Nachoversy 2012

I think it might be illegal for me to blog too frequently, so let me keep this brief and based on the topic – extra snarky.

Trigger happy #Revs twitter-ites have gone ballistic over a relatively benign New England Revolution family discount offering for “Hispanic Heritage Night.”  (Click link, pretend not to see the Patriots wording in the URL and read the information, please.)

Basically, it’s a discounted family ticket 4-pack with free soda and nachos.  And therein lies the problem.  Associating hispanic fans to nachos has been labeled everything from clueless to near-racist.

After already having posted some Revolution commentary this week I planned to stay out of the fray, that is until I saw a good piece about the subject over at The Drug is Football.  Please go read it, I’m too busy to recreate good thinking.

But about half-way through an overly-long comment I was about to write responding to it, I decided to just post it here.  (See why you need to go read it now?)

I agree with the post on a number of levels, one of which being that this is more about a missed opportunity than anything remotely bordering on racist. For goodness sake. Tacky? Sure.  Clueless, maybe.  Potentially insensitive? I suppose. But certainly harmless.

I’m not of Hispanic descent, so I’ll pick my words as carefully as I can here.  That said, my kids are half Colombian, so maybe that makes me a quarter Latin?  (No, it doesn’t work that way, but I digress…) And with friends, family and in-laws I am lucky to have some touch with Colombian, Mexican, Peruvian and Puerto Rican cultures to only name the most obvious ones.  (And hey, I have a black friend to, so I’ll also help solve all the racial issues in the world. C’mon, why so serious Revs fans?)

So first off, as a gringo, I think we all need to relax a bit. You have to see the irony that a bunch of white dudes (for the most part) are all up in arms about this. I bet many Latino fans a) don’t know, and b) could care less.  God forbid I write… C) would probably eat the darn nachos and not have thought about this in the least.  Worse, D) are gonna be pretty ticked off if we screw up this free nacho thing.

Anyway, what The Drug is Football post helps make clear is that it’s less about how offensive this is and more about what COULD HAVE been.

The idea to have a local restaurant/caterer participate would have been great – but giving up the concessions revenue for a relationship building experience would take a long-term perspective. I don’t know that we have that.

I mean, they already don’t make people pay to park their burros… (sorry, that was too easy to pass up.)

Another idea, why not use our Latin imports as “teachable moments” — perhaps Colombian and Honduran cuisine, for example, to celebrate our players from those countries. (Sorry Hispanic revs I forgot… moving fast here.)  Maybe some other culture expressions surrounding those countries – music or otherwise.

(And by the way, I know that even the Colombians dig a good Mariachi band for a pre-wedding ‘serenata’ – it cannot be explained, but my ears don’t lie. So again, let’s all take a deep breath.)

Anyway, I’d be all in for an arepa con queso… so call that Colombian lady from the Boston Common.  Now we are talking.

All that said, I think that (after reading this and retweeting it, of course) everyone should just take a step back from the hashtag, grab some nachos and chill out.  We are clearly making a mountain out of a nacho-hill.

The bigger problem is that we need some POSITIVE mountain building, but we can work on that tomorrow, can’t we?

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The (Revolution) Thrill Is Gone.

Judging by activity on Soccer Soap Box you wouldn’t think that I’ve been an active Revolution watcher in 2012.  In fact, you might have thought I fell off the earth if you weren’t following on Twitter. But job changes, family obligations and good weather conspired against blogging and pushed me towards the 140 character variety of self-expression.  Ah, yes, Twitter: blogging-lite. So easy, it’s like cheating.

So it turns out I’ve not fallen off the earth, but like most people, I haven’t been to many Revolution games in person either. I have, though, watched nearly every game.  So despite a clear enthusiasm lag, I’ve far from ignored the team. But there’s more, and it is undeniable… my emotional connection to the Revolution has been tested this year.  It’s like a long-term marriage that has kept all the familiarity but lost all of the energy and intrigue. (Mrs. Soap Box, please note, I speak only theoretically, we’re all good.  Now, back to the program…)

Soccer, for me, is a game of passion and beauty.  I want to be enthralled.  I want to think the team I’m watching can deliver something of an emotional connection both on the field and in how they view the game and conduct their business. Yes, I want to see victories, but the intangibles are probably, or nearly, as important for me.

Sadly, the Revolution aren’t living up to such expectations.  (Mine or pretty much anyone else’s.)   The team has largely been incapable of creating the beautiful game on the field, certainly have continued having trouble creating passion within the fan base and simply doesn’t make decisions I can defend with both my heart and head being in agreement.

