it and it’s barely even legible, which is a strange phenomenon!
“I think that was the only time I’d missed my penalty in a shootout, and we won … so I guess I should have started missing more! For the fans at Gillette, finally getting a chance to win something on the home turf was great, even though the celebration was quite muted afterwards because of all the stuff with the league, and fighting for what we felt was right. The Final was actually played really well, and I think they brought Howard Webb in to referee the game. I remember Kei Kamara scored a header on me, where he just kind of jumped over me – that one still burns! It was played hard – back in the old MLS, you’d play guys from the same teams a lot, and there was always a lot on the line when Revs and Houston played.
“They were always fun battles. We always beat them in the regular season, but they beat us in the Finals. I’d have given up every regular season game to win a Final. It was two great teams, two very good rosters, two great coaching staffs. You look at the amount of players on both of those teams that are still involved in soccer, and still play prominent roles in MLS, and it just shows what great players they were. We had a lot of talented players, and we were able to keep bringing some new ones in, and we found some hidden gems that were out there … but the core of that team had been together for quite a few years. We had been through everything – from preseason trips, and MLS Cup Finals, and Open Cup Finals, and everything in between. We were a hardened team, we had been through a lot together, and it was shown in our never-back-down attitude during the whole tournament. Usually, it got pretty chippy and while we were able to play soccer, if teams wanted to be physical, we could definitely be physical too.
“As a group, we were all really solid, and we had great coaches – Stevie was a great coach, and a great manager. We took it day-by-day, game-by-game, and with us and our neighbors to the south, it was always about trying to get more respect, and really show that this region does play good football, and that it’s not as easy as everybody thinks! It’s hard to play in tournaments, it’s hard to play in the one-off game that ends up being the Final. Every game was an opportunity, and every chance you had to win a trophy was an opportunity. We were always in Finals – we just hadn’t won too may trophies. As a player and as a staff, you want to put trophies in the case, and if you do that, you’ve done your job, and here’s another chance to do that with Leagues Cup.
“That was just an incredible back-and-forth game between us and Houston. Gillette’s a tough place to play – whether there’s 10,000 people there or 50,000 – so the Revs have tremendous fans that have been there since the beginning. You always want to do it for the home fans, and the people who back and support you through the years. You want to give them something to cheer about, and give them memories – just as it is for a player, the memories you have are the big games you’ve been in – so it was great to do it there. With the league and everything else, we went about things the right way, and we showed unity as a group, and as players. It was something the Revs organization should be proud of.”
While the opportunity to bite back for the previous two MLS Cup Finals was an obvious motivation for the Revolution – and sweetened the victory – it was not a narrative Nicol nurtured too intensely, preferring his side to approach the game with a sheer will to taste trophy success.
Nicol: “It’s not always the best way. Using revenge is not top of the list when it comes to motivation. It’s definitely mentioned just as a little caveat, but you don’t really want to send 11 fellas out in a frenzy. If you do that, you’re liable to make mistakes because they’re too hyped up, or get sent off or something like that. You don’t overplay it because depending on the temperament of certain players, it can unsettle them, and make them do stupid things.
“It’s not easy when you lose a Final, and after losing the two MLS Cup Finals, this broke the ice for the players. It’s always thrown at you when you lose a Final, so the fact we won it was tremendous at that point. We’d won the Open Cup by that point as well, which was great, and the players were able to say they won two Finals. To be at home and to eventually win was amazing – penalty shootouts are great if you win, and winning at home just makes the whole thing better. To be honest, had we not, it would have been a complete and utter disaster, so it was one of those situations where thankfully we did win on that occasion, and it was great.”
The stars had indeed aligned: the Revs had vanquished their old enemy, following up October’s Open Cup win with another trophy triumph, showing real heart and fight, and savoring silverware success on home soil – a truly dream scenario.
Joseph: “It was special. Being involved in something like that, you understand what’s at stake. It was one of the hardest games I think I played in because it went to extra-time, and it was against a good team. They had their eyes on me constantly, so I was limited with what I could do on the ball, but it felt great beating them – being out there, being able to celebrate in front of your fans, in front of your family, having the Kraft family there …
“It definitely helped having the games here [at Gillette Stadium] and being able to play the game within the U.S., and then having our crowd support. It helps with the comfort level you get when you’re at home – you feel more relaxed, more at ease. Stepping out at Gillette Stadium and having your friends and family come to watch you, playing for the crest on your shirt, you want to give it your all, and that helped propel us to where we ended up: winning the trophy at the end of the tournament.
“The approach was to win it, as with everything, especially with Steve Nicol. You want to win it, you want it to be remembered, so we went into every game like we were the best team out there, and we wanted to win every game. The camaraderie, the way we interacted with each other, the way we fought for each other … We had a lot of good, talented players in every position – but what made it special is that we fought, and we didn’t back down from anybody else.
