Coaching A Revolution: Are Heaps Of Passion Enough?

I thought I might be writing about a coach tonight, but certainly not like this.  I hoped to offer commentary on Juergen Klinsmann and his lackluster start with the US Men’s National Team.

But since I’ve not even finished watching the USA v France game on DVR, and still don’t feel the US fan corner I watched the game from in France allowed me much perspective (too much fan-watching, too bad an angle)… I was struggling.

Then, it happened.

The Boston Globe broke a story, and Twitter storm, about Jay Heaps being announced tomorrow as the New England Revolution’s next head coach.  Let’s, for the moment, just take it as fact. If the Boston Globe cares enough to pay attention to the Revolution in the post season, they are probably not guessing.

In some ways, this is no surprise, as Jay’s name had come up for some time in the conversation about people potentially interested in the role. However, I think most fans thought it was a cute conversation about a prior Revolution player and current TV color commentary guy.  It wasn’t taken particularly seriously.

It’s not that Jay Heaps isn’t a popular figure in Revolution circles, he most certainly is. Revolution fans hold him in high regard, and for good reason. He always brought an intensity to the game that was infectious.   If there was a player who embodied the Revolution’s (somewhat ironic) catchphrase of “Pride and Passion” it is Jay Heaps.

So this announcement has supporters. Fans looking for nostalgia, for the fire-in-the-belly attitude that Steve Nicol seemed to have lost will love this announcement. Fans who remember Jay as a member of the Revolution teams that made it to finals, had winning seasons and battled for Eastern Conference domination will hope that the fighting spirit returns.

But a strong initial reaction, even from fans who like Jay Heaps, was one of disappointment and resignation. With a team stuck in a deep funk, the idea of a bringing aboard an inexperienced coach who was a “team guy” with questionable readiness taking over smacks of being “the easy way out.”

The prior ex-player to be seriously discussed as a coaching option was Steve Ralston, and I set out a bunch of considerations by which a Ralston appointment might be viewed. It’s an interesting comparison to use those same measurement areas for Mr. Heaps.

  • Knowledge of MLS. Like Ralston, this is a strong positive for Jay’s candidacy, though Ralston has side-line specific experience from his current Assistant Coaching role for the Houston Dynamo.
  • History as an attack-minded, passing-oriented player. This was a non-standard metric to judge a coach in anyone’s book, but one I was hopeful would play in to the decision. If you believe that coaches only offer inspiration and motivation, ignore this. But if you think that coaches influence the brand of soccer that is played, Jay’s record as a hard-nosed defender doesn’t inspire confidence for the arrival of the beautiful game at Gillette Stadium.
  • Foxboro fan favorite. I don’t know who would win a popularity contest between Ralston and Heaps in Foxboro, but both would do very well.
  • Mentoring Benny Feilhaber and Diego Fagundez. Jay would serve as a positive mentor for young Revolution players, but one might think the young defenders (Alston, Barnes, etc.) would see a greater benefit than a Feilhaber or Fagundez who offer the potential for a more skillful brand of soccer.
  • Revolution history. Heaps offers the same nostalgic view of the Revolution’s good-old-days as Ralston would have offered and will undoubtedly push to return the team to that former glory.
  • Personality. Jay’s much more active and forward personality might well be better suited for MLS coaching, especially in shaking the Revolution from its funk, than a more reserved Steve Ralston.
  • Coaching Experience. Steve Ralston is currently an assistant coach at the Houston Dynamo, a successful MLS organization. Jay Heaps hasn’t ever been a coach, and will have to manage some significant personalities (and ex-teammates) like Shalrie Joseph and Matt Reis, in order to find success.
  • International Experience. Both Jay Heaps and Steve Ralston saw time with the US National Team, though Ralston had far greater exposure. In reality, neither of them would bring any international coaching credibility that’s likely to ease the acquisition of DP level foreigners to Foxboro or impress likely signings.
  • Go big or go home. This was the idea that the Revolution are in need of something big to prove to the players, the fans and MLS that they are “in it to win it.” After a management reorganization that, while potentially beneficial, was hardly seen as a big advancement, the choice of a Kraft-family favorite with no coaching experience who is already on the payroll for doing TV broadcasts looks quite like a cop-out.

One area I didn’t cover with Steve Ralston was whether or not he’d actually be interested in taking the job.  Ralston is about to be on the sidelines of an MLS Cup challenger, learning from an experienced coach and getting ready for the excitement of a soccer-specifc-stadium opening.   What would be the draw to return?  Heaps, meanwhile, grew up in New England, played more games for the Revolution than anyone and still works with the team and seems ready, willing and able to consider a coaching position.