The year started positively enough, at least relative to the debacle of 2011, with an attempt at a fresh style and with a young and popular (as a player) new head coach.  New players, like Lee Nguyen brought skill and optimism. Possession improved and we occasionally didn’t boot the ball up field. It was delusional bliss, and I miss it so.

On top of that, the addition of three Colombians appeared to add skill, experience and guile from my adopted second country – heck some of these player acquisitions were announced when I was vacationing in Colombia… things looked – and felt – pretty good.

And while I was worried that appointing Jay Heaps head coach was an underwhelming and risky decision – thinking he was too inexperienced to right a ship that clearly needed a special brand of leadership (or quite possibly an exorcism), he’s a hard character to root against and I was willing to buy into the “we will attack”  battle cry.

But it wasn’t to be, was it?

The Revolution will miss the playoffs again, and were simply not good enough to suggest they deserved better.

So where are we?

Ironically, the team is full of good players.  The problem, is that ‘goodness’ is no longer enough across a team – some level of greatness is required. And we lack greatness.

Let’s review… our most exciting import?  (Arguably) Saër Sène.  He’s good.  Is he great? Not clear.  Maybe, but ‘great’ would bring that left-footed magic as well as the ability to occasionally win a header and an intensity that sometimes seems missing.  There’s potential for greatness though if he’s not done growing.

Jerry Bengston? He had a great Olympics, but has only looked good for the Revolution.

Lee Nguyen.  Certainly a good MLS player.  Can he be great at this level?  Maybe.

I could go on and on, but fundamentally the Revolution lacks stand-out leaders. It lacks All-Stars, officially or otherwise.

So to find “greatness” shrewd personnel moves would be required. It is far from clear that the Revolution have made the wisest personnel moves or that they even get the best out of what they have. Though, this year it’s the personnel decisions that baffle me most and have sucked the much of the passion out of me.

I am on record as thinking that trading Shalrie wasn’t the worst idea – and I can still see the rationale. He was not the same player from a few years ago, yet he was being paid based on that history, and certainly not his current performance.  Of course, his presence hasn’t really be replaced.

The Pepe Moreno fiasco isn’t worth commenting on at this point.  His arrival was a mess so his departure certainly was neither a surprise nor a real disappointment.  But let’s be clear, though imperfect, the guy didn’t get into European clubs because he couldn’t kick a ball.  What a mess.

Another head-scratcher was the undying affection for the Bromance-duo of AJ Soares and Stephen McCarthy.  Fine guys, but would they be a center-back pairing on any other MLS team?  Doubtful.  Unless John Lozano keyed the coach’s car, I’ll never understand how we walked away from a center-back with good history in the Colombian league without giving him a real run out.

Now, this will probably set off some warning bells for folks, but the last games, for me, are perfect examples of how my views of what I want to watch are nearly not the same as what the team is thinking.  On the bench Benny Feilhaber and Fernando Cardenas watched Ryan Guy and Kelyn Rowe get the start.

Really?

Sure, Rowe got a (deflected) goal.  And he’s a good player, a solid rookie who probably has a nice little MLS career in front of him if he keeps improving.  Heck, the Revolution fans even voted him “Man of the Match” for last game. (Oh those Revs fans, they never miss a goal…)

But for my eyes, when Cardenas is on the field the team the moves the ball more quickly and play wakes up. It becomes watchable and interesting.  He’s imperfect too, no doubt, but it is baffling he’s on the bench for this team – one that is static and constantly in search of the unexpected.  Yeah, yeah, “super-sub.”  We’ve all heard it – and some of you are guilty of saying it, “clearly, Fernando is better coming on late and running at tired defenders.” (When isn’t that the case?  Isn’t that patently true of any player? “Messi would be more effective coming on against tired defenders.”  Ugh.)

The Super-sub cliché is a great way to write off a player you cannot figure out how to properly integrate.  On a team this devoid of movement and ideas, that’s a darn shame.

And Ryan Guy. He works hard and is a good player. Better than Benny Feilhaber?  Not for my money.

My last blog (from what seems like years ago) was about how – during an almost-good stretch of Revolution soccer – Benny seemed to have a vastly improved on-field demeanor attitude.  Well, he’s struggled to get time recently and the team hasn’t done that well either.

