A Toast to Twellman: Right Time, Right Place

Taylor Twellman is one of the greatest players in the history of US Soccer and New England sports. His career was tragically cut short due to a series of concussions.

(Note: This post originally appeared on another site on November 7th, 2010.)

I sort of met Taylor Twellman once. I say sort of because we didn’t really have a conversation or anything. It was more a passing hello. In the summer of 2004 I was an intern for the New England Revolution in the communication department under Brad Feldman and Erin O’Brien. One day I was walking through the offices in Gillette Stadium as Twellman was sitting on someone’s desk. I said, “Hey.” He said it back. He seemed extremely nice and pleasant. He was wearing a light blue shirt. That’s all I remember about Taylor Twellman.

Well, that’s not all remember about him. It’s all I remember about Taylor Twellman the person. What I remember about Taylor Twellman the soccer player is much much more detailed and much much more powerful. It is the story of excitement and ability, of the reviving of a franchise (around the same time its “brother” franchise had been revived), and of the shortcomings of a league. Essentially, it is the story of my love affair and subsequent break up with Major League Soccer.

Two images of Twellman will always endure in my mind: his near post diving header and his being chopped down from behind. Both demonstrate a danger to his body–what ultimately cost him his career. Both represent not only what made him successful but also the shortcomings of MLS.

Twellman knew how to score goals. No one can deny that. As a friend of mind said upon reflection of his career, he was more of a goal poacher than a traditional striker. It’s why when he first came to the Revolution I didn’t believe his scoring streak would last. He joined the Revolution in 2002, when Rusty Pierce and Ted Chronopolous were still on the team, and scored his first goal against the Crew on 4/20 (stoners rejoice). Two games later he opened Gillette Stadium, then known as CMGI field, with a double, the second of which was his first near post diving header finish. It was a scoring pace that a Revolution player had never been on before, and it was built on close quarters one-touch and two-touch finishes. It’s why I didn’t believe it would last.

Except it did last. He scored 23 goals that season, second only to Carlos Ruiz’s 24, and led the Revolution to MLS Cup in Gillette Stadium–a game they lost 1-0 to the LA Galaxy on a Ruiz goal. It was the season that changed the history of the team, which, if you were wondering, is why I mentioned obscure tidbits like Chrono and CMGI. Twellman led a historically tragic franchise owned by Robert Kraft to the league championship in his first season playing for them. Look, I’m not calling him the Tom Brady of the New England Revolution, but I kind of am.

Just as I was raised on the New England Patriots, I grew up with the Revolution. The Revs may actually mean more to me than the Pats, a statement that may seem shocking to many people who think they really know me. The difference is, while the Pats have been around since before me, I was around since before the Revs, before the whole MLS actually. In fact, Tab Ramos, the first MLS player, was signed on my birthday in 1996. My family had season tickets to the Revolution for the first 13 seasons. We sat in the pouring rain to watch Eddie Pope score in overtime to win the first MLS Cup for DC United by a score of 3-2. I know who Darren Sawatazky is. I know what it means to “pull a Revolution.” It was epic. It was tragic. Twellman changed it all.

This was the first season since 2002 that Twellman didn’t play a game for the Revolution. This was the first season since 2002 that the Revolution didn’t make the playoffs. This is no coincidence, Twellman even said so himself as he expressed the pain we all felt at his absence (no one more so than him):

“To come to every game, that is the hardest thing in the entire world. To come to every game, knowing you’re not going to play, but somehow walk in that locker room and look every one of your teammates in the face–and they’ll tell you, I come in loud and obnoxious–that’s the hardest thing.


“Every single time, and I’m tearing up right now, I walk right in the car and I cry. Every time. Because I did nothing for them, and it was the one thing this team needed. We didn’t make the playoffs this year. I’ll tell you why; they needed a goal scorer. And I wasn’t there. It’s hard. Very humbling.”

