The Revolution’s Familiar “Fracaso”

Well, we’re there.  We are at that part of the season in New England Revolution-ville where the natives are restless, everything sucks, the world is grey and the sun may never shine again.

Along with this (pretty darn well deserved) angst, comes a buckshot worth of vitriol.

  • Fire Heaps.  (He’s winging it and is tactically overwhelmed.)
  • Fire Burns. (He gets lousy players and couldn’t find a star in the sky.)
  • Kraft apathy is killing us.  (MLS 3.0? We’re still in Beta.)

Generally the anger is expressed in some combination of those three.  Usually, with all three.

It’s easy to get caught up in it and join the chorus. This blog post, however, isn’t intending to explain who should be fired or why – though you could fill volumes with explaining how each of them have a shot at that crown.

Instead, I’m not exactly sure where this post ends – but here’s how it begins. I feel my own angst about this team, its current losing streak, and its general “uninterestingness.”  (It’s now a word.  Deal with it.)

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I hoped for a more creative team. A more intricate style of soccer.  Better passing. Some more “did you see that?” moments. A more Latin style, if you will.

That’s not right or wrong, but it’s what I prefer.

And I can discuss how I see the current team and if I think it has any discernible style in another post, but this topic of my hoped-for of Latinizing (yup, new word, enjoy…) got me thinking. Why can’t we get some Latin American influence to maybe put the ball in the back of the net?  Or add a creative pass?  Or, something…

The reality? The team has tried. And failed.  And my presumption was this: we stink at finding good Latin talent, they come in and are just not up to MLS standards.

FIRE BURNS.

What came next, however, was the eye opener.  Because it feels quite a bit more complicated than that.  And that may not be a good thing, because Mike Burns is replaceable.

This all started in a rather roundabout way.

 

Benny Feilhaber.

Remember #BringBennytoBoston.  Yeah.  They did.  It didn’t work out.

But oddly enough, it seems to be working out OK for Benny in Kansas City.  In fact, he’s the current MLS Player of the Week.  Check out the recent highlights. Not bad.

Thought not really the Latin American influence I was craving, he potentially fit the bill for better passing and some creativity.

Why couldn’t he have worked out here?

Before we presume an answer, it made me think of the “true” Latin American players which were “not up to it” and flushed out of town before making the impact Revolution fans had hoped for.

Let’s start with one of our pretty big flops. One that really got people’s attention.

Our first “Designated Player.”

 

Milton Caraglio.

After confusing career moves, extended injury recoveries and a very interesting resume, Caraglio played 15 games for the Revolution, scored five goals and was sent on his way.

So maybe Diego Maradona (who called him in to Argenina’s National Team before he injured his knee) and West Ham (where he went on trial) were mistaken, or maybe he’d never really recover from the knee  injury he’d suffered.

Oh well, we tried. He’s past it. Let’s move on.

Except, for one issue.

YouTube seems to think that in 2014, in Argentina, he is doing this:

and this:

and this:

And this cheeky scoop in 2013:

You know, being a goal scorer.  In the Argentine first division.  You see, after joining Chilean Club Social de Deportes Rangers (CSD Rangers) he played a few games in Italy, and came home to Argentina.

Why not for New England?  Isn’t that the exact story we hoped for? Take the risk, have him make his professional resurgence in Foxboro?

Frustrating.

So let’s restore the Revolution’s image a bit, and at least all agree on the biggest, most obvious, most glaring failure.

 

José “Pepe” Moreno.

I mean, talk about a disaster.

You sign a player who apparently doesn’t want to join and who flirts with other clubs after you announce him.

But he arrived. And didn’t do much. We called him porky and talked more about his pizza and attire than much else.

What a waste of space, right?

Well, if it were only that simple.

You see, Pepe, it turns out is still playing this funny game of ours.  In fact, he’s a member of Colombian First Division club, La Equidad.

And, last year he scored this STUNNER… seriously watch this (and try not to punch the device you are using to watch it on):

And apparently wasn’t afraid to mix it up in the box –> see here.

You know, that whole elusive goal-scoring thing we need so bad? The one he was brought to Foxboro to do, he’s doing it.  But not for New England.

7 games and one MLS goal later. He was gone.

Mouth agape, I decided this was clearly another weird anomaly.  Maybe if we look back a bit further, I’ll feel better about some of the outcomes.

 

Gabriel Badilla.

Remember him?  No?

Signed in 2008.  Got six games.  Didn’t do much.  Was gone in 2009.

It happens.  “It’s a physical league.”  Etc. Etc. Sometimes people just don’t have what it takes.

Except he went back to Costa Rica, and to his prior club, Saprissa – a team I don’t think the Revolution would fancy playing frequently – and for last year?  He was its Captain.

And he’s still there now, 5 years after it was decided he couldn’t cut it in Foxboro.

Because in 2009, ironically in a release that also included our re-signing Kahno Smith (I cannot make this stuff up), he was gone.

Face. Palm.

Ok, so a midfielder got away, right?  Not that big a deal.

Well, that is true I guess. Any others to replace him?

 

Mauricio Castro.

Can you guess where this is headed?

Well, to be fair, the talented midfielder isn’t ripping up a big league, but he was still setting up goals last year in Honduras for Atlético Choloma.  That’s three years after he was waived by New England.

I wonder what we missed?  I’m guessing that maybe we missed some of the creativity that he could have brought to our midfield and showed in flashes.

Maybe not the league leading Number 10 I may have wanted, but a start that I enjoyed watching.

However, the Revolution DID have a player, a fan favorite as I recall, that while not quite a traditional “Number 10” perhaps, but who came pretty close.

And fans missed him when he left.

 

José Carlos Cancela.

Pepe Cancela.  Yup, another Pepe.

Now, this story is a bit different. Cancela had a good run with the Revolution.  Hard to argue that.