Both of these examples show a lack of conviction to prioritizing skill and creativity in choosing players. Rowe and Guy instead of Cardenas and Feilhaber suggests effort over style is still the plan.  The team’s style has taken a step backwards since the beginning of the year, which points to a lack of belief that they can win with attractive football.  I blogged earlier this year that if nothing else, I hoped the Revolution would “keep the faith.” That faith seems betrayed.

Let’s be clear… I know it’s not exactly Rowe vs. Cardenas or Feilhaber vs. Guy, but the comparison it creates is illustrative as far as priorities, decision-making and what type of product we’ll see on the field. Maybe if the Revs were winning ugly, it would be forgiven.  But it’s not.   The team appears half-committed to half-attractive soccer.  It remains a team without a discernible style.

This all points back to an initial worry – is Jay Heaps really ready to fix this mess?

The evidence before us is damning. Young players that aren’t game changers get more faith that seems logical. One time stars fall out of favor (Joseph, Feilhaber.) Commitment to attractive soccer has waned. Players that might be on the verge of “great” are stuck squarely in “good.”

I’m not sure what the final games of another throw-away season can show us, and despite my sliding passion… but I’m sure I’ll watch.  I’ll almost certainly tweet.  I may even blog.

But will I be connected?  Enthralled?

Right now I sense that might it take World Cup qualifying, not the Revs, to rebuild such passion.

And you tell me, what does all that say for MLS?  It is bad that a team can so frustrate a die-hard fan and squelch his hope for seeing attractive soccer in his own backyard, or it is a positive development that the league has improved enough to have marginalized teams that simply are good, but not great.

I’d normally close this post with a request for ‘greatness.’  But I’m tired: of the night, of the season, of the same-old, same-old.

So screw greatness, just give me a sign you and I speak the same soccer language. I am not writing off the idea that I could fall in love all over again.  But as they say, once-bitten twice-shy.  I have a couple season’ worth of really bad bite marks on me, so you better get working.

Benny’s Big Bounce

The Revolution have offered an entertaining, if ulcer producing, last few games. Last minute goals secured last-second ties where losses seemed imminent.  It was entertaining and both encouraging (we did come back!) and frustrating (but we could have, should have, won!) stuff.

As we look back, amid the discussion of tactical adjustments, substitutions, defensive lapses, last minute heroics and (clearly) offside goals, one element that you hear much less about is attitude. Rather, you’ll hear a good deal about the “fight back” spirit that is within the team, but much less about the attitude that has been removed. And right now, both are noteworthy.

The fighting spirit is not to be dismissed, certainly, and it was sorely lacking in many of last-year’s games, where it became clear that the coach and players had lost the plot. I sense, as would many Revolution fans I guess, that these two last-second ties would have been defeats last year.

And that alone is something to celebrate.

I don’t know if the main reason for this positive change is Coach Jay Heaps and his staff, but he/they certainly must be a key element. If there were questions about the new Coach’s tactical acumen or experience (there were), there never was any doubt about his drive or energy. It seems we are seeing the affects of that now.

There’s another attitude adjustment that simply cannot go ignored. And that is the turnaround in play and approach from Benny Feilhaber. In fact, The Bent Musket just named Benny Feilhaber player of the month for June.

And in yet further proof that while my procrastination with this blog has helped my tan this summer, it’s done little to help my big-breaking-idea production, Steve Stoehr noted in the previously mentioned piece in The Bent Musket, that in 2011 Benny was seemingly “ hot tempered and out of sorts” and that recently he’s, instead, been “keeping his cool” this year.  This is something I’ve also noted, and been waiting to discuss for some time – but then decided to float around Barnegat Bay on vacation, instead.

While this notion of an attitude change is noted in The Bent Musket’s article, it isn’t a focus. Instead, the role change from wide midfielder, to more of a central attacking midfielder is the focus.

I don’t disagree with the significance of that change. Getting Benny to feel more a part of the game, more central and getting more touches is a good thing, and part of his continued upswing in form.

But the attitude change has been something that I’ve been marveling at. Forgetting for a moment the cause, Benny seemed equally ready to yell at refs, gesticulate and teammates that let him down or otherwise sulk on the field.

And this is an assessment from a Feilhaber fan. I was ecstatic when Benny came to the team, and excited about the possibilities such a skillful player might bring. But the attitude seemed not to match the skills, and that was saddening (and maddening.)

But, luckily, that was 2011.

In 2012, we’ve seen a very different Benny Feilhaber.

Does he he ever yell at a ref? Sure. But, it’s not with the unnecessary histrionics that we saw in 2011.