(Or maybe ex-right back Mike Burns wanted to replace ex-right back Steve Nicol with ex-right back Jay Heaps.)

There are two major concerns with this Jay Heaps being announced as coach.

First, does an inexperienced coach (does he have a coaching certification at all?) have what it takes to right a ship that’s clearly off course.

Second, we can expect Jay to bring intensity, but ugly soccer with the volume turned up does not get better looking, and often gets worse.  And this product could use some polishing.

There’s much to learn about what a Jay Heaps managed team would look and play like, and it’s certainly hard for anyone to wish Jay Heaps or the Revolution any ill will.

It’s less difficult though to find some concerns with his choice as the new coach of the team and the significance of the recent organizational changes.

Because, while a Heaps–>Burns–>Bilello reporting structure might not be striking fear in the hearts of our rivals, it has brought indigestion to fans looking for a big statement of commitment, investment and higher-expectations from team ownership.

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Revolution Re-Org: Setting The Bar

Let’s start with the obvious… soccer bloggers, including (maybe especially) those that track the New England Revolution, love a controversy.

Better yet, a conspiracy.

I do what I can not to jump on most of the conspiracy theory bandwagons. Really, I try.

I’ll admit it though, some are hard to avoid. Whether they are too fun, too plausible or too humorous to stay away from, the gravitational pull of many conspiracy theories drag you into their vortex of crazy.

Given all that, I’m a bit surprised that what I’m about to postulate hasn’t been out in the blogoshere yet. (Disclaimer: I am not saying that I have any specific facts to back this up, but in the world of conspricacies and controversies, we often play in the “circumstantial evidence” realm anyway.)

Is it so obvious that nobody bothered to mention it? Perhaps, and feel free to tell me so and that I should go get a life.

Was it lost in other noise? Maybe, there has (for once) been other things to talk about.

But, you see, I have this sneaking suspicion that I was duped. Duped by the Revolution and duped by the “real” local media.

Not only was I duped, but I applauded my own duping in the social media sphere. Here’s what I now find to by my ironically naïve tweet.

So, I’ll take a run at my own conspiracy theory.

The story short here is that I was applauding Frank Dell’Apa of the Boston Globe of correctly calling out what fans and bloggers have been fretting about for a few years: an opaque and confusing management structure within the New England Revolution that made it hard to understand roles/responsibilities, determine where issues existed that led to recent failures or even pat the right person on the back when things went right.

Why bother tweeting about a journalist for journalism as I did? Because in the cushy world of MLS, or the bizarro world of the New England franchise at least, it rarely happens in the “real” media.

When the Boston (or New England) media bothers to cover the team, it’s usually skin deep. There are two primary writers of note, Frank Dell’Apa and Kyle McCarthy. Frank has plenty of sportswriter bonafides but occasionally appears disinterested in his local club, and Kyle tends to be so close to the team that you’d think he’s on the payroll.

That isn’t to say that either of them have totally avoided calling out the Revolution from time to time. Two playoff misses in a row and an international player turnstile that keeps spinning with retreads are hard to ignore. Goodness knows we are better for having them – and the others that cover the Revolution – than not.

But typically, most fans have sensed that the “real” Boston media is typically too concerned for their continued access to the team, or too indifferent to them, to have focused on what the blogger community and fan base saw as a dysfunctional management structure. Among other lingering questions.

So, when seemingly out of the blue, the Boston Globe runs a story that calls out the team structure as something holding the Revolution back, it comes as a breath of fresh air.

But wait, why the sudden concern? Just holding up your information an opinions for an end of season grenade?

Maybe. I cannot say for sure otherwise.

But I THINK otherwise. What do I suspect happened?

The team fed (overtly or otherwise) the story to Mr. Dell’Apa.

He either thought he had enough to write up something interesting about dysfunctional management style, or was just doing the Revolution “a solid” by getting out news the wanted out there. You can make your own guess as to that one, he bears enough of the ugly truth about the team for me to be on the fence here.

Why would the team bother, you ask?

The team, already knowing what changes the tight family structure would tolerate, chose to publicly set the bar at a height they knew they could tolerate. They owned the story about what was wrong and how to fix it.

Namely, organizational structure.

Bad decisions? Wrong personnel? Antiquated approach to talent acquisition and marketing?

Nope. Organizational structure.

