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Revolution's Reis likes keeping it loose

FOXBOROUGH -- Matt Reis was blue. Not hold-your-breath blue. Not a-touch-of-spray-paint blue. Totally blue. Blue man blue. Retirement blue.

The text accompanying the ace Revolution goalkeeper's doctored Internet photo, which looked as if he'd been exhumed by Arctic archaeologists, explained that he was abandoning his Major League Soccer career to become a performance artist, a la Blue Man Group. The impact, on the eve of the 2005 season, was immediate and forceful.

A soccer website ran the information as an official transaction. Revolution president Sunil Gulati picked up the news, then picked up the phone, once his apoplexy had subsided. He thundered to communications director Brad Feldman, "How is it that we lose our best player right before the season and nobody tells me?"

Gulati hadn't read quite closely enough. The date of the release had escaped him.

April 1.

"It's fun to have people take it seriously," says Reis, a twinkle in his eye and mischief in his soul, "and get away with it."

But seriously, folks, the guy can play goal. Like just about nobody else.

Consider that as the team MVP, he has helped lead the Revolution to today's Eastern Conference final in Washington against D.C. United, one step away from next week's MLS Cup championship game. Or that last week in a decisive 4-2 shootout victory over the Chicago Fire in the conference semifinals, he saved two of four shots -- and put one in himself; he's also a regular in that role because, as coach Steve Nicol explained, "Reissy was easy" to choose since he's one of the Revolution's most accurate shooters.

Consider this, too. During the regular season, Reis played 2,880 minutes -- in other words, every one -- while compiling a 12-8-12 record. His playing time, naturally, tied for the league lead. His 141 saves in 32 games led the league. His 10 shutouts led the league. His 1.09 goals-against average was second in the league, first among full-time keepers.

For that prodigious output, Reiss was the automatic choice for a prestigious award.

Best Practical Joker in Major League Soccer. As selected by 90:00 Magazine.

So where's the laugh? There is none.

That Reis was denied MLS's Goalkeeper of the Year Award -- which went to his rival today, D.C. United's Troy Perkins, owner of the league's best record -- strikes some as a rather poor joke.

"He absolutely deserved it," says Nicol.

"He had my vote," says Columbus Crew coach Sigi Schmid, Reis's combustible mentor for a decade, first at UCLA and then with the Los Angeles Galaxy. "I don't know if I'm supposed to reveal that. Troy had a lot of success. But over the last three years, Matt has been the most consistent goalkeeper in MLS."

Hey, shrugs Reis, that's show biz.

"What I've been told when I was younger," he says, "is that when the team does well, people pick you out for individual awards. My focus is always on the team championship."

In a sense, he's the victim of his self-made reputation, anyway. Once a prankster . . .

Joking matters
He's got a million of 'em. But just one more.

Guy walks into an official team picture before the 2004 season. He's adorned in a headband and shoulder-length hair, so wild that it looks like a series of tributaries running into an oil slick. Definitely a refugee from AC/DC.

He's Luis "El Lobo" Fangoso, an Argentine national from Gibraltar. He's known as "the Rock" of Gibraltar because of his musical preference. He can play any position except goal, though midfield is his forte. He's a "stunning" last-minute transfer acquisition by the Revolution. The release on team stationery says so.

This is duly recorded as an MLS transaction.

The date is April 1.

The photo is of Reis, who in real life is bald.

"These are good," Reis assesses this hoax and his blue man successor, "because we pulled it off, got people pretty good."

Rim shot.

Such blockbusters are not the core of Reis's repertoire. His is more a cerebral, verbal wit. Sardonic. Subtle. Sustained.

"It's a general thing," says Nicol. "It's constant. He's always up for a good carry-on."

As with all great comedy, there's a more cosmic purpose to Reis's gig.

"He adds a little flavor and excitement to the team," says Revolution forward/midfielder Pat Noonan. "He knows when to be funny, when to be serious. He helps keep things calm. You need that."

The bottom line, Schmid believes, is that "Matt has a unique personality. Players play better in front of someone they like, and they all like Matt."

Reis concurs there's a design to his light touch.

"It's a long season; few people realize it but it's longer than baseball," he says. "It helps to be loose."

It helps to be a clown.

"Hey," says Reis, "I don't have a problem with making fun of myself. It's pretty easy."