In fact, in that critical midfield role he still has the (rather obscure) record of having more assists per 90 minutes than any other Revolution player, ever.  And he’s tied with Steve Ralston for the most post-season assists.

But there was a feeling that we lost him too soon.  That there was more to be had.  But he was taken by Toronto F.C. in an expansion draft, and ended up in Colorado, and was eventually bounced from MLS.

And look, he was past 30 at that point.  So no harm done. Right?

But of course, there’s a twist.

Not only did Cancela continue playing, but he played over 150 games in Costa Rica.  There is even a Facebook page that proclaims “Yo también creo que Pepe Cancela es el mejor jugador de Costa Rica” – or for the less Spanish-inclined “I too think Pepe Cancela is the best player in Costa Rica.”  499 Likes. Adorable.

If you think the Revolution fans remember him fondly (they do) after 90 games, impressive assists and seven goals.  Imagine the impact he had on Herediano, where he played a similar amount of games and scored over thirty goals.  Yeah.  They liked him. A lot.

And what did old-man Cancela (now 38) do less than a month ago, he signed with small, first-division Costa Rican club Belén FC.  And they don’t look too sad to have him. 

So, a good run with the Revolution, but the sense we could have had more of a potential “legacy” player.

Another Ralston?  Another Twellman? Maybe, maybe not. But the kind of player you’d think we would like to have associated with this team at a much deeper level.

 

Franco Coria.

Hardly a loss of a similar character by any means, Coria came in a from the Argentine 2nd division team Chacarita Junior, and is now at a different Argentine 2nd division club, called Club Atlético Sarmiento.

Maybe that’s the right level for him. Though arguably that’s also a good feeder level for MLS “fill in” players.  And being that he’s only 26, and we let him go in 2011, it does make you wonder how he could have developed.

But, no harm, no foul on this one. It seems to me.  Though, I would have liked to see a bit more of him, no crying here.

Perhaps we have a better beat on defenders.  Steve Nicol was world renowned defender.  Mike Burns had quite a career, as did Jay Heaps.

Maybe that’s why one decision always puzzled me so much.

 

John Jairo Lozano.

After arriving from America de Cali, he saw six MLS Reserve League games and two MLS starts.  And about six months later, he was gone.

Of course, maybe he didn’t show well in practice.  Maybe it was something else.

But America de Cali’s not a bad team.  And, as you may have guessed, John Lozano still soldiers on.  After a season or so with Cúcuta Deportivo in Colombia first division, he signed with Atlético Huila on May 01, 2014.

Not a world-beater, perhaps, but you would think a player capable of first-division South American soccer would have seemingly gotten more than a two-game run at our not-quite-World-beater Revolution.

 

So what now? 

There are two more players I’d like to mention, but let’s first call out the obvious: something certainly feels awry.  Coming into this, I wanted to believe the “Fire Burns” story that these players are just not MLS worthy.  I am forced to believe there’s a bigger issue here.  Some quick examples of why…

  • We were told that Pepe Moreno was “…a strong, target forward who has a lot of experience playing at the highest levels in both South America and Europe.”
  • We were told that Gabriel Badilla was “… a strong, versatile defender who has gained tremendous club and international experience at a young age.”
  • We were told that Milton Caraglio was “…a talented player who has played against some of South America’s best competition.”

I could go on and on… but the point here is that all those statements actually appear true – or close to it.  But none of them came true for New England.

Why?

And why am I bothering to ask this now?

Because clearly within the fan base there’s a big desire for change, and maybe there are some opportunities still left.

In researching this, I also saw a similar story pattern with a player I really enjoyed watching. He was at times frustrating, but talented. Tricky and elusive. He seemed desperate to make an impact.

 

Fernando Cárdenas.

And while I don’t know anything beyond what Google helps me find, he seems to have done pretty well down in Colombia with Independiente Santa Fe.

But he’s appears to be on his way out.  I don’t know why.

But maybe he’s worth a call?  Our offense could maybe use a bit of a spark, no?

Would the result be any different than the before?  Than any of the others?

I sure don’t know, but I really have my doubts.  And that is what’s most worrying, this pattern seems unlikely to be broken.

Which brings us to fan favorite (choke, cough, ahem) and current Designated Player…

 

Jerry Bengtson.

I sometimes enjoy playing Jerry’s own personal Devil’s advocate, or in this case, the person who offers that maybe he’s not actually the devil.

And no, he’s not done what a New England fan would have hoped for. Not by a long shot. Not at all.

But, forget everything you’ve seen of Jerry for a moment.  I know, it’s tough.

Now imagine you are told that a player is joining the Revolution, that…

  • Scores at the Olympics
  • Scores in World Cup qualifiers
  • Scored 26 goals in 54 games for his last club
  • Is 27 and should be in his prime

One would imagine that, upon hearing this, any Revolution supporter would be buying Mike Burns a beer anytime they could.  But no, but both Burns and Bengtson are unloved figures.

Why?

Because Jerry’s not gotten it done.  Maybe not been given a REAL chance to, but certainly hasn’t made an impact.

But here’s the thing.  I really, really don’t want to be writing this same article next year about a player that stunk for the New England Revolution, and went on to be a star elsewhere.  I really don’t.

And we know that Jerry shows up in the right moments elsewhere, event when maybe we don’t want him to.

Maybe the goals aren’t always pretty. But they count. And that’s something for a Revolution team that cannot seem to score.

So, the question isn’t whether Jerry’s done what we wanted.  We know that answer.

The question is WHY hasn’t he?

Or Caraglio? Or Moreno? Or Badilla? Or even Feilhaber.

Maybe it is Mike Burns who is at fault.  That seems like the easy answer. But these are good players.

How many times can we say “that player would be great on another team” and not just admit, maybe it’s not THEM.  Maybe it’s US.