In reality, one person took the fall here, and it was only for the on-field performance. Steve Nicol.

(To be fair, I was – and am – OK with his dismissal, he just seemed burnt out and I suspect both he and the Revolution will probably benefit from the change.)

Sure, you can say Sunil Gulati also was removed from his Revolution responsibilities as well. But come on, he leads the US Soccer Federation, he’s a Professor, he had a vague remit for the Revolution anyway… and he stays on as an “Advisor” to the Kraft’s. That’s not really a change of massive proportions.

In the conspiratorial world I’ve created here, the team successfully lowered the bar for what change was required, and then stepped right over it.

What strikes me about this theory, and the main reason I might doubt my whole twisted plot here, is that it’s kind of brilliant – if a bit obvious given the timing. It’s more sophisticated than what I’ve come to expect from the team.

I’m not sure if I’m annoyed at being duped or impressed they (kind of) pulled it off.

Now, as I offered as a disclaimer. I could be totally wrong here.

One day, Revolution ownership and management may have been having their Cheerios and coffee and read Mr. Dell’Apa’s fine piece of journalism and had an epiphany.

They then ran to their phones and immediately made decisive moves to shore up the team based on the now-obvious management issues.

Which one sounds fictional to you?

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!)

What Comes Next: Reviewing Ralston’s Resume

One thing is clear, many New England Revolution fans want to see some change this offseason. Big change.

But let’s be honest. Bob Kraft isn’t going anywhere. Sunil Gulati is probably not going anywhere. (Though I’m not sure anyone would notice a change.)  And guessing what happens to Mike Burns or the front office is really only good for setting the #Revs hashtag in Twitter on fire.

So that leaves us with Steve Nicol. While there’s been no specific signs from ownership that he’s going anywhere, for a moment, let’s pretend he is.

Because when we do that, we get to deal with the interesting issue of who should replace him?

One notion that got a brief flurry of Revolution fan interest in the Twitter-sphere is for ex-Revolution star and current Houston Dynamo assistant coach Steve Ralston to take the reins.

Does it make any sense? Let’s take a look.

There are clear positives, but some very significant question marks.

