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Just like home to Nicol

After initial shock, coach at home with Revolution

Revolution coach Steve Nicol found an English-style camaraderie with his team. Revolution coach Steve Nicol found an English-style camaraderie with his team. (FILE/BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH - Foreign coaches and players often appear in a state of shock when first exposed to the conditions of professional soccer in the United States. The higher the level of their previous club, the greater the contrast when they arrive at their new team.

Their initial reaction can be an indication of how long they can be expected to last.

When Steve Nicol arrived from England on a snowy day in January 1999, he went to the practice field for the Boston Bulldogs, the team he was to be with in a player-coach role.

"Victory Field in Framingham, and it was covered in snow, fortunately," recalled John Kerr, who recruited Nicol for the Bulldogs and is now coach at Harvard University. "Stevie swore to me later that if he had been able to see the surface, he wouldn't have come back. The surface was really poor."

That was the first of many dozens of surprises Nicol has weathered on the way to becoming one of Major League Soccer's winningest coaches.

"I said to Eleanor [Nicol's wife], why not come for a year?" Nicol said. "That wasn't too long to sacrifice and, if it didn't work out, we could always go back. If I hadn't done it - I would hate to say I had the chance and didn't do it."

The Revolution as well might have regretted Nicol not coming. The Revolution hired Nicol for the final two games of the 1999 season, after player-coach Walter Zenga had been dismissed. Nicol remained with the Bulldogs for two years, then returned to the Revolution as an assistant, taking over as head coach after Fernando Clavijo was fired in May 2002.

Nicol has guided the Revolution to their sixth consecutive postseason, starting with a visit to the New York Red Bulls tomorrow. The team has shed its loser image, is attracting strong crowds, and seems to have a strong base of players.

But Nicol will view his work with the Revolution as unfinished business unless they win the MLS Cup.

"I don't know if we have any more desire to win this one," Nicol said. "We haven't had anything but 100 percent desire to win it. That's always been the goal. If it comes down to work and application and dedication, we deserve one. But you can cry all you want - we want to win it.

"I've always felt I've made a contribution wherever I've been. Since I came here, getting to three MLS Cups in five years looks good on paper, and winning the US Open Cup looks good. But we want to win the MLS Cup badly."

Settled in

Nicol won four English league titles, three FA Cups, and a European Cup as a player with Liverpool FC. He was known as a player with an extraordinary ability to read the game and he has translated that into a sophisticated approach to player evaluations in this country. With the Revolution, Nicol has developed talent such as Clint Dempsey, who set a record for a US player with a $4 million transfer to Fulham this year, and Michael Parkhurst, a defender from Cranston, R.I., who grew up a Revolution fan.

But away from the soccer field, Nicol simply settles into the American experience in Hopkinton.

Soon after Nicol arrived, his son, Mike, was recruited for the high school football team, and the first time he attempted a field goal, he converted the winner in the final minute. Nicol was in the stands for that one and rates it among his top sporting experiences.

A couple years later, Nicol felt he had not been spending enough time with his daughter, Kate. So he tagged along to watch her indoor coed soccer match and, when the goalkeeper did not show up, he ended up playing - bruising his ribs badly enough to keep him from Revolution training the next day.

"I should have known better," Nicol said. "First of all, I'm in goal, I'm 45 years old, and I've put me-self in this position, and I'm thinking, 'Why am I diving at the feet of this guy?' Did I stop the shot? Aye, I think I did.

"The kids liked it here since Day 1. But they are adults now, they've finished school. The last contract I signed was important because at the end of it the kids would be finished with school. This contract is for me and my wife."

Nicol clearly wanted to provide security for his family while his children were growing up. But he was uninterested in pursuing European positions that could pay many times more than what he earns with the Revolution.

"You are going to lead a miserable life if you only do it for the money," Nicol said. "You are never going to be happy. Everyone wants more money, but if the motivation is money it's not going to work, if that's the only thing you want.

"It depends on what you consider rewards. If you are coaching kids, the smile on a kid when he does the right thing, when he puts the ball in the net, that's the reward right there."