It seems to me another team could make a good strategy of picking up after each of our Latin American “fracasos” (failures) and laughing all the way to a very strong squad.

I think our problem runs deeper. Until the Revolution is seen a place where people want to play and know they can succeed, we’re not not going anywhere fast.

For me, that is worse than any single losing streak.

The Revolution’s ‘Off The Record’ Dreaming

Having just returned from the New England Revolution’s “Media Round Table” it only felt logical to write something to justify my clearly trumped-up and hard to justify ‘media’ inclusion. (An inclusion I nonetheless remain quite grateful for.)

Interestingly, there’s already been some twitter reaction (from those not there) about the event having occured, including negativity about the off-the-record nature of some of the commentary and concerns about if we are hearing the real story.

Let me alleviate some of that angst by spilling the beans on the hottest off-the-record thing I learned, and I’ll admit it was quite a surprise.

The idea of building the country’s first subterranean soccer stadium (SSS) is so brilliant and progressive, I was blown away by its potential. It alleviates so many of the above-ground of the real-estate issues that were plaguing the project. It also explains why the team already advertises on the “T” … what a hint they had dropped. Sadly, since no sun shines underground, it’ll still be artificial turf.

OK, I kid.

But, since I won’t speak to any REAL off-the-record commentary, let me at least explain some impressions that I was left with.

The team’s outreach to the non-traditional media types is needed, logical, appropriate and gracious.

It’s needed because the Revolution’s lack of local “traditional media” coverage is both clear and frustrating for both fans and (we can only presume) management alike.

It’s logical, because it both informs the blogger/writer corps with some facts that are otherwise hard to share in other forums while building a level of understanding and a potential disincentive to jump on the “rant” wave that so easily takes over after any questionable decision.

It’s appropriate, because despite traditional media’s place atop the news food chain, it’s not a growth market and soccer has always thrived in alternative and online media anyway.

And it’s gracious, because however much the team officials might REALLY want to swat us away like some annoying, blogging, know-it-all gnats, they don’t. In fact, they hide that potential desire really, really well. Kudos.

I’ll offer this: largely, the event works.

As anyone whose spent time on Soccer Soap Box or following me on Twitter probably knows, I’m frequently pretty critical of the organization. And no doubt that it will continue to be that way when needed.

I realize that one (of a number) of reasons the team would host such an event is to humanize team management and explain (spin?) certain decisions in the light that they’d prefer. I undersand that as an objective writer about the team (well, mostly objective) that I must remain immune to such obvious ploys. (Mmm, desserts.)

But the fact remains that events like tonight’s nevertheless help deflate some of the most egregious of our fantastically negative assumptions.

Frankly, it’s easy, and often intellectually lazy, to throw 140 character bombs on Twitter about how clueless management is. Heck, I admittedly have tread pretty close to that line myself.

(One thing that should be made clear: is that despite their sharing of rules and information, and my having had an on-going dialogue with the team’s communications staff, they’ve never – ever – tried to change or influence anything I’ve written. I find that both noteworthy and commendable.)

But it must be said that Mike Burns and Brian Bilello (the front office stars of the night) are not clueless. In fact, they are both quite smart and super-knowledgable. That isn’t to say they are infallible or above criticism, as they most certainly are neither. In fact, after the last few seasons they’ll probably admit that without much pushback.

Nor can I see, however, how anyone argue that the front office doesn’t do what it thinks is best for the team. They do. We can, and will, argue that perhaps it’s not actually the right thing, or that they have skimped on certain investments, or made lousy decisions – clearly that’s all true in certain instances.

Now, can I really offer any real insight about things like how involved the Krafts are, or should be, in this team? Or will I ever truly understand how closely (or not) Sunil Gulati remains? Or know for sure the true aggression with which the team is driving for a soccer specific stadium?

No.

No on-the-record or off-the-record conversations can ever eliminate the conspiracy theories that the blogosphere and twittersphere can conjure up. And that’s OK.  It gives us something to talk about.

I can imagine that at this point, some of you have decided that after a dinner-date at Gillette, I’ve jumped ship and I’m in the front-office’s pocket, right?  Let me offer that I see it a bit differently.

I think it’s OK to acknowledge that the job of the Revolution management has is not an easy one. It’s not simple to build stadiums in the Boston area or keep fan interest in a market that offers champions in all major sports. It’s not easy getting foreign player transfers done or deciding which veterans to trade and which DP’s to pursue.

The good news: the Revolution front office has the smarts and knowledge understand their plight and plot logical moves forward.

And since that is the case, we should demand that their decisions are as good – no, BETTER – than other teams in the league.

And despite how smart they are, if it doesn’t work out, we: the fans, the bloggers, the real media, should continue to let them know about it.

And we will.

But frankly, given the toughness of their market and situation, I’m not left with a concern about them being smart or knowledgeable enough. They seem to have that covered.

If there was an area that concerns me, it is that their smarts has led them to a pragmatism that means they can appear devoid of the passion that they probably do indeed have for this team. It’s as if they are afraid to dream; afraid to weave a story of “what could be.”

Pragmatism is good for management, but not for passionate leadership.

And that worries the “media” side of me as well as the “fan” side of me. Because passion and creativity can be contagious, but smarts rarely are.

So Thank you, Revolution leadership for sharing your time and expertise in an open and very worthwhile discussion.  And while I’m certain to disagree from time to time, I’m convinced that efforts are being made to do what you think are the right things to make the Revolution succeed on the field and in a crowded and difficult market.

Now, maybe it’s time to stop thinking so much, and start building and sharing the dreams your fan base so desperately needs to hear.  Maybe then they’ll display more of that ‘Pride and Passion’ they’ve already been told they have.

Introducing The Revolution’s Love Doctor

I don’t much like Mark Willis.