  • Knowledge of MLS. Understanding the unique aspects of MLS (or demonstrating the interest and ability to learn them quickly) is a critical element to success. Steve Ralston certainly brings that knowledge as long time MLS “iron man” who started as MLS’s inaugural Rookie of the Year and finished his career as the MLS leader in assists, games, starts, and minutes played. An astonishing career by any measurement. Now as an assistant coach with the Houston Dynamo, he has added perspectives of three MLS organizations to his background: the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny, the New England Revolution and the Houston Dynamo.   It’s a nice blend of MLS perspectives.
  • History as an attack-minded, passing-oriented player. In most people’s books, this is certainly NOT a criteria when reviewing prospective coaches. I submit that it should be – at least for the type of team I’d like to watch. Let’s face it, even when the Revolution were winning games, they have rarely displayed something that would be called “attractive” soccer. I submit that coaches who excelled at goal-tending (Zenga) and defense (Nicol) often run out of attacking ideas when the going gets tough. Let’s note how the the Revolution’s goal scoring dried up with the departure of ex-striking star Paul Mariner. Coincidence?  Maybe.  But, perhaps a coach who excelled at passing and attacking would bring a better flavor of the game to the tired Revolution fans.
  • Foxboro fan favorite. Steve Ralston is clearly a fan favorite and would bring back memories of much more successful Revolution teams of the past. Fans’ opinions about coaches should certainly not be a primary decision point, but with the New England fan angst at probably an all-time high, some appeasement couldn’t hurt.
  • Mentoring Benny Feilhaber and Diego Fagundez. Steve Ralston would be an excellent mentor regarding how to make a solid career, one that brings longevity, respect, MLS accolades and National Team call ups. This mentoring would help any number of players on the Revolution, but two in particular worth mentioning would be Benny Feilhaber and Diego Fagundez. Benny is clearly a talented, skillful, attack minder player – not a hugely different description than Steve Ralston. Benny also seems a bit temperamental and has been a bit of a journeyman in his club career. Both of these are contradictory to how Ralston built his career, and could be positive influences he could offer to help Benny add the few missing pieces he might need. Diego is entering MLS with high potential, high expectations and extremely limited experience. Whether Diego looks to build a career within MLS or wants to make a move abroad at some point, there’s more than a couple things he could learn from how Steve Ralston started as a hot rookie and left as a respected MLS leader.
  • Revolution history. This is where the list of key attributes gets cloudier. Steve Ralston would come back to the Revolution with a history and expectation of success. One would hope he’d instill that expectation in the locker room. It should be noted, however, that this is success in terms of making the playoffs, winning the division and getting to the finals. Steve will also comeback with the stigma of never turning those MLS Cup visits into a Cup victory. How discounted does this leave that expectation of success? How do you weigh personal success against team Cup victories?
  • Personality. Again, we are seeing a mixed-bag review here. Ralston seems to bring the calm, focused demeanor that would be good to bring consistency to a team that has often seemed without focus over the last year. Ralston, as Revolution Captain, was a respected on-field leader – if not the most vocal and demonstrative we’ve seen. The question that exists though, is if the passion, the fight and the drive is there to shake the Revolution from their two year funk. The young coaches that have moved from playing to the sidelines in MLS, notably Jason Kreis and Ben Olsen (though there are others) are fiery characters both on the field and on the sideline. If you’ve watched Steve Nicol’s conciliatory post-game press conferences this season, some of that fire would be very welcome at this point.
  • Coaching Experience. As we’ve just discussed successful coaches who came into their MLS posts with little or no experience, like Jason Kreis, it’s clear that significant coaching experience isn’t a mandatory prerequisite for MLS coaching success. But combined with, at least what appears to be, a slightly more reserved personality, it’s an open question if the lack of experience as a coach will prove a challenge when he needs to keep together a locker room of experienced players, since some big changes and reality checks are in order. For example, would Ralston be able to keep an occasionally discipline-challenged Shalrie Joseph (if he is around) in his place?
  • International Experience. Steve Ralston is a name known well around US Soccer and MLS, but likely not known very much at all elsewhere. Yes, this is true of other young coaches in MLS as well, so in and of itself that’s not a huge issue. However, (presuming they’ve tried) the Revolution have had issues pulling in top stars to play in a turf-laden, quarter filled (at best) Gillette Stadium in ‘sunny’ Foxboro. One could certainly argue that having a “name” as coach, might help… and Steve Ralston, however qualified, isn’t that name. If you think the Revolution need an injection of International stardom, this is a point against Ralston.
  • Go big or go home. Lastly, there’s another completely subjective measure of whether appointing someone like Steve Ralston would send the message that needs to be sent about setting this team on the right track. This is a very individual sense of what is right for an MLS team today that needs a major reboot. On the one hand, the exists the argument NOT to waste money and time educating a potentially over-priced foreign coach who adds no more value than a home-grown MLS product. On the other hand, the Revolution fans (fairly or not) are quick to take the view that their Front Office and Ownership will do the minimum it needs to in order to feign interest in the club. If they appointed an inexperiencee MLS-bred option, which side would you be on?

As a bottom line, this is a subjective call. Certainly the New England Revolution could do much worse.

That said, I have my doubts that this is the best decision. And here’s why…

You want to offer a new coach the best possible chance for success. Right now the Revolution are in a pretty serious funk. They’ve gone two seasons without seeing the playoffs. Players claim not to have “had a plan” after tough losses. Their Captain speaks out about not being sure he can be in this situation in the future. And even their most faithful fans have had a major spat with their front office.

This is not an example of walking in to a finely tuned machine and simply “not screwing it up” during your learning curve.

Other MLS teams have put inexperienced coaches into somewhat similar situations.  Maybe Ben Olsen will be watching the playoffs with Steve Nicol in a bar somewhere and discuss how that’s working out.

It’s true, that Jason Kreis’s success suggests it is possible for a new coach to succeed in a sub-optimal situation, but the odds are against them. And Mr. Kreis had a new stadium, new energy and a seemingly much more involved ownership structure backing him up.

I don’t see how the Revolution could have a better assistant coach, but the full job might be a tough assignment. (Which does make you wonder how on earth he ended up with that role at the Dynamo instead of for the Revolution…)

If Steve Ralston were appointed, I’d be fully supportive, but a bit concerned.

But for now, there’s another Steve at the helm. The question is, for how much longer?

Will The Revolution Include The Coach?

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.

New England’s Summer of (Player) Discontent

When I actually get moving on an update for Soccer Soap Box there is generally an uncanny intersection of an interesting topic related to the New England Revolution or US Soccer, personal time to write and the hope that I have something interesting to add to the discussion.

Clearly there have been interesting topics lately. The Women’s World Cup, the ongoing fall out from another blown two-goal lead by the USA Men’s National team in a Cup Final, various MLS topics and yes, the near-implosion of the New England Revolution.

