Monday MLS Breakdown: The Missing Piece?

After watching his teammates stumble to start the season without him, New England forward Taylor Twellman returned to the lineup and sparked the Revolution's return to form in Saturday night's 2-1 win over D.C. United. Goal.com's Kyle McCarthy caught up with Twellman after the game to see how it went.
By Kyle McCarthy

The New England locker room had pretty much cleared out by the time Taylor Twellman had a chance to sit in front of his locker and process his first game in eight months.

“It's an emotional day,” Twellman said after playing 65 minutes in New England's 2-1 win over D.C. United on Saturday night. “I was extremely nervous. Practice is one thing. Coming into games (is different). I got headbutted a minute into the game by Clyde Simms. I had three headballs right off the bat. (United goalkeeper Josh) Wicks tackled me. But it just feels good to be back in the mix.”

All things considered, Twellman hadn't been in the mix since his head collided with former Los Angeles goalkeeper Steve Cronin's fists on August 30. Twellman suffered through the rest of the season, missed the playoffs and spent the winter trying to figure out why he couldn't shake the nausea, fatigue and neck pain that had become a constant in his life.

The road back proved a long and tentative one for the 99-goal striker. Doctors eventually diagnosed the injury – a vertebrae in the base of his skull had been knocked out of alignment in the collision – and handed him a regimen that would get him back on the field. A preseason setback pushed back that time line, but Twellman eventually returned to training and regained his fitness.

As Twellman recovered, his teammates floundered to start the season. Deprived of its best forward (among a whole host of other injuries), New England struggled to generate offense. The two forwards who were supposed to cover for Twellman's absence – Kenny Mansally and Kheli Dube – weren't up to the task, forcing Revs boss Steve Nicol to pluck Shalrie Joseph out of midfield and shunt him onto the forward line in recent weeks so his side could hold the ball and muster some offense.

Joseph's new role made it even more important for New England to shepherd Twellman back to full health. Twellman ramped up his practice participation and returned to full contact drills and scrimmages. He even filled an empty spot on the bench against Houston on May 3 to see how he'd react to the pre-match warmups and went through the process again without the bench spot when Colorado visited on May 16. As the month progressed, the United game turned into the target date – Nicol said at one point he hoped Twellman would be back in the lineup by the end of May – and Twellman met it.

“Tonight felt different,” Twellman said. “Maybe it's because I knew I was going to play.”

The original plan, Twellman said, was to come on at the start of the second half. Nicol said on Friday that Twellman would play, but the exact timing of his participation would depend on the circumstances. The circumstances – Jeff Larentowicz's early concussion and the Revolution's flat start – required a more advanced time table than the plan suggested. After 25 minutes, Twellman took the field to a thunderous roar charged with the task of sparking his teammates.

“That was definitely a shock,” Twellman said of his early arrival.

United made sure to welcome Twellman back with a bang. Twellman took several blows over the course of the night, drawing Nicol's post-game ire about the lack of protection afforded by the referee. But after each collision, Twellman rose to his feet and kept playing. Twellman said it was important to get “two or three knocks” to see how he'd react, but admitted that he had second thoughts after Wicks ran him over in the second half to snuff out a dangerous opportunity.

“When (Wicks) hit me, I was like 'not this again,'” Twellman said. “I didn't pull out, so to speak, but when he hit me, I thought that maybe I should use my brain a little bit and stop going for those balls.”

The knocks didn't impact Twellman's game or diminish his contribution. Twellman hopped in as if he hadn't missed a game. Although he didn't score and didn't do as well with a couple of half-chances as he probably would have in midseason form, Twellman provided the much needed conduit to hold up the ball and start the offense.

“That's what we need back,” defender Jay Heaps said. “When he does that, it opens up room for Shalrie and Rallie to get in there. Taylor created a goal by going in there and letting Shalrie sneak in behind him. You can see how much better of a team we are going forward when we have him.”

Twellman's hold up play – and deft front-post run with Joseph sneaking towards the back stick – contributed to the equalizer, Joseph's team-leading fourth goal. He also drew a hotly-contested 89th minute penalty as the match looked headed for a draw. Most importantly for a Revolution side in need of a spark, Twellman's morale-boosting presence allowed Joseph and Steve Ralston focus on their strengths.

“There's a reason why Shalrie is who he is and why Rallie is who he is,” Twellman said. “Shalrie's a defensive midfielder who creates for us. He scored a great goal. Ralston, for me, is the best player in league history. He proved that today. He stepped up and took that penalty kick. That was a part that I was excited about. I wanted to help those guys do what they do best. They did that tonight.”

As Saturday night drew to a close, Twellman cast one eye towards the future. Like any long-term injury victim taking those first steps back towards normalcy, he accommodates hope and expectation while still leaving a little room for doubt. It, after all, has been a while since Twellman has recovered from a game and he doesn't quite know what to expect or what the doctors will say about his longer-than-expected season debut.

“I'm a little nervous,” Twellman said. “I want to see how I feel on Monday or Tuesday. If I feel good, then I know I'm back.”

Week Eleven – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers

Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Taylor Twellman, FW, New England

With a considerable apology issued to Colorado forward Conor Casey (two goals and a dominant performance in a 3-2 win in New York), Twellman earns this week's gong for his talismanic appearance. No player shifted a game like Twellman did when he entered in the 25th minute of Saturday's 2-1 win over D.C. United. Twellman provided more than just a morale boost in his 65 minutes; he participated in the buildup for the first goal and leaned in to draw the winning penalty. Welcome back, indeed.