It makes no difference to me that his New England Revolution rebranding effort and his recent post about “The Revs in the Age of Mutual Love” are good. Really good. (Though, just in case, perhaps you should go check them out.)

Now, please don’t misunderstand, I’ve not met him or spoken to him and only recently found his work online. And he’s done no obvious wrong to me. But that “Mutual Love” post was, well, an assault on my blogger dignity and identity. So something had to be said.

You see, way back in my first post for 2012, I acknowledged a lingering, unfinished blog entry about what the New England Revolution could be doing differently. That post never really came together, and I ended up taking bits and pieces of it and using them in other posts.

All fine, except the crux of where I was in many ways similar to the excellent “Mutual Love” post by Mr. Willis, rendering me and my meandering thoughts all but obsolete. So no, I don’t much like him and his massive exploitation of my habits of procrastination, even if done in a compelling, thoughtful and clever way.

Yet, as I re-read his interesting article, I found a glimmer of hope. A question, in fact, that Mr. Willis asked, but maybe didn’t fully answer. A poignant, “that’s exactly it” type question.

“Who’s in Charge of Thinking Like a Fan?”

You see, my never-published diatribe was started just after the Revolution announced its “sweeping” (ahem) organizational changes. But I longed for more. Yes, we could argue the validity of who was promoted and to what position, but the time for that has long passed.

What I was found missing was a net-new position. One that would have essentially answered the question – especially as it relates to both fan interaction, and the team’s marketing success (or lack thereof) – “who’s in charge of thinking like a fan?”

I imagined a role that would sound a lot like: VP of Marketing and Fan Engagement. In my mind, this person would lead all marketing, communications and fan engagement efforts, and assume responsibility for the current marketing and communications staff. I see this person as a new hire from outside the organization offering an injection of new blood, new thinking and new enthusiasm. I see this person as living, breathing and promoting the Revolution experience.

This position wasn’t announced, of course, and there are any number of reasons why it won’t be any time soon. Cost might be one. Others could be that the Revolution might be a bit too smart, and loyal, for its own good.

For instance, Brian Bilello is clearly a very smart guy and he may be thinking he can offer hands-on marketing leadership on his own. And maybe he can. But, given the challenges that surround the team on and off the field after what was a dreadful 2011, I’d hope he’d reconsider. There’s much to do elsewhere to right this ship, and he best not spread himself too thin.

So another person would be needed, and some of this new hire’s long task list would be somewhat obvious, things like:

  • Develop a consistent, repeatable and compelling vision for the team that translates “Front Office Speak” into something fans (and the media) can rally behind. Train every staff member on it.
  • Review all advertising, marketing and branding efforts for consistency, passion and relevance in today’s MLS world, and beyond. (Saying that the team is spending money (3rd highest in league?) can no longer be seen as a positive without corresponding results.)
  • Define and initiate co-marketing efforts with team sponsor United Healthcare. This could be both in-kind collaborations or specific net-new investments that drive toward both organizations’ goals, and would go a long way to increasing the Revolution brand credibility.
  • Construct media engagement efforts, potentially finding inventive ways to pivot off of the Patriots’ ridiculous leverage in the local market.
  • Etc., Etc., Etc.

This new person needs to have the desire to quickly become credible to the soccer community. However, I have the unpopular opinion that a long-history in the game is beneficial, but not mandatory. What’s mandatory is the ability to properly market the product of New England Revolution soccer. Yes, having the ability to speak to the soccer cognoscenti would be nice, but comes second to having proven marketing chops. Besides, what those soccer lovers will find credible are marketing efforts that prove their love of the team is being reciprocated, not placated.

Just as important, given the organization currently in place, would be augmenting the marketing skills with an engaging personality. This team needs someone who can credibly empathize, energize and relate to fans. Today, many of the most die-hard Revolution fans today feel talked-at, marketed-at and nearly scoffed-at from the smarter-than-thou team management. And having met much of the team leadership at one point or another, I’m not at all convinced that the Front Office actually feels this way or intends to send this message. But it is often the message that is accidentaly delivered.

Media too needs this empathy and enthusiasm. Most local media struggle to differentiate a free kick from a penalty kick, and might hide under a desk if they needed to describe the passive-offside rule or MLS roster restrictions while live on camera. This person needs to be a trusted advocate and advisor to these potential media allies.

This personality requirement is a hard qualification to quantify. It doesn’t necessarily show up on a resume. Like has been said about pornography, this is a quality that in the “I know it when I see it” genre. There’s a fairly fine line between being an engaging, inspiring and empathetic marketing leader and coming off as an overly-slick salesperson. But it’s a line that the team best not cross.

But skilled, yet aloof marketers – no matter how smart – are not what this team needs right now.

The team also doesn’t need a timid personality, because for this role to be successful, glass would need to be broken, assumptions challenged and a certain free reign promised, in order to try new ideas. Not all of which will be stunning successes. That creative leeway will be important, because this new person would also quickly become the VP of Tough Love.

What types of tough love?

First, he/she should insist on media/presentation training for Mike Burns, Brian Bilello and Jay Heaps, and be the one true voice of the front office until comfortable that the others are ready. Those three team leaders offer very different skills, but are all critical to getting an improved team image out to market.

Mike Burns may have the perfect qualifications for his role and have one of the best soccer brains in MLS. (Hey, it’s possible.) But his media and fan interactions have not portrayed him as a sympathetic figure and have not delivered a sense of his competence nor a consistently cogent view of where the team is headed. If success doesn’t come quick and his reputation is not shored up, he will continue to be an easy target for frustrated fans.

Brian Bilello does better with fans, but needs to realize that business as usual won’t work in terms of cryptic sharing and the inability to answer questions about the team’s style, goals and direction. Sure, player commentary needs to be closely guarded, but it’s time for some risk taking there as well. At the risk of giving too much away, the team needs to share as much information as they can to better show its level of activity (scouting) and some insight into the rationale for decisions that seem odd for us mere mortals (Perovic?, etc.) to comprehend.