The New England Revolution are clearly my backyard story. And yet, despite all of that, of the last five posts that I’ve written here only two are about the Revolution – one post was about the “summit” between the Revolution Front Office and Gillette Stadium security team and the supporters groups, and the other post was admitting that I didn’t bother watching a late away game.

Not a good record for me.

Now I sit here with some personal time, and yet there is more Revolution news that I can easily parse through in any sane manner and I’m struggling to find perspective. Since I can’t reasonably wrap my brain around everything going on with this team right now – let alone write about it sensibly, I’m going to hit on a couple the main concerns that I’ve had over the last week or so over two posts.

My last post centered on the frustration of the supporters’ groups and the team’s Front Office. Let’s stick with the idea of frustration, but turn our focus a bit closer to the field.

It seems to me that on top of the pressures of being last in the east and not having won in two months, the New England Revolution’s off-field challenges are now weighing on the players as well.

We now need to add players and coaches to the list of frustrated parties around Foxboro.

First, after watching Benny Feilhaber’s melt-down as he was ejected from the Revolution’s 0-3 loss to the Philadelphia Union it was clear that he had reached a level of frustration that had been brewing for some time. This is the same player who is (I would say rightfully) generally lauded by his coach as having a “soccer brain” and who would hopefully be seen as a calming influence on the field.

Among the many comments Revolution Coach Steve Nicol had for and about his team after that game, he included this this gem: “…We talked about it before the game – about growing a pair. And that doesn’t mean you can run fighting with people and kicking people, it means that you do the basics well and you do your own job well.”

New star player melting down? Coach taking a not-too-hidden jab at it? Two points for frustration.

But this funk that surrounds the team isn’t JUST about what is happening on the field – which is where I suspect Benny’s frustrations grew. Players are clearly feeling the pressures of the off-field challenges the team is facing, and how could you blame them?

When Manchester United came to town, there were many opportunities for players to comment on the occasion, and many of the comments were revelatory.

Before his press conference with Steve Nicol, Sir Alex Ferguson and Rio Ferdinand, Shalrie Joseph tweeted the following:

Ouch. Seems Shalrie hasn’t missed the empty seats at the cavernous Gillette Stadium.

But Shalrie isn’t alone. Newcomer A.J. Soares has avoided most of the criticism other on-field players have had leveled at them. I think part of this is because despite the situation he has been solid for an MLS rookie, seems to be level headed, and has been active in engaging fans with video blogs on the Revolution Website and blog posts on boston.com.

One such post happened during the run-up to the Manchester United match, and while well intentioned and admirably honest, A.J.’s comment that he “…will have a special appreciation for the people who come out with their Revolution gear on, ready to cheer on the home team” vs. those who were there rooting for the visiting team felt more like a (desperate) plea than a simple comment.

Let’s be fair, many (real?) Revolution fans agree with A.J. as do, I would assume, many other players. Kenny Mansally is likely one of those players. Kenny was quoted on RevolutionSoccer.net talking about the Manchester United game, and also saw the crowd as something worthy of mention. He said, “Wow. For me, like if you told me we were going to get this kind crowd every game I don’t think we would lose any points. Because you know you get the home support and this kind of crowd, it’s unbelievable…”

Is there anything wrong with Kenny making those comments after an emotional game in front of 50,000+ fans? Absolutely not. But taken in context of Shalrie’s tweet and A.J.’s blog post it adds to a theme of players feeling, and publicly speaking about, crowd-related concerns.   And knowing that the team travels to so many other stadiums – many soccer specific – that have a raised-bar in terms of MLS team support, means we shouldn’t be surprised that they’d want similar support at home.

So, the players are frustrated and it is starting to show.

But, at least their coach, the eminently respected, hugely experienced and historically successful Steve Nicol has what it takes to wrestle the situation back under control. Right?

More on that next time…

Frustration Reigns as Revs and Supporters Meet

I attended tonight’s meeting between the Revolution front office and the Revolution supporter’s groups (really open to any fan that knew of it) as a self-proclaimed “unbiased observer.”

I’m “unbiased” in the sense that I’m not a Revolution supporter’s group member, I have no capacity with the team, and I was not there on the night that the ruckus began in earnest.

Yet, being an “unbiased” observer, now leaves me in the unenviable position of feeling like I’m about to make friends with exactly nobody in writing of my impressions of where the Revs and Supporters are at.

Let’s call this the lose/lose blog post.

