Nicol heads British influence on MLS

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The Independent Online

As a player Steve Nicol was hugely admired, and much abused, being the butt of Anfield's merciless dressing room humour. This weekend he could be doing the laughing.

Nicol is now a manager and those who scoffed at him may be surprised to hear Nicol is regarded as the smartest coach in North America's Major League Soccer. The team he manages, the Boston-based New England Revolution, have played five consecutive Eastern Conference finals, winning three. Tomorrow they play the Western Conference winners, the Houston Dynamos, in the MLS Cup, the championship play-off.

The British influence on MLS is much less pronounced than in the old NASL, the league the New York Cosmos illuminated, but this final is an exception.

Nicol's assistant is Paul Mariner, once of Ipswich, Arsenal and England. The Dynamos are managed by Glasgow-born, Californian-bred Dominic Kinnear. His assistant is John Spencer, the ex-Rangers, Chelsea and QPR striker. Dynamo's key player is Paul Dalglish, son of Nicol's former Liverpool team-mate Kenny. They also feature Canada's Adrian Serioux, who was at Millwall.

The Revolution were beaten in the 2002 and 2005 finals but start favourites at Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas. Their team includes the United States internationals Steve Ralston and Clint Dempsey, who interested Charlton and West Ham this summer.

Nicol became coach in May 2002 having rejected the job in 1999 after a brief caretaker role. He felt he needed more experience testing at a lower level the principles he learned at Anfield. In particular, he said, the lesson that "whether you win or lose you have to be rational".

"The mental side is half the game. I don't go screaming and shouting when we lose, then pouring champagne when we win," he said. "Scots are pretty logical. We believe in right and wrong with no grey areas. That's huge in soccer. Players have to know what is right and what is wrong on and off the field.

"If you do something right you get a pat on the back, if you do something wrong you get a slap on the back."

Houston's final appearance is remarkable given they were the San Jose Earthquakes until December. Then the franchise was sold and the staff moved, lock, stock and goalposts, in the 12th attempt in 40 years to establish the professional game in the Texas oil town.

The Dynamos have been relatively well supported though the debut crowd of 25,000 dropped to below 10,000 before picking up for the Conference final. That the Revolution also played to sub-10,000 gates suggests America is still to embrace "soccer". MLS is nevertheless expanding to 13 teams next year. The former Celtic and Rangers striker Mo Johnston will coach a Toronto-based team.

With teenager Freddy Adu struggling to live up to the hype, MLS need the boost David Beckham's arrival could provide.