An increased amount of Twitter correspondence has been a better start in 2012 for Bilello (though it has notably slowed after a strong start), but old habits die hard. For example, waiting weeks to mention that José Moreno’s contract wasn’t effective until March 1st, after fans had almost completely turned against the player, continues a streak of under-sharing with this key audience.

Jay Heaps is a bit of a media mystery at this point. He speaks well, is a fan favorite and people seem to genuinely hope for his success. That said, he’s also vastly inexperienced and in the honeymoon period of his appointment. The team should leverage him now, but ensure he’s prepared for communications when things aren’t so easy.

More tough love needs to be delivered to ownership.

This marketing leader needs to also tell his boss (presumptively Bilello) that the Krafts need to be seen as educated, active and visible owners – now. (Hopefully they are all of those things, but either way, appearances matter.) They need to be able to field questions about the team, its strategy and the choices that are being made. The conversation needs to be deeper than “we are planning for a Soccer Specific Stadium.”  One way to start, is to be visible at games in the stadium that the team does have. It’s not that hard really.

Frankly, the fact that the immensely successful Kraft family has been turned into anything but an asset for a New England team either speaks to their absolute disinterest or a dismal marketing failure. And personally, despite the relative lack of engagement and failings, I still struggle to believe they simply don’t care.

Is the team ready for someone to come in and tell management and ownership that they are part of the “product” and need to shape up? I would hope so.

And while not tough-love, there is some love to show the fans.

Better (extreme?) engagement on social media? The appearance of over-sharing (even if carefully orchestrated behind the scenes) about team plans? Worth a shot.

Why not involve the most vocal fans in “crowdsourcing” new promotional ideas. The best way to get the negativity out of the fan-base is to engage them in the marketing turnaround. Make them part of the solution. It’s hard to go on social media and half-wittedly slam something you are working to help create.

Heck, why not involve them in picking the new social media hashtag to replace #Revs? A contest anyone? (Sorry dear readers, that #Revs allusion could not be avoided…)

I could see this new VP pouring beers alongside the players at the newly announced Pub Tour, or drinking a pint with the fans – while jotting down their ideas. In fact, couldn’t there be a place for this person in The Fort? If it’s mutual love that’s needed, there are ways or providing it.

Yes, there’s work to be done and some ideas will be better than others.  But the team should get a person, leverage the new energy, give them some autonomy and power to say what needs to be said and promote this product.  Sure, new stadiums and new Designated Players could help.  But this product is marketable as-is.

So I guess I don’t need to detest this Mark Willis character after all. He may have “stolen” (yes, I am delusional) my completely stagnant, dust-laden, and largely under-developed idea in his extremely clever and thoughtful article, but he left me a crumb to dine on. And so I did.

Question: “Who’s in Charge of Thinking Like a Fan?”

Answer: The new VP of Market and Fan Engagement that the team should go find.

And in his discussion of Mutual Love that the fans so desperately deserve, he could also have wondered who would deliver the tough love the team so obviously needs.

The answer would be the same.

The Revolution Re-Org: Reboot or Upgrade?

If first impressions matter most, it is hard for New England Revolution fans to take much solace in the recent organizational reorganizational announcements.

The Revolution is viewed as being stuck in MLS 1.0, while the league has largely moved on to MLS 2.0 (or more.) Apparently Revolution ownership seems to agree, with Robert Kraft suggesting: “Major League Soccer has evolved significantly in the last few years and while we felt we had a structure in place that had worked well earlier and led us to success, the last two years did not live up to our expectations.”

However, addressing such fundamental league changes by redrawing lines on an organization chart seems more like a reboot than a system upgrade.

Maybe they have patched the team to MLS 1.5?

Appearances Matter

If there were concerns about the on-field performance, player selection and overall treatment of players, adding responsibilities to the VP of Player Personnel Mike Burns, seems at first glance like an odd way to address it.

If there were challenges with moving your “number one, two and three priority” priority of a Soccer Specific Stadium forward (in the words of Brian Bilello), your in-stadium atmosphere is probably the worst in MLS and your fans cannot buy Revolution merchandise outside of the Patriots Pro Shop without jumping through flaming hoops, it would seem out of place to promote your Chief Operating Officer Brian Bilello to even greater responsibility.

Yet, that’s what happened.

Well, that and the enigmatic (for New England) Sunil Gulati being moved from his (way) behind the scenes role of President of Kraft Soccer to a pure advisory role for the Krafts. Ummm, Ok.

Welcome to a MLS 1.5…

Any Hope To Be Found?

If you are looking for good news, this isn’t a downgrade.

Brian Bilello, the once COO and now President of the New England Revolution, is clearly a smart guy. He seems to really care about the team, the sport and understands the business model and on-field/off-field challenges. If nothing else his having “surrendered his other leadership roles” with the Kraft’s means greater focus, and less Twitter/Blog/Facebook abuse.

Focus is good, but only time will tell if any of this translates into better results. And it seems with the removal of Sunil Gulati from day to day activity with the team (words that are hard to type, since his day to day roles were never understood), one would imagine Mr. Bilello will have greater control and ability to get changes made.

Mr. Bilello senses that new breath of fresh air from a redefined organization and refined role for Mr. Gulati, right? “How [Sunil Gulati]’s utilized on a day-to-day basis, I don’t have a great answer for you on that.” Ok, so there’s some confusion about how he’ll still advise on the Revolution.

Well, Mr. Gulati will clearly use his connections to get us some great international games, right? “I don’t have a great answer to that… If he can be helpful in that regard, sure, I’m sure he will be.”

Great Soccer On The Way?

Well, now that we’ve cleared all of that up… let’s talk about the vast “soccer” improvements we should expect from the expansion of responsibilities for Mr. Burns.

The idea of Mike Burns having a greater span of control will be the most frustrating one of this re-org for many Revolution faithful. The team hasn’t been the shining example of player management in most regards. What would have been interesting is a clearer statement as to what led to that particular decision, since the recent past hasn’t been a shining example of success.

Recent drafts? OK, I guess.

Bringing in impactful foreigners? Not great.

Keeping, or at least adequately replacing, talented players? Arguably the most obvious failure. Demspey and Parkhurst might have been Europe-bound no matter what, but who replaced them? Larentowicz, Dorman and others? Painful.

Parting ways at midseason with a player voted your team MVP the prior year? Bordering on absurd.

I have met, but don’t know, Mr. Burns but I do know he has a long history in the sport, was an accomplished US player (if not fan favorite) at all levels and should by all definitions “know the game.” But as in many professions, individual contributor success does not always define successful management and Mike Burns has a lot to prove. At least in this new clearer (I suppose) role he can be more easily judged on his success.

The problem many Revolution watchers have, is that it’s unclear how, other than having been a good soccer player, Mr. Burns is fully qualified to take on his added responsibility of managing “all aspects of the club’s soccer operations, which now includes the coaching staff and player acquisitions, in addition to continuing his oversight of the youth development program and the team’s operations and management.”

The last few years would be a blemish, if anything, not a vote of confidence. He doesn’t have a public soccer opinion nor does he engage well with the media. He hasn’t explained a Revolution soccer “point of view” and we’ve already discussed our player-management concerns.

Perhaps Mr. Burns is ideally suited for his new role. But when Jonathan Kraft says “During the last few years, he has proven to us that he is talented and more than capable to take on these responsibilities and lead our soccer operations.” It leaves many wondering, HOW that has been proven in something better than an MLS 1.0 world.

The team has rebooted, but the significance of any upgrade is clearly not yet known.

(There’s way more to cover on these changes, my public relations conspiracy theory, the role that should have been announced, and new coaching possibilities. But after watching the US get blanked in the Stade de France last night, I better go enjoy some of this wonderful city to soothe the pains of the loss. More to come very soon!)

Mr. Bilello, I have Don Garber on Line One.

This was certainly an interesting week for MLS and US Soccer. We are gearing up for MLS Cup 2010. We saw a 17 year old score his first goal – a game winner no less – for the US National Team against South Africa. And Don Garber delivered his “State of the League” address.

I was already feeling vindicated that my 2010 Most Valuable Country award for Colombia was pushed further from reproach as David Ferreira won the 2010 Volkswagen MLS Most Valuable Player award. Added to Jamison Olave’s already announced MLS 2010 Visa Defender of the Year award, my pick was looking pretty solid.

Little did I know that during the 2010 MLS State of the League address MLS commissioner Don Garber would offer up some tidbits that would add to my burgeoning soccer blogger ego by hitting key points that Soccer Soap Box has been focused on for some time.

I thought Mr. Garber hit some key points during his address that many fans knew were necessary – including an improved and re-launched Reserve League, increased roster capacity that focuses on younger players, help for teams competing in the CONCACAF Champions League and a reexamination of the playoff format that saw two Western Conference teams compete for the Eastern Conference championship in 2010.

Mr. Garber also discussed the fact that MLS is at least considering how its clubs could make good on an invitation from CONMEBOL to participate in Copa Libertadores. This is both a blessing and curse, as it would provide a higher profile experience for MLS teams in international competition, but would even further stretch MLS teams further than they can realistically go. Having a run-down MLS club get embarrassed in South America helps nobody.

It was already clear the MLS brass like the idea of a second MLS club in the greater New York area, so the fact that this was an issue that got some focus isn’t really news.

Aside from all of that great information though, I was transfixed on something that was at the very end of the transcript which had, to me, a direct correlation to our local New England Revolution.

Earlier in the year the Revolution offered a gesture to fans of having its Chief Operating Officer Brian Bilello and VP of Player Personnel Michael Burns take questions from directly from fans on its website. If the wound that was inflicted on them by a ready base of very frustrated fans had mostly healed over, some comments by Mr. Garber ripped off that scab and poured in the salt. At least for me.

Why?

Well, as I sleepily read through the transcript of Mr. Garber’s comments, there was a passage at the end that grabbed my attention in the way that news of the Revolution signing Ronaldihno would to the Foxboro faithful. It was about how each of the MLS teams presents a business plan to the league, and his commentary about what he hoped to see left me slack jawed.

You see, I took the offer to lob questions at the Revolution, both on the official Revolution pages, then a longer version with my questions explained on Soccer Soap Box. I expected most wouldn’t be answered, and let’s just say that belief was met.  As the frustration of fans started pouring out based on what felt like boiler-plate answers, I simply sulked back into the dark corner where we bloggers so carefully grow our deep seated negativity  and snickered. (please note, sarcasm is welcome here)

My questions were probably too harsh, to unrealistic, too hopeful. Here, you can see for yourself: Bilello Questions and Burns Questions.

But then Mr. Garber spoke, and I reconsidered.

My first question to Mr. Bilello: Do the New England Revolution have a “mission statement” – from an overall perspective? (not specifically on the field)

Unrealistic?

Well, Mr. Garber proclaimed that “Every team creates their brand vision and their mission as to how they want to go about achieving it. These visions or missions are things that they should be sharing publicly.”

Wow.

A key question I lobbed at Mr. Burns: I would imagine that it helps to have a specific “style” of soccer in mind when scouting players. I wondered, is there a “shared vision” of how the New England Revolution believe soccer should be played? What is it? Does it affect the choice of players we sign? Does this vision extend to your burgeoning efforts in youth development?

Mr. Garber added that “All of the clubs talk about what kind of team they want to be on the field. They discuss the style of play and the commitment to that style of play as it is part of their brand and part of what they’re trying to do in connecting to their audiences.”

Really Don, they do?

It’s too bad there wasn’t a platform for the team to answer such questions that were publicly lobbed at them and remove the doubt that the team is running on autopilot. If only there was a publicly posted question and answer session posted online where these questions came in…

Oh. Never mind.

I do take some solace though that there’s a league office somewhere where the team does need to answer these questions.

Oh, to be a fly on that wall…

No Revolution Here, You Still Get What You Pay For

A quick peek at the comments on the official Revolution Facebook page, the Revolution blog or (if you can handle it) Big Soccer, and it’s clear that there’s a significant amount of (negative) energy floating around the New England Revolution right now.

Since I already lobbed my questions toward Mr. Bilello (here and on the Revs Blog), and Mr. Burns (here and on the Revs blog) I decided to let my thoughts settle for a bit around the “damage control” Questions/Answers sessions the front office had offered, and how they went so very wrong.

Instead, I decided to follow up on my last post about how Real Salt Lake so easily out-manned the Revolution.  Basically, I suggested that RSL was a superior roster in all positions.

Admittedly, for someone, who despite the blog-based critiques and criticisms, still considers himself a Revolution fan, that’s some tough love to dish out.   It made me wonder WHY our players didn’t seem up to the task.

So I did a bit of playing around with MLS Salary information, and found some interesting bits of information.   Of course, if you feel there is no truth whatsoever to the old adage of “you get what you pay for” than stop reading right now.

Now, as I always do, I’ll caveat some of this… First, I don’t know deep details of how contracts are structured, and second, I’ll admit I completely made up a salary of $50K for Jason Griffiths based on what other rookies are making, plus a boost for him being an international.

I’ll also admit that some of New England’s most expensive players were not available – players like Taylor Twellman, Edgaras Jankauskas, Steve Ralston.  I admit this under duress, since many of New England’s most expensive players are almost never available, which I would think would factor into their contracts, re-signings, etc.  (But that’s open to debate…)

I looked at the players that were the starting eleven for Real Salt Lake and the New England Revolution, took my view of like/like positional comparisons from the last blog and compared salaries.   Here’s what it looked like.

RSL Revs Diff
Nick Rimando vs.  Matt Reis 131000 182011 -51011
Robbie Russell vs.  Kevin Alston 119751 124000 -4249
Jamison Olave vs.  Cory Gibbs 240000 128142 111858
Nate Borchers  vs.  Emmanuel Osei 147500 52875 94625
Chris Wingert  vs.   Seth Sinovic 125000 40000 85000
Andy Williams   vs.   Sainey Nyassi 88200 76750 11450
Ned Grabavoy  vs.  Jason Griffiths 105000 50000 55000
Javier Morales   vs.  Shalrie Joseph 252500 475000 -222500
Will Johnson  vs.  Chris Tierney 89891 40000 49891
Alvaro Saborio  vs.  Marko Perovic 128125 190000 -61875
Fabian Espindola  vs.  Zach Schilawski 75000 42500 32500
Total 1501967 1401278 100689
w/o most expensive on each team 1249467 926278 323189

Within this, there are some interesting findings…

To my surprise, when comparing overall roster expense, the RSL team was only paid about $100K more.  However, taking out each team’s most expensive players made the RSL roster over $320K more highly compensated.  Shalrie Joseph’s team-leading salary really adds up when he doesn’t take over a game – something he’s capable of, but hasn’t been able to do recently.

It’s already been asked on this blog – and through the Revolution blog – why Shalrie isn’t a Designated Player if none are about to be announced.  This should theoretically lower that salary burden on the roster, if not for the ownership, and free space up for new signings.

But outside of Shalrie’s salary, things actually get even stranger.

Number of starting players that earned over $100K.  RSL: Eight.  The Revolution?  Five.

The lowest paid player included in Real Salt Lake’s starting lineup?  Fabian Espindola, with a salary of $75K.

The Revolution had FIVE players making less – some significantly less – than that number, and one more that just barely topped it at $76.5K.

If we call Sainey Nyassi’s $76.5K more or less equivalent to Espindola’s $75K, that means more than half of the Revolution starting lineup made less than or (practically) equal to RSL’s least expensive player.

Real Salt Lake had seven players on the field that were higher paid than their Revolution counterparts, and in only one of those seven was the difference less than $12K.

The four Revs who were paid more than their counterparts?

  • Kevin Alston – has a good future, but on this night wasn’t as good as Robbie Russell
  • Matt Reis – well, maybe not all his fault, but when five go in…
  • Shalrie Joseph – one of the best midfielders in MLS, but didn’t look $220K+ better than Javier Morales on this night
  • Marko Perovic – a player that I have high hopes for, but who frankly seems to have lost faith in his (largely rookie) teammates and gets caught in possession too frequently when trying to do too much.

After the Revolution let in five goals, you might want to know that the RSL central defensive paring (Olave and Borchers) salary is more than double that of their Revolution counterparts (Gibbs and Osei.)

More curious is that in at least four cases (given my assumption on Griffith’s salary), the difference in salary between the RSL player and Revolution player of the same position was actually larger than the Revolution player’s entire salary.

For a team that has been lauded for its balance in recent years, and has even been used as a rationale against Designated Players due to its successful – if not beautiful – soccer, one must wonder if this team really does offer that balance at all.   Related to a balanced roster, they’ve clearly been one-upped by RSL.

Might the success of drafting future All Stars Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst have clouded the Revolution vision of what success might look like in MLS?  It’s hard to say for sure.

What we can say is this… the “you get what you paid for” adage was created based on some element of general truth.    And the Revs haven’t paid for a winning team.

So as the supporters across the web spew insults, theories and accusations, the Revolution front office should know that sending a vastly inexperienced and under-skilled team out to compete is fine.

Just don’t be surprised by the results on the field or in the stands.

Your fans no longer are.

(Part 2) Some Revolution Questions That Needed Asking

Having submitted a few burning business/operations questions to Revolution COO Brian Bilello already, I figured I would continue to take up the Revolution’s generous offer and ask some of Mike Burns as well.   (See the first discussion here.)

The good news is on the “soccer side” of things, I don’t know of anyone who can question the soccer specific focus or knowledge of the staff.  Steve Nicol is nearly sainted in these parts, and Michael Burns (if not everyone’s idol) certainly seems worthy of respect.

I’ll caveat this blog with the understanding that I only have public information.  Luckily, that includes a decent review of salary information from the MLS Player’s Union and statistics from websites near and far.

I do not, however, know all the intricacies of contracts and the detail of some MLS transfer and personnel rules. Some of this is easy to find, some not.  If my assumptions are off base, I’d love to understand more by those who know it.

Question: I’m sure this is a question that will be posed time and time again, but can you describe the roles of both Steve Nicol and yourself when scouting, drafting and acquiring players?

Why I ask: To be fair, when player additions turn out well, fans praise Steve Nicol.  When player signings appear to  go poorly, fans blame Mike Burns.  Perhaps everyone has it all wrong?

Question: I would imagine that it helps to have a specific “style” of soccer in mind when scouting players.  I wondered, is there a “shared vision” of how the New England Revolution believe soccer should be played?  What is it?  Does it affect the choice of players we sign?   Does this vision extend to your burgeoning efforts in youth development?

Why I ask: If the Revolution has a chosen style of soccer, I want to be the first to hear it defined.  I would humbly suggest – especially now that the team has been mandated into the youth development world – that such a vision should be created if it does not already exist.

If the team strives to be something special, why not start with a view how soccer should be played in a Revolution jersey?  This instills a sense of direction, player pride, fan appreciation and consistency of purpose that spans management personnel and the ups and downs of any particular season.

Question: Have any creative options been discussed internally or with the league about the ongoing uncertainty of Taylor Twellman’s recuperation and what it means to the Revolution roster?

Why I ask: Taylor Twellman is a great goal-scorer.  If possible, Revolution fans would start him in the next game all foreseeable games after that.  I also don’t know of any fans that have any doubt if Taylor could be playing, that he would be playing.

That said, Taylor is not playing.  In fact, he played only twice last year and not at all this year.   Nobody has complained that he’s still with the team.   Nobody has mentioned the (contractually obligated?) raise of nearly forty thousand dollars he got in 2010.

But there comes a point in a salary capped league, when a star player simply cannot play that a team must make some hard calls.   And that is why I ask about creative options, and I certainly hope my team has smart people thinking more shrewdly than their peers at other teams.

With that backdrop, help me see why this couldn’t have worked… I see the potential for Taylor to have “retired” from active playing and be “hired” as an Assistant Coach.   (“Striker’s Coach”)

He could still get paid a nice salary, not be counted against the salary cap and have been able to train with the team every day, just like now.   And when he’s healthy?  Oh, I imagine there would be some players could be moved.   For instance, some other expensive ($240,000?) strikers that haven’t played the equivalence of two full MLS games this year.

What MLS rules would that have broken?

Question: Continuing on the theme of being creative… my understanding of the newly updated Designated Player rule is that each DP now costs less to a team in overall salary cap money.  If there are no plans to add a Designated Player soon, wouldn’t you immediately take Taylor Twellman and Shalrie Joseph and make them DP’s?  This would save us money under the cap, which could (of course) be reinvested in other roster slots as raises or, dare I say, upgrades.

Why I ask: Again, my understanding of MLS rules might be all wrong – there is not much specificity in the Regulations here. (Happy to learn more.)

Or the Revolution might be about to sign two big-name Designated Players.  (Happy to hear it.)

However, I’d hate to think that nobody is thinking far enough outside the box to come up with this stuff if it does make sense.

Question: Do you think Designated Players, if/when brought in, should have both soccer and marketing value associated with them?

Why I ask: I suspect there could be some fan disagreement with this, but I certainly do.

Do you want Ronaldinho more than a younger, also-talented, non-Brazilian to fill the stadium?  I say yes.

Do you consider Deco (who’s currently out of the picture at Chelsea) because he’s a creative player that might excel in front of Shalrie Joseph and is used to fast and physical play, or because he has generates interest to both the Brazilian and Portuguese fans in the area?   I say both.

Question: It’s great to have Steve Ralston back.  (Well, sorta back – enough already with the injuries.)  Nobody discounts his desire to help his home town, but if there was a quick and easy contract discussion at the end of last season, would we really ever had to have said goodbye?

Why I ask: I have written about Steve Ralston’s return before.  (See blog here.) But I know of very few people who believe that Steve, without provocation, decided to leave to help start A.C. St. Louis simply because of a desire to get soccer moving in his old home town.

I think most fans understand the pressures under the salary cap, but even under a quick glimpse at Niouky and Khano Smith alone I see about $100,000 ready to cover a good chunk of Steve’s salary.  And yes, I think the fans would take a two-for-one deal on that one.  (Note – yes, I realize that some other low-salary players would take up roster space in their place… I’m just making a point.)

Question: Over the last few years, what would you say has been your biggest success area related to bringing new players on board, and what has been the area that has troubled the team the most?

Why I ask: Most fans see the Revolution as having had great success in the MLS draft, but mediocre value from its (often much more expensive) international signings.   This could be based on a limited scouting network outside the US, considered a “fact of life” for bringing in international players, or something else.   I’d be curious how management sees it.

—–

Well, there are many more questions that could be asked, but Father’s Day has turned over into a work day, and I best get some sleep.

Thanks again, Revolution, for this offer of submitting questions.  My edited list from above will be on your blog shortly.

Tag, you’re it.