(And by the way, much like Soccer Soap Box is NOT your home for play by play recounting of games, you will be let down if you expect me to do a similar thing for an evening meeting in Foxboro.)

Probably the biggest takeaway from the meeting for me, is that this bust-up is NOT about a specific chant. Don’t misunderstand, there was a very specific effort to stope the Fort from using the the (now affectionately referred to as) “YSA” chant each time the away team goalkeeper kicked the ball back into play.

But that’s not what this is REALLY about.

And that’s too bad, because ditching the YSA chant is something that (nearly) everyone can agree on.

But what the tempest in Foxboro is really about is frustration.

The Supporter’s Groups are clearly frustrated. The obvious target being the Revolution’s front office and its (now quite public) bumbling in communicating with them (and other season ticket holders) about eradicating the offensive chant.

But again, that’s not REALLY where their frustration mostly lies. It’s really the TeamOps security outfit that they feel has been unnecessarily heavy handed with them for quite some time. Stories of over-reaction and problem escalation, rather than the hoped for problem resolution, were plentiful if only as hearsay.

Admittedly, it was pretty credible sounding hearsay. And while the statements from the TeamOps representative at the meeting were suggestive of an open ear to problems, she might have been well served to think a bit more politically when answering some challenges. When asked if one of the main Supporter’s Group leaders would hear an apology for what nearly all the supporters in attendance thought was unfair treatment, her answer was a curt “No.” Even if you believe your security force wasn’t in the wrong, perhaps a better answer in this environment would have been an offer to stay for a few minutes and talk over the situation with said leader, who sat quietly toward the back of the room.

Revolution Supporters, I’ll suggest, are also somewhat frustrated by their plight. Relative to other fan bases in MLS they seem a bit smaller and more loosely organized, despite their tremendous efforts. This is not meant as an attack, as without these members in the Fort (and at away games) the entire stadium would even more resemble the “Morgue” that they so commonly refer to the very quiet other ¾ of Gillette Stadium on a Revolution game day. That “morgue” is a frustration point as well, since the fort has had trouble engaging other attendees in chants and noise making.

Tonight’s meeting was, unfortunately, an example of their challenge. Maybe 100 people were in attendance, mostly all official supporters, and a smattering of other season ticket holders, bloggers and the ever-present Revolution beat writer Kyle McCarthy. The Revolution set out twice as many chairs as needed, presumptively in hope of a passionate meeting, it instead served as a reminder of games with a half-filled Fort, and ongoing weak stadium attendance.

Imagine the attendance of a similar meeting if such an issue erupted in Seattle and not Foxboro.

It’s possible that the Supporters now feel added pressure as league-wide support has come in from other Supporter’s Groups, and the Midnight Riders, Rebellion and Rev Army’s success or failure in establishing their lines in the sand will be rather common knowledge.

The Supporter’s Groups, however, do not have a monopoly on frustration. The Revolution Front Office is equally frustrated.

Their frustration is centered on their being situated on the outskirts of what has been arguably the most successful sports city in America and are still struggling for the relevance, fan interest and support they feel they deserve.

If it was simply proven that Boston is a great sports city, but a terrible soccer city, they’d be off the hook. The problem is that with sixty two thousand plus fans coming to see Spain roll over the USA at the Revolution’s home stadium, along with healthy crowds for visiting professional team games locally, it’s not possible to write Boston off as a soccer problem child.

The Front Office must be frustrated with their in-game atmosphere issues, including these new challenges with the Supporters. Becoming the epicenter of a Support Group rights discussion was also not likely on their agenda. It’ not a fun position for them to be in, with 10% of their season ticket holders making 90% of the crowd noise and now perilously near protest mode.

Team management surely gets frustrated that despite having built a solid, MLS Cup competing team, they weren’t able to win a championship, and now in the thinner, rebuilding years, their own fans are convinced that cost savings is a bigger priority than winning championships.

Situational frustration for the 2011 seasion has probably kicked in as well, since despite some missteps, there was hope in the system not too long ago. Benny Feilhaber was signed. (Albeit, luckily.) A jersey sponsor was inked as the Revolution signed up for a long-term relationship with United Healthcare. But just as quickly as people were getting excited, we find ourselves back at square one.

All of these frustrations are turbo-charged by the Revolution’s poor form over the last two years. It’s clear that if this team was winning games and playing great soccer, all of these issues would seem far less dramatic.

And yet the team is not winning games and playing great soccer.

And that is very frustrating, even for those of us who are usually in the “morgue.”