“We took the game to everybody, no matter who we played. It was a freedom of expression – the coach let us think for ourselves, he gave us the freedom to express ourselves on the field, and then everyone had each other’s back. On the field, off the field, we all felt like we were a family, we all bonded, and we shared some of the greatest memories. And then we probably had one of the best goalkeepers – if not the best goalkeeper – in Matt Reis. He was able to save, and this club has been fortunate to have some of the greatest goalkeepers in league history.
“People always ask the question: ‘Would you trade a SuperLiga trophy for the MLS Cup?’ But it was great to beat Houston. That club definitely hurt us in the Finals in the MLS Cup, so having that revenge factor, it definitely made it even sweeter to lift the trophy. All the work we put in, the sacrifices, it feels great when you win that trophy.”
Echoing the sentiments, Twellman and Tierney agreed it was no more than the Revolution faithful deserved, especially with the club’s maiden silverware success having been secured in Frisco, Texas – a five-goal thriller against FC Dallas in the Open Cup the previous term.
Twellman: “The Open Cup in ’07 was the one where all of us looked around and said: ‘This is the one we wish the fans would have had.’ So, 2008 kind of paid them for that, and the MLS Cup losses – that win was for the fans, and for the Krafts, and for a group of us that had lost so many key moments in key games. It was cool to do it at Gillette Stadium. When we won, we all looked around and was like: ‘That’s awesome – we couldn’t have done that in D.C. or Dallas?!’ Maybe that was the difference – maybe we need to play Cup Finals at home! It was cool for the fans, though I don’t think we even got a medal … I do remember Shalrie celebrated with a shirt off the entire time, and I was like: ‘Bro, put a shirt on!’”
Tierney: “It was huge. We hadn’t been able to lift a trophy at home to that point in the club’s history. We had won the Open Cup at that point, but it was down in Dallas, so to be able to lift the trophy in front of your home fans, that’s the dream that every player plays for. They are great memories. Coming off those MLS Cup losses that were heartbreaking, the senior players were desperate for a trophy. They fought tooth and claw to make sure we got our first, and luckily, things went our way – getting our first trophy on the board was the key point.
“Getting the chance to take a penalty in the Final was an incredible moment for me. That’s my main memory. I had an idea I would – my game was being a good ball striker, so I knew Steve rated me as a penalty taker. I remember the game ending, and he came right up to me said: ‘You're taking one,” and I said: ‘Great, I’m ready!’ Anyone who says it’s not a crazy-nervous moment is lying to you, but I was really confident. The way I took penalties, I always had a spot picked out, and I knew that if I hit it where, and as hard as I wanted to, that it wasn’t going to be saved, and luckily that was the case there.
“You don’t get to win trophies often. A lot of the senior players after we won joked: ‘We’ve been here trying to win forever, and you just came in and a few months later, you have one!’ That was really the only big trophy I won here – I did win the Eastern Conference Final but not the big one – but they were great memories. It would probably be nice to have some pictures for the club to remember, like on the trophy stand, but I’ve got plenty on my phone of us inside the locker room, and parties we had that night, so we still have a lot of good memories. The trophy is still down in our trophy case here, so I take a peek at it every once in a while and remember back.”
There was certainly no bad blood between the two sides, especially in the aftermath of the game with the players truly united. In the build-up to the fixture, a statement had been released by the MLS Players’ Union, signaling the teams’ intent to share the prize money: “The players on the Houston Dynamo and the New England Revolution have agreed in advance of the SuperLiga final that they will split evenly the bonus money at stake in the game. The players have made this decision to show their solidarity and in protest of the league’s violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with respect to the negotiation of bonuses for this tournament.”
As a result, post-match celebrations were muted, and as Tierney alludes to, photographs and videos of the occasion are limited – the most iconic image depicting Joseph holding the trophy with a Dynamo shirt draped around his shoulders – but for the players, it was a sacrifice that needed to be made.
Tierney: “At the time, if you looked at the discrepancy between what players were being compensated in each league, and the total spend of each team on salaries, we were way far behind at the time. We've definitely caught it up to a certain degree now, but we were underdogs and managed to pull out some wins.
“Our senior players were really upset and concerned about how we were being treated in terms of the prize money. We had a lot of contact with the Dynamo players before the game because of the bonus situation. The senior players from each team that were in leadership positions reached out to each other. It was in good spirit. Some things are more important for the long-term health of the players in the league – you can see past the game coming up – and it was a case of talking, working together on an issue that was important to both teams. We agreed that some of the antics that were happening throughout the tournament weren’t a great look for our league, or for anyone, so we agreed to have a good competitive game, which I think most MLS games are. It was a really fairly-contested game, and a good representation of how MLS players want to act and carry themselves on the field. Coming off some crazy games in earlier rounds, it was a good show for MLS.”