More importantly, we haven’t seen the glaring disappointment cast toward teammates when passes didn’t go to their intended location, or went unreturned after a run. We’ve also seen a significantly increased defensive work-rate.

The Bent Musket having appointed him the Player of the Month is a sign that others too are seeing this change. And all Revolution fans are certainly happy about it.

But it brings up an interesting question… why the change? I certainly don’t have any definitive answers for this, but here’s a few thoughts to keep in mind.

The 2011 Revolution Reality Check – Benny’s career has taken a pretty bumpy path to the Revolution, and he landed into MLS, without knowing what team he’d be on. “Lucky” him, it was a terrible Revolution team, one that would finish the season with only five wins, miss the playoffs, replace its coach and generally not play great soccer. That’s a tough landing for a player that undoubtedly thinks/knows he can play at a high level. Getting accustomed to that new reality is certainly going to affect one’s mental approach.

The 2012 Reboot – The Revolution have changed quite a bit in 2012, and this change has helped a number of areas, including Benny’s focus and attitude. Since so much has changed, that makes it increasingly difficult to pinpoint what new puzzle pieces might be making the most significant impact here, but having more skillful players around him, having a refreshed/refocused coaching staff guiding the team and having the goal of a style which will see him (and he whole midfield) much more involved than previously, all seem like obvious improvements.

Fireside Chats – Now, I don’t have a clue what, if any, conversations (one on one, or otherwise) Jürgen Klinsmann might have had with Benny. (And given some of Klinsman’s proclivities, maybe there haven’t been any?) But, might he have laid out a few “to be worked on” areas for Benny to get back to the US National Team lineup? Or, might Jay Heaps sat his star midfielder down and told him he needs to up his game – and bring the attitude in-line with his skills? As I offered, I couldn’t tell you – maybe both or neither of these fictional chats happened, but it’s not out of the question either.

The Waiting Game – What Revolution fans don’t know much about (unless I’ve missed something) and certainly must hope to NOT be a factor, would be Benny’s contract status and his real desire to be a New England Revolution player long term. LET ME BE CLEAR that I’ve never seen or heard anything that suggests Benny is looking to depart New England, but one imagines he has bigger goals in mind. Perhaps then, it wasn’t a coach that had a fireside chat with Benny, but his agent?

A Maturation Process – Perhaps, despite all my plausible explanations, Benny’s change of temperament is simply the maturation of an extremely skillful player whose frustration at not achieving his goals in the manner he expected to was coming to the surface. It might be as simple as a new understanding that to reach his full potential, there’s a time to get down to business and let the play on the field do all the talking.

Frankly, we’ll probably never know what has led to the attitude turnaround – and stellar play – from Mr. Feilhaber, and if you are a Revolution (or US Men’s National Team) fan, you probably don’t truly care, as long as it continues.

Either way, congrats to Benny and congrats to the Revs for giving a platform for him to make this adjustment.

As Revolution fans, we can only hope that MLS, Mr. Heaps and Mr. Klinsmann can conspire to keep him happy, productive and local, for some time to come.

The Colombians Said What?

As the New England Revolution prepare for a Wednesday night clash with the Colorado Rapids there are questions about tactics, lineups and what we can expect to see out on the plastic pitch of Gillette Stadium.

Among the lineup questions, the introduction and integration of the new international players is key among them, and as far as this blog is concerned, there’s a clear interest in the status and progress of our new Colombian signings and if we should expect to see more of them.

According to revolutionsoccer.net John Lozano has seen 90 minutes of 2012 action, Fernando Cárdenas has seen 138 minutes, and Jose “Pepe” Moreno has seen 165 minutes after his late arrival.  This compares to 540 minutes for rookie Kelyn Rowe, for one possible comparison of a player you would think should be fighting for playing time.

So while the verdict is out on these players, there was clearly a reason they were brought in and there remains a hope that they will help right a ship that has seen three straight losses. What adds to the mystique around these players (especially Pepe “I’m coming… No, I’m not coming… I’m here” Moreno) is that the fans never hear from or about them.  I don’t recall a feature article, video or any quotes of significance, in English or Spanish that provides much insight. (So much for that Latin community outreach…)

All this made it very interesting to see (clearly unscripted) videos of Moreno and Cárdenas from the visitor’s locker room at Red Bull Arena in NJ. Of course, these videos follow a frustrating loss, so all commentary comes with that important backdrop, but certainly the comments add some level of insight that wasn’t there before.