Nicol breaks up an interview in the coaches' office at Gillette Stadium to joke with assistant coaches Paul Mariner and Gwynne Williams, saying they should be especially overjoyed because of their low salaries. There is regular bantering among the Revolution coaches, usually involving self-deprecating humor.

"He was a big international star in England," Kerr said of Nicol. "He comes to this country and he hasn't changed one bit. He's not a snob, he's nice to everyone, he has time for everyone. For a guy who was like a Ray Bourque-type player, Stevie is the kind of guy who doesn't want the public limelight. He comes to work every day with his buddy, Paul Mariner, and he is having so much fun, enjoying what he is doing.

"They are legends over there - ask any soccer fan in England over the age of 30 and they will know Stevie and Paul. Paul was like the Roger Clemens of soccer in England, he scored something like 150 goals in the Premier League and was considered the best striker in the world in 1982."

Winning formula

Nicol has developed a successful formula with the Revolution, but like most MLS teams, they lack the support system of the world's better clubs.

"It's a different ballgame here," Nicol said. "It's year to year. There's the draft, the salary cap. Players do well and they want more money or they want to move on."

Nicol clearly hopes to set up an atmosphere similar to his days at Liverpool FC, which functioned almost like a family. Nicol believes in stability, building the team around a base of highly competitive performers. The plan has worked because of Nicol's ability to spot talent, place players in the right positions, and develop cohesion.

"I don't feel comfortable, complacent; I always feel we need to get something more," Nicol said. "I am not looking past next year. In this profession, you are never safe at anything. Things change and you have to be on your toes. When you start cruising, that's when you are halfway out the door.

"It's all about setting standards, always striving to make things better. That's all you can do. We try to put players in the right frame of mind, keep them motivated. They want to win and we take it personally when we don't.

"You can have 11 superstars and not have it work. It's the team that always wins. Look at the US [basketball team] in the Olympics. Man for man, they had it over everybody, but it was the other teams that won."

But Nicol nearly did not survive past the 2002 season as Revolution coach. He replaced Clavijo in May, and by September the team had a 7-14-1 record, then went unbeaten to conclude the season. Surprisingly, though the Revolution had won only one playoff game in six years, the hot streak continued and they advanced to the MLS Cup.

"I had a 12-month contract, I was a caretaker," Nicol said. "I could have been out on my ear, absolutely. What happened was the players decided we were doing the right thing. It started out we weren't winning games; but it was individual mistakes more than anything early on. But they were convinced we were doing the right thing, they stuck at it. That's exactly what happened."

Strong core

Nicol had started developing a "core group" immediately. Within days of Nicol being named coach, Joe Franchino was named captain, and Mamadou Diallo, a talented Senegalese striker who had scored 37 goals in 52 games for Tampa Bay but had also brawled with Franchino in practice, was traded to New York.

Nicol saw in Franchino and other Revolution players a passion for the game similar to what he experienced at Liverpool, and he went about attempting to replicate that spirit.

"We were so successful and we did everything together. You have to be in that situation to really understand. You can't be successful without camaraderie. Everyone knows exactly what's expected and they fall in line, and that goes back to the core. The core group of guys all take responsibility. When things don't go right, the first place you look is yourself. Did you do the right things? Did you do enough?

"I've always been like that. When you go to Liverpool, you have the best of everything, the best ability, the best attitudes, the best outlook. That's why players are there. And those solid and experienced players form the core group, and everyone follows on.

"In 1994-95, I went to Notts County and it was the exact opposite. They were bottom of the league, facing relegation, and nobody wanted to be there. After 13 years at Liverpool, where everything was done correctly and properly, that was difficult."

Nicol backtracked even further with the Bulldogs, a team that no longer exists at the semiprofessional level. But England was changing, and clubs such as Liverpool were losing some of the qualities of togetherness that had made Nicol's experience special.

"They seem to be maybe getting it back now," Nicol said. "You can't win games without having camaraderie. Every player has had a bad day and you need the guy beside you to cover for you. When things are going great, everything is flying, but when things don't go so great, that's when you need the core group and camaraderie kicks in and gets you through it."

Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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