No pundit or fan could have said it more perfectly. Except he shouldn’t be humble at all. He should be proud at what he did for himself, for his teammates, and for us fans and at the knowledge that he could have done so much more and scored more than 101–except for the flawed system that set the stage for the untimely demise of his career.

Surely most people will remember the accidental punch to Twellman’s head by Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin in 2008 as the reason for his retirement. For me, however, the punch was nothing more than the culmination of the abuse suffered by the striker over his career, lest I remind you of the games Twellman missed due to a fractured cheekbone and nose caused by a collision with the Galaxy defender Danny Califf’s foot on a diving header. Detractors of my point will assuredly point to Twellman’s disregard for his own body.

Twellman was repeatedly knocked down from behind by defenders when challenging for a 50/50 ball. With his back to his opponent and his sole focus on winning the ball, Twellman found himself on the ground after being pushed, pulled, or tripped. The fact that this sight was common over nearly a decade of play demonstrates that American players think that this style of play is successful and that American referees think this action is acceptable. The only problem is, it’s not. It has created a brutal on field product in MLS where games are almost always decided by injuries or referees calls (from cards to free kicks). It has hindered the development of the United States National team so that they’re now known for their physical style of play to the point that their most impressive result in the last two World Cups was a 1-1 bloodbath against Italy in 2006 that featured three red cards. You can deny these observations all you want with any number of dismissive comments, but the undeniable truth is that a great player’s professional career was ended prematurely because of them–and that outcome not only hurts him but American soccer in general. Twellman never played in a World Cup for the United States National Team. He only played in 29 games for them. He only scored six goals for them (three in one game). Most important of all, he never made his mark by showing them what he had that they didn’t.

What Twellman has that is so sorely lacking in the American game is knowledge of the sport. It’s what made the Revolution so powerful for years. The spine of their team was composed of players that knew how to read the game–from Twellman up top to Shalrie Joseph and Steve Ralston in the midfield and Michael Parkhurst at center back. When those four were on and their chemistry was clicking, they were unbeatable. Why? Because they always knew where to be and when to be there. It is a skill that no American goal scorer has possessed more than Twellman. He had the uncanny ability to arrive at a spot at the same exact moment the ball did. It’s how he scored all those near post diving headers.

And the same goes for me. I found myself in the right time and place to witness such an amazing player’s career. Except my positioning wasn’t due to any ability on my part. It was all down to good fortune–from the time and place I was born to having such great parents that brought me to MLS games from the beginning to following a team with owners as smart as Robert and Jonathan Kraft and coaches as smart as Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner. They saw something that would help make my life better, and all I can say is thank you. Still, they’re not the most important people to thank.

Thank you, Taylor Twellman, for playing for the New England Revolution and scoring 102 goals for the Foxborough Faithful. I’m not even lying when I say I broke down and cried after work upon hearing the news of your retirement. I’m 27 years old, I’ve taught college, I drove across the country in a U-Haul while towing my car, and I cried over the retirement of a professional soccer player I said hello to once. That’s how much I loved seeing you play. That’s how much of a tragedy your career ending at only 30 years old is.

In some way, Taylor, I’ll always remember every goal you scored, but the one that stands out the most to me is the bicycle kick against the Chicago Fire in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals to propel the Revolution to a 1-0 victory and their fourth MLS Cup. They haven’t been back since. It was the same year the Patriots went on their undefeated run that ended in the Super Bowl. They haven’t been back since. It was the same year the Boston Red Sox won their second World Series of the decade. They haven’t been back since.

One day when I look back upon my life that bicycle kick may be the apex of my sports fandom. Everything was literally perfect at that moment. It hasn’t been since. Deep down, part of me wants to believe everything would be perfect again if you just score one more goal. It’s why every once and awhile a random request pops into my head. Please, Taylor, one more? It’s a plea that crossed my mind during so many games over the years. Now that you’re finished for good, because you made the smart choice for yourself and your family, it is the one I’ll carry with me for the rest of life because I know I didn’t see as many as you or I deserved:

Please Taylor, one more?