I’m not about to provide word-by-word translations because a) the audio is terrible, b) my Spanish is pretty darn good, but not perfect, and most importantly, c) I’m not paid nearly enough for this to spend that much energy.  So remember, aside from a few quick quotes, this is NOT VERBATIM.

So, without further adieu, here’s a most unusual Soccer Soap Box posting…

Of the points that Pepe Moreno talks through, here are the most interesting to me.

He touched on the team’s lack of energy/drive early on in the game that led to a goal (“we started practically asleep“) which was addressed by the coach.

When talking about the team’s inability to break down a Red Bull team that he called “worthy of respect” but also “vulnerable”, he suggested that it was mostly due to the lack of communication, “tranquility” (ability to slow down the game), and better thinking with the ball.

He suggests that the team was (as the advertisements promise) looking to attack, but that it lacked a vocal attacking leader to communicate and organize the team around the effort. He suggested that instead of making the killer passes they ended up playing it sideways, back and “kicking it all over the place” which didn’t allow them enough attacks to create the goals they needed. [Note: Sounds like a any forward looking for better service to feed off of, no?]

A leading question follows this, that asked: are you missing a leader on the field or off the field, or both? His answer is both, and that there are errors to correct for both “us” in attack and defense. [Not sure what to make of that one.]

The interviewer turns the questioning to the fact that though Moreno was the last of the Colombian players to arrive, he’s been getting the most playing time, and for his thoughts on this. Moreno suggests that it’s complicated and that he’s been where they are and it takes time. He notes that they had not played outside of Colombia before, and that these situations are something to be expected and you just need to continue to work hard.

The interviewer asks what the Coach is asking of the players such that they will see the field. Moreno largely dodges this question, but basically offers that here, everyone works hard, the type of work is very different than in Colombia. He suggests that the team is a good group, but only needs to be calmer on the field and more organized. However, he quickly notes that this is very typical of teams in the United States, and not only an issue for the Revolution.

He also suggests that he was familiar with the league before arriving, since there are many Colombians here already, and that he was glad to get a goal already to add to his confidence, thought he still needs to adjust to the MLS game.

[Note: Then, we get to what the team has inexplicably not provided us despite such noise and confusion in the fanbase: what was the deal with your wanting to come then not wanting to come?  How the team didn’t come up with a well scripted version of this and get it out to friendly media to answer any critics is beyond me and a major oversight.]

Moreno says he that he did reconsider joining MLS.  He wanted to come when they called him because he wanted another chapter in his career and already followed the league because of the all of the Colombians here.  Moreno thought it would be a something interesting and different.

Then Once Caldas made it clear that it didn’t want him to leave and “they were very happy with me, and though I had an injury I was recovering well.”  Later, when he was back with his family [visiting?] and was calm/happy, he started thinking maybe he shouldn’t leave Colombia. In the end though, it was his decision (not the local club’s) and so he came.

He ends saying that he’s here to work, and that if the team doesn’t get it done, he needs to do the work to pull his load and get the victories.

There was much less to cover in the recording of Fernando Cárdenas, and what jumped out more than the words on his video was the overall sense that he is clearly yearning to get on the field and prove himself. He’s never played for a club outside of Colombia and probably worried about making the impact he thinks he can… especially after watching the Revolution lose a few games because of a sputtering killer instinct.

Of course, none of this on its own means any player should see the field because they have that desire, but it puts the plight of young internationals that join MLS into an interesting perspective.

Cárdenas says that it was a complicated game, one where the Red Bulls got an early goal and the Revolution simply could not break them down, and that hopefully with hard work every day we’ll do better and hopefully see the field and make the team, “because, of course, us foreigners and everyone are hoping to see the field.

Cárdenas quickly says that lineups are the coach’s decision, he respects the coach’s decision and that you need to work hard everyday so that you can respond when you get the chance.

Asked about how he feels about the style of play in the league now that he’s playing in it, he says its very competitive, but more “hit and run” than the Colombian league.

The (very difficult to understand) last question poked at whether he was sorry to have come here, and though clearly disappointed to not see the field, he said now, that it’s in gods hands and he’ll keep moving forward.

So there you have it… now have your say.

Will The Revolution Keep The Faith?

In theory, it’s way too early on a Saturday morning to be typing, but a coughing son is wide awake and there’s little convincing him that bed is a better option than dragging me downstairs.  Perhaps he’s just too excited about the Merseyside Derby cup match this morning to sleep? Not likely, as he’s sitting on the main computer playing pbskids.org games as I type away on a laptop.

