Despite on and off field struggles that are frustrating New England Revolution fans, players and administrators alike, there’s a belief that one ray of hope exists in that the team has MLS stalwart coach Steve Nicol.
Steve Nicol is the MLS coach with the most storied playing career and has become the longest tenured MLS coach around with this time in New England, most of which was rather successful. His experience is unrivaled and inarguable.
But as the Revolution’s results have changed, so have sentiments about Mr. Nicol and whether he’s the man to steer this wayward ship. The New England Revolution, and MLS, have been lucky to have Steve Nicol as part of the organization(s), the question now is whether a clean break is needed… for either the man or the team.
There are basically two schools of thought here – both of which have both backers and reasonable evidence to support them.
The first view is basically summed up by the following tweet from Michael Wheeler, founder of MAE Agency, LLC, a sports and entertainment agency who seemingly spends a significant percentage of his time focused on soccer related business.
The argument follows that even Coach Nicol cannot make an edible meal if the ingredients aren’t up to par, and the Revolution front-office (especially VP of Player Personnel, Mike Burns) haven’t gotten him the goods.
Looking over the roster, there is further evidence to support this theory. Other MLS teams wouldn’t be fighting for most of our players to slot into their starting rosters.
History shows that the Revolution were largely spoiled by college draftees that were able to not only make it in MLS, but were standout players. Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst in particular seem to have lulled the Revolution into believing that the college draft might be enough to reinforce the team going forward.
On the other side of the talent spectrum, New England has watched from the sidelines as other teams bring in highly paid Designated Players, though it is true that in MLS, most Designated Players haven’t been game changers. But more than any individual signing, the hunt for game-changing players (Designated or otherwise) was a sign of intent from aggressive MLS clubs that realized the league was changing and they needed to keep up, while the Revolution still appear to believe that rummaging through the bargain bin was the way to win in MLS.
When attempts were made to bring in more seasoned professionals, they didn’t go well. Edgaras Jankauskas came in, was injured and made little impact, while taking a large chunk of the salary cap. Ousmane Dabo’s recent retirement was capped a similar stint, though he apparently (and quite professionally) forgo the salary that was coming to him. Neither were bad players, frankly, quite the opposite as they were both quite talented and successful in their prime. Unfortunately neither were in their prime when they got to New England and neither helped the Revolution.
In any salary capped league, the less you pay for quality players the better you will be able to do since that money can be spread further across the roster. This has been the explanatory mantra from the Revolution’s front office.
There comes a point, however, where potential incoming players realize that the team expects to nickel and dime them and they look elsewhere. Teams in search of top talent need to respond and be more aggressive.
And while the Revolution have never been as clear as many fans would like in clarifying how the back/forth between Mike Burns and Steve Nicol works when scouting players, the presumption here is that Nicol is “stuck” with what the front office provides him.
And it’s hard to hold him fully accountable for success if you believe he is working with one hand tied behind his back.
There is, of course, another way of looking at all this, and it’s not quite as flattering.
As critical as top-level talent is to any team, success in MLS also requires getting the most out of the players you have. MLS is not a league of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo talents. To win in MLS, you are often making the proverbial “lemonade” from lemons.
(And before we let Mr. Nicol off the hook for those lemons, it was made very clear that he was personally involved in some of our scouting and signing efforts, including personally seeing Ousmane Dabo train in France. The same Dabo that retired after only playing in 20 minutes of MLS games according to the Revolution’s website.)
Talent aside, to get the most out of your players, you need a clear game plan a system the players buy into and their utmost respect.
Does that exist with the Revolution today? Recent comments would make it seem unlikely.
After the Revolution were blown out at home 3-0 by the Philadelphia Union, the locker room commentary was disheartening.
The coach was honest in his assessment, saying “I think the first half is about worse as I’ve been here. It was like watching a bunch of schoolboys” and, not surprisingly, he played into the talent-gap theory by offering that “We need some new faces, which we’re trying to do.”
If you are a player hearing that, it’s a pretty cold dose of reality.
But well-coached and highly-motivated players can achieve unlikely results, which we’ve seen in many leagues and many competitions time and time again.
Do the players have a system they believe in and understand? Are they highly motivated?
Matt Reis doesn’t seem to think so, as shown when he stated that “We have guys doing a bunch of different things, we’re losing goals on set pieces and it was very uninspired out there. We didn’t show all the stuff that we needed to do. We didn’t fight and all in all it was a terrible game.”
Doing different things? Very uninspired?
Chris Tierney, seen as one of the most motivated players on the team offered that “We just came out flat, no two ways about it. We just weren’t ready to play.” He also offered “I think when the game starts you got to be ready to fight and there wasn’t one of us out there who really was.”
That leaves questions for the coaching staff, whose job it is to make sure the team is “ready to play” during a home-game that was considered “must win.”
Tierney also offered another damning assessment by saying “I think we didn’t really have a game plan, we weren’t sure what we were doing, we weren’t on the same page, we couldn’t connect, we weren’t fighting and that’s the biggest thing.”
Could this just be one player who felt he wasn’t on the same page with the rest of his team? Maybe, but Kevin Alston’s commentary would lead you to think otherwise.
Kevin echoed Tierney’s assessment by suggesting “We didn’t come out with, I guess, a distinct game plan. I guess we didn’t come out and try to put the game in our hands” and that “As a team we weren’t playing together, we weren’t keeping the ball.”
It is worrisome to hear that players with some experience are not feeling on the same page halfway through an MLS season.
You’d expect though that young players hoping to break through will just keep their mouths closed, work hard and keep focused on breaking through to get game time, right?
Not necessarily. Recent commentary, or perhaps just a loose use of Twitter, would lead you to believe otherwise. Young Andrew Sousa has decided it is OK to express agreement with a fan that he should be in the starting eleven despite his not being picked for MLS action.
These are not the comments of a well managed team.
If coaching is about motivation and tactics/gameplans there are certainly questions to be asked. Mr. Nicol has largely been untouchable based on his record, his history and his prior coaching successes with the Revolution.
But, if this was any other coach and any other organization, where the team has missed the playoffs and then followed that by garnering only only three wins by mid-season, this coach would be on the hot seat. Or looking for work.
So both arguments are credible. Is Steve Nicol making lemonade, but lacking enough magic to make it sweet? Or has he lost the recipe altogether?
The real challenge for both the New England Revolution and it’s fans to come to grips with, is that this may not be an either/or choice.
It may be that the team needs both better talent and different coaching.
If that’s the case, the team will finally live up to its name, because a Revolution will be what’s needed.