What were they thinking? The referees who gave dodgy penalties to “decide” the Chicago-Chivas USA and New England-D.C. United games

“Decide” earns its place in quotation marks because players bear the responsibility to place the result of a game beyond the referee's discretion. D.C. United (wasteful finishing during a rampant first half at Gillette Stadium) and Chivas USA (Jesse Marsch's ill-timed second yellow card in Thursday night's 3-2 home loss to Chicago) didn't do that and should look first at themselves before heaping blame upon the referees.

Even with that caveat in mind, penalties given in the final minutes need to be more clear cut than the two decisions made at the end of those matches. While the clamor from the “a penalty in the 35th minute should be a penalty in the 90th minute” and “a foul is a foul, no matter where and when it occurs” crowds is understandable, circumstances dictate a more nuanced approach than the one taken in these specific instances. The final minutes shouldn't turn into overtime in game seven of the Stanley Cup, but there should be no question about the contact or the foul when the referee blows the whistle and points to the spot in the dying throes of a match. Neither Mariano Trujillo's push on Brian McBride or Bryan Namoff's contact with Twellman met that standard. While the penalties didn't “decide” the game, the questionable decisions certainly put a damper on them.

Eleven observations to start the week

1. “I think the second half was the biggest factor for us,” Nicol said. “Sitting watching it from where I am, I’m thinking this is more like our team. This is what we’re all about: showing some heart and playing some good soccer.”

2. “I didn't see a penalty,” Namoff said when asked about the call that condemned his team to a surprising loss. “What penalty?”

3. With all of the negative attention referees have received this season (and in the preceding paragraphs), it's only fair for a tip of the cap to go out to Ricardo Salazar for the penalty call that led to Colorado's game-winner in its 3-2 win over New York. Salazar could have copped out and given a free kick when Albert Celades hauled Omar Cummings down in the box in the 58th minute of a 2-1 game because the play was so close to the edge of the penalty area. Salazar quickly glanced to assistant referee Eric Boria to confirm his suspicions that the foul had indeed taken place in the box and then pointed to the spot. Replays vindicated Salazar's decision.

4. Jordan Harvey – with Colin Clark's help – did all the hard work to set up Conor Casey's second goal in that contest. Harvey and Clark dug out a ball in the left corner, giving Harvey the chance to burst into the penalty area. Instead of playing the low percentage ball across the face of goal, Harvey pulled back for Cummings to loft a cross to the far post for Casey to head home. A combination of industry and intelligence from the Colorado fullback.

5. I don't have access to Toronto's game plan ahead of its 3-0 loss in Houston, but I'm pretty sure it included, likely in bold letters, an admonishment against fouling Dynamo players around the penalty area. Toronto threw a relatively decent start away by conceding free kicks all over the place. Brad Davis and Stuart Holden did the set piece damage – either side of a Kei Kamara goal – with the aid of some shoddy wall work.

6. Kansas City can't be too unhappy with a 1-1 draw in Los Angeles considering the chances the Galaxy wasted, but they can be displeased with how the equalizer occurred. Jack Jewsbury coughed up an easy pass with a poor touch inside his own half. Dema Kovalenko picked up the scraps and fed Landon Donovan, who ran into space and ushered the ball along to Edson Buddle. Buddle squeezed his near-post effort past the impressive Kevin Hartman to grab yet another draw for the Galaxy. The late equalizer was a bitter pill for the Wizards to swallow, especially with the Galaxy down to ten men after Gregg Berhalter's last-man tug on Claudio Lopez.

7. Crew forward Pat Noonan issued his “I'm available, come and get me” plea to MLS teams with a great cross to provide Alejandro Moreno with the diving opener in Columbus' 1-1 draw in Seattle. Noonan makes $175,000 to play the understudy role behind Guillermo Barros Schelotto, which makes him a rather expensive bench ornament and spot starter. Noonan's stat line to date (admittedly diminished after an early spell on the sidelines caused by a back injury): 3 games, 1 start, 101 minutes, 1 assist. Don't let the meager returns deceive; Noonan could help more than a few teams as a starter and should be a commodity in the coming months.

8. Give Bobby Convey credit for keeping his head up and engineering both San Jose goals with quick restarts in the Quakes' 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake. On the first goal, RSL defender Nat Borchers made a nice block on Ryan Johnson to hand San Jose a throw-in deep in the left corner. Convey threw it in quickly, the impressive Mike Zaher collected and crossed into the space where Borchers would have been if not for his tackle and Cornell Glen mopped up with a well-placed header. Convey's cross-field ball after a Jamison Olave handball caught the RSL defense unaware again and set the plate for Arturo Alvarez's jinking run and fantastic finish for the second.

9. RSL struggled against San Jose because its play was far too direct for most of the night. A fully functioning RSL uses Javier Morales as its conductor and holds the ball relatively well. Too often on Saturday night, RSL bypassed the midfield without even bothering to try to keep possession. The direct play – and some rather charitable passing, most notably Olave's slack pass to transfer possession ahead of the second goal – gave San Jose more than enough of the ball to create scoring chances with Convey and Alvarez feeling frisky. On the bright side, Robbie Findley's consolation goal finally ended RSL's road scoring duck at 529 minutes.

10. Not many big men have the type of touch Kenny Cooper displayed in registering FC Dallas' third goal in a shocking 3-0 victory at Toyota Park. If you're keeping count at home, all three Hoops' goals came from set plays.

11. Three games in eight days or no three games in eight days, Chicago sent in its Sunday afternoon performance with a 44-cent stamp. The 11-game unbeaten streak fell with a whimper.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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