So be it. The blog is dusty and I’m awake. Not only that, but I’m going to miss tonight’s New England Revolution home game versus D.C. United as we have important birthday plans with a friend. DVR (or MLS Live) to the rescue, once again.  Without the game to watch tonight, this is my outlet then, early and bleary eyed, but still hoping for a Revolution victory.

More than that, actually, I’m hoping for more signs that the team continues to build toward something than can make me, and the rest of the fans, smile.  Now, let’s be clear. Victories bring smiles. And I’d like to see more of them.

But as we touched on in a recent “The Midnight Ride Podcast” (you do listen, right?) there’s also something about how a team plays that drives the “smile” factor. OK, perhaps that was my babbling only, and it involved talk of Fernando Cardenas and how he plays. Stepovers? Yup. Try that (seemingly random) shot? Sure. Smile-worthy.  If you cannot tell, I forgive and often celebrate the unexepected – at least as far as offensive creativity is concerned.

Other players are doing things that make me smile too… Lee Nguyen for example. Benny, I suspect, will when he returns. Crafty? Creative? Sure. Effective? Admittedly, the jury is out on some of this so far for the Revolution.

But that brings up the eternal debate, is there a necessary trade-off between creative (attractive) play and success? On the world stage, one would think that Brazil squashed this years ago, or that Barcelona/Spain had driven the final nail into the coffin.   Closer to home, teams like Real Salt Lake have made a compelling argument that winning can come with a good brand of soccer.  But of course, this debate will continue for as long as we talk about the sport.

However, let’s not let the validity of the debate stop any progress that this team has shown in building something new and exciting. There’s a fragile hope, a tentative excitement, building within the fan base that is fueled by a better than expected showing against LA and an attempt to keep the ball and play good soccer.

Coach Jay Heaps has instilled a new energy, new attempts at possession soccer and a positive attitude. He took his first real criticism related to late substitutions during the 0-1 loss to F.C. Dallas. Starting in the 64th minute, offense either replaced offense, or offense replaced defense. And then gave up a last-minute goal.  The calls for “wiser” substitutions came quickly.

Of course, the knee jerk reaction here is to blame the coach for not “battening down the hatches” and filling the field with defense minded players. And sure, that would be a standard response by coaches around the world.  But ponder these two thoughts…

First, offensive solutions didn’t lose the last game. Not playing the ball out when our player was down, hopeful long balls out of the back (which was intercepted and sent immediately back down field), a foul by a hurting and frustrated center-back and poor marking on a free kick… that’s what lost the game and erased 94+ minutes of effort.  Those errors, mind you, didn’t come from those “unreliable” creative players.

Second, would you rather support a team that throws defensive bruisers at a problem, or looks to offense and hopefully possession to solve a challenge. Who keeps it the ball up by the opponents goal or who tends toward desperate clearances out of the defensive third? Critics will criticize both… either “too defensive, too soon” or “too naïve, why didn’t they lock down their lead with defense?”

I choose offense. I prefer possession.

But let’s be clear, with a young coach and inevitable questions and pressures that come, the temptation to batten down the hatches and only “boot the ball to the big men up front” will always be there. Heck, with the addition of Bjorn Runstrom, the team now has three six foot or taller forwards eager to jump around after the long ball.

But please, Revolution, keep the faith. Spring is in the air and there are seedlings of optimism growing in the fanbase. There is some excitement that you now have creative players who might be able to play attractive soccer.

Realize that criticism will come, no matter what you choose. So choose wisely, and stay the course.

Because I sat through the “successful” season of 2002 as a season ticket holder.  I remember the wonderfully large (if not particularly animated) crowd that filled Gillette Stadium for the MLS Cup final. Winning got the Revolution there and got butts in the seats. But most of that season, what was on display was ugly, sad soccer.  Ugly soccer doesn’t do much to stir the soul nowadays.

A decade later, and following a “fresh start” with a new coach there is a chance for something new.

Keep the faith Revolution. And keep the ball.

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.

#Revs Delusions Of Twitter Grandeur

When I sit down to write a blog post that I suspect will annoy most of my faithful readers, there is always this brief moment of pause, where I ask myself “why bother?”

I pick topics somewhat randomly as it is, so I could simply “pass” on audience-angering topics. Heck, I already pick to write about things as they interest me seemingly on a whim and have never felt obligated to cover each