The brave and bold actions of the Revs and the Dynamo marked a strong stand for players across the country, and while it did affect the post-match jubilations, skipper Ralston was proud of the cooperative effort of the two teams.
Ralston: “What I remember most is after the game because of the whole protest stuff happening. We said we wouldn’t collect the medals in a show of support with the Dynamo. I was captain for that game, and I had to go up on stage to get the trophy, so I remember going on the stage with Commissioner Don Garber – he gave me the trophy and the medal, and I gave the medal back to him and walked off the stage with the trophy. Nobody else went up on stage.
“It was a big moment, and I felt bad about doing it, but we had all talked as a group that this was what we were going to do. I regret that we never got the medals, and we never got the chance to celebrate it properly because it was such a weird moment, and we never got to take the trophy to the fans – we just took it and handed it to Mr [Robert] Kraft, and the players went in the locker room, and that was it. We never got to celebrate like you should for winning a Final. It’s sad because it was a big moment for us.
“I remember that after we won, the Krafts bought really nice TAG [Heuer] watches for all the players, which were engraved with our numbers, and the watch itself says ‘2008 SuperLiga’. They didn’t have to do that, and that was really nice. They supported the club for a long time, and we’d been in four MLS Cup finals in the previous six years and could never do it, so to be able to win for them was really nice as well.”
Highlighting the importance of the stand, Twellman asserts the decision was crucial for the wellbeing of the sport in North America, while Reis believes today’s MLS stars are reaping the rewards of their predecessors’ actions.
Twellman: “There was a group of us that were part of the MLS Players’ Association, and we were having conversations. From the moment we knew we were going to play Houston in the Final, we collectively came together on behalf of the MLS PA and started to ask real questions about the prize money. To be completely transparent, it was a lot less about the immediate, and more about the future if this thing was going to really grow. It had a negative connotation at the time but if you asked every individual who was on that call when we made the decision to address it, it was always about the future editions – not necessarily for the 2008 players.
“That was the mindset of the Revolution, and that was the mindset of Houston Dynamo. A lot of those individuals are now in front offices as Technical Directors and Sporting Directors, so it's not as if it was just on a whim – I just think the power of it was collectively everyone talking about it because now in 2023 with the Leagues Cup, the players are being treated with exponentially better care, better resources, and it's going to be a better tournament.”
Reis: “We had a few representatives in the Players’ Union. I was involved, I know Chris Tierney was involved, Jeff Larentowicz, Jay Heaps, Taylor Twellman; Pat Onstad, Bobby Boswell, Brian Ching … There were a lot of MLS originals in that group. You were always trying to bite, and scratch, and claw for a little bit more, and I think the valuation of the American player has definitely gone up. Around the world, everybody has seen the quality we have here in America, and in the right environments – look at how many Homegrowns the Revs are producing now. There’s the ability to do that, and the American player has had to fight for so much since the time we played, but you’re seeing the fruits of that labor coming out now.
“You always want it to be fair for everybody. I know it’s hard for MLS teams – now as the seasons are going longer and longer, it always seems that tournaments favor some Mexican teams and Central American teams because of the way their schedules are set up – but MLS is investing more and more in players; the wage bill between the two teams is closer, so there’s not as much of a talent gap in the teams that are playing. All in all, I think it’s good. There are more eyeballs on everything now with the Apple deal and more world recognition through it all, so especially as a young player, you have an opportunity to showcase yourself against international talent.”
Fast forward 15 years and the riveting U.S. vs. Mexico rivalry is still very much alive and kicking, ready to be unleashed once more as the 2023 Leagues Cup (a 47-team World Cup-style competition between MLS and Liga MX clubs) draws ever closer. To this day, the Revolution hold an impressive streak against Mexican opposition with an 8-2-1 record, and will hope to continue that run in search of more continental glory – their journey beginning against fellow MLS outfit New York Red Bulls and Liga MX’s Atlético de San Luis in the group stage.
For those who were involved in that sensational 2008 SuperLiga success – those who will live forever in club history – it is a source of pride that the fierce level of Concacaf competition is still going strong, with many relishing the prospect of this newest chapter in the story. Only time will uncover the new tales to be told… but one thing is *almost* certain: there will be far fewer red cards!
Joseph: “I think it will be huge. The biggest thing is the amount of the teams that are competing in it now, and things like the sponsors, the marketing, the broadcasting – it’s great the way they have put it together. The rivalry is always going to be there so I think something like that will only make the soccer better, and only bring more marketing and more spotlight to the game itself. To be able to play Mexican teams, I know all the players are excited, especially the young ones – it’s a good opportunity to play more games as a professional, and they’ll look forward to that. It will be a special tournament – it will be physical, intense, and it will be something worth watching.”