Coaching clash
All right, back to business. At 31, the 6-foot-1-inch, 195-pound Reis has become one of the US game's best goalies partly because of iron-clad fundamentals.

"His basics are great," says Nicol. "His feet are fantastic, probably the best in the league."

That irreverent approach doesn't hurt, either.

"Goalies need a certain temperament," says Nicol. "That's one thing Matt has. You need technique, of course. But goalies have to take a lot of crap. If one shot goes by, that may be all they see in a game. They've got to get past it, not let it get to them."

Indeed, Reis adheres to a dam-the-torpedoes philosophy.

"If you let in that first one and start worrying about it," he says, "the next thing you know, you're worried about letting in that fourth one."

Perhaps that's why he owns the second-best career playoff goals-against average (0.85) in MLS history, behind only that of his Revolution predecessor, Adin Brown (0.66). Perhaps, too, that is why he was able to endure a longer wait for hegemony in the net than a crown prince for the throne.

Reis became a goalkeeper by osmosis. His brother Michael, five years his senior, played the position. After 10 years as a striker, Reis shifted to the net as a 15-year-old at Santa Margarita High School near his home in Mission Viejo, Calif., because the incumbent was a weak link and because Reis had absorbed a few basics from following Michael. Two years later, he backstopped Santa Margarita to a California Interscholastic Federation title.

Then it was on to UCLA, or more accurately, onto UCLA's bench. Reis chafed for four years behind starter Kevin Hartman, all the while experiencing a problematic, complicated relationship with Schmid.

Schmid became a soccer guru of Reis's, and the goalie now hails him as "a great coach, a great motivator." But Schmid's idea of motivation was to challenge his players, and Reis occasionally clashed with him.

"He was different from coaches I'd had in the past," says Reis. "They were more like big brothers. He was more straightforward, like I am. He was OK with it if you were angry with him. He didn't give you a lot of confidence. You had to bring a lot with you. As I matured, things got better between us."

Schmid reflects that he made things so difficult for Reis because he regarded him so highly. If they'd liked each other any more, they might have exchanged punches.

"We butted heads at UCLA and certainly with the Galaxy," says Schmid. "People you really care about, you might say things to them you wouldn't say to someone else. I'd say things to him and he'd say things to me, but that was all right. When I would lose my temper, be at my most explosive, Matt would come up and say things that got everybody laughing."

Things were at their best when Reis, a fifth-year senior, led UCLA to the 1997 NCAA championship "with one of the great Final Fours in history," says Schmid.

Do you sense a trend?

Opportunity arrives
Schmid didn't, and after Reis joined the Galaxy in 1998, the transplanted coach sat him again. Behind Hartman, who was entrenched in net. Reis's only consolation along the way was the MLS Cup in 2002, but as much as he cherished it, he coveted playing time more.

"Kevin and I were good friends, and we were so close in skills," says Reis. "But it's like a heavyweight title fight. You can't tie the champion, you have to knock him out."

Actually, according to Hartman, they were in each other's corner.

"We routinely pushed each other week after week in practice," says Hartman. "It was just a matter of each of us getting our opportunity. He helped me learn a lot, mature a lot as a goalie. It was frustrating, because we're close friends, for one of us to be playing and one of us to be sitting."

Schmid, too, considered the situation untenable, even after he decided to stick with Hartman as his No. 1. "I told Matt he deserved to be a starter somewhere," says Schmid. "He was a great apprentice with the Galaxy, and he deserved an opportunity to shine."

That chance arrived after Reis was obtained by the Revolution, but it seemed unlikely. New England already had the redoubtable Brown in net but yearned for "two No. 1 goalies, both battling it out," says Nicol.

Reis wasn't convinced that would be the case, but when Schmid informed him of the trade, he also reassured him that "Brown has a tendency to get hurt."

Sure enough, when Brown was sidelined in 2004, Reis stepped in. And hasn't stepped out. Brown has emigrated to Norway. Reis has the Revolution in the MLS semis for the fifth straight year.

KO.

"I had to bide my time," says Reis. "I'd have liked to play, make the national team, get better contracts at an earlier age. But I also have the attitude, because of experience, that if I don't do well, it's back to the bench, and I don't ever want that again. It keeps me on my toes.

"Now I'm the heavyweight champion, and I don't want to be knocked out."

Unless it's by a good punch line.

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