FOXBOROUGH - Should the Revolution advance past Thursday's Eastern Conference championship game against the Chicago Fire, they will start preparing for the MLS Cup in Washington, D.C.
But the team's future could be forming farther south. Ten players on the Revolution roster performed in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and two more played at colleges in North Carolina.
Forward Adam Cristman (University of Virginia) is a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year and Wells Thompson (Wake Forest) has become a starter in his first season; they are part of a trend that includes former Revolution Rookies of the Year Clint Dempsey (Furman, in South Carolina) in 2004 and Michael Parkhurst (Wake Forest) in 2005.
"In college soccer, the ACC is probably the best, week in and week out," Cristman said. "Each team in the MLS seems to have at least three or four players from the ACC. It's a breeding ground for the league."
Cristman has started 14 games this season, scoring four times, mostly performing in a super-sub role behind Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman. Thompson has emerged as a starter on right wing, enabling the Revolution to revamp the central midfield, placing Steve Ralston in a playmaking role.
Though the Revolution lost Dempsey (Fulham FC) before the season, the team has maintained its winning ways and also won a tournament for the first time, the US Open Cup. Cristman and Thompson played important roles in the Revolution's 3-2 win over FC Dallas in the Open Cup final last month, Thompson converting the third goal with a well-timed late run on a counterattack.
But Thompson's emergence was even more evident in the Revolution's 1-0 win over New York in the playoffs Saturday. He made assertive runs on the wing and also was effective defensively.
"I was pumped for the game," Thompson said. "It was raining, and that's my favorite time to play because I feel like I have more wind and I can run more. I am playing with more confidence. But you have to play smart, know when to get crosses in, judge when to take on people, and not push forward too much."
Revolution coach Steve Nicol has not followed form charts in making draft picks. In 2005, Nicol selected Parkhurst and James Riley from Wake Forest. This year, Nicol went for Thompson and Ryan Solle.
The Wake Forest connection traces to Revolution assistant Paul Mariner's relationship with Demon Deacons coach Jay Vidovich, according to Nicol. But Nicol started seriously considering Wake Forest players before Mariner joined the Revolution, drafting forward Jeremiah White (now with AGF Aarhus in Denmark) in 2004.
"The way they are taught, it's obviously a professional environment," Nicol said of Wake Forest. "[Vidovich] is a good coach and he picks good players. You don't get lucky that often, you have to know what you are doing."
Nicol emphasizes skill and soccer sense over physicality and statistics in selecting players. Cristman, a fourth-round draft choice, scored 34 goals in 85 games at Virginia. Thompson, the No. 6 pick in the first round of the draft, had 16 goals in 80 games at Wake Forest.
"You always want more from players, but at the end of the day, the best way to get more from them is to get them time on the field," Nicol said. "[Cristman] is a big guy with a wee bit of pace. He's pretty direct, and when he goes on the field, he is fresh and strong. If you are a defender, you don't want someone like that coming in and running at you.
"Wells has been getting more time - that's why he has gotten better and better. He understands what needs to be done. Attacking-wise, he runs at people, but the other side is the hard part. You have to figure out how to affect the game when you don't have the ball. Think about how much time you have with the ball, and that gives you an idea and understanding of how important it is to be able to affect the game when you don't have the ball."
Cristman joined the Revolution late because of US Olympic team commitments, then led the team in preseason scoring with five goals in four games. Cristman started in the season opener, a 1-0 loss at Chicago, while Noonan recovered from an injury. He scored twice in a 3-3 tie with Columbus June 16 while Twellman was with the US national team. But Cristman seemed to lose momentum in a reserve role, converting once in the last 22 Revolution games.
"I am going in at times when we are winning or losing by a goal, or the score is tied," Cristman said. "So I have to do what the situation requires and stay sharp and focused. Sometimes that means keeping the ball, getting corner kicks and throw-ins to keep the other team deep in a hole.
"We have a solid group, and the younger guys add depth, and our energy and quickness pushes the veterans to play smarter and quicker in training. Also, the team doesn't drop off in the level of play when the younger guys go in."
While Cristman brings straight-on power to the attack, Thompson adds creativity and an element of joyful trickery that the Revolution missed without Dempsey.
"At Wake Forest, [Thompson] was a huge nuisance to play against in practice," Parkhurst said. "You knew he was going to battle and scrap for every loose ball. He still likes to outwork and outrun people. But he has developed an edge to his game, he loves to go at people, and we are encouraging him to keep doing it."
The Revolution newcomers also could be refreshing the team's psyche. Thompson, for instance, was barely paying attention when the Revolution lost in the MLS Cup for the third time last season.
"Last year, I had a crazy schedule at school because I was behind and taking a lot of courses, and we had the NCAA Tournament," Thompson said. "I didn't even know if I would be drafted."
The highlight of Thompson's November is usually a hunting trip late in the month.
"I'm too much of a country boy," Thompson said. "I grew up in Winston-Salem but my mother grew up on a farm, and I go back there to go hunting, mostly for deer. This Thanksgiving, I'm going to Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, for a Christian mission which has sports camps.
"I follow the lead of the veterans in practice and we can jump on their shoulders. As long as the team is winning, I'll do whatever it takes, either defending or taking on opponents.
"I am looking forward to playing Chicago. I don't feel any more pressure. I'm relaxed. The season is so long, this feels like just another game. This is what we have been working for all year, and it's crazy to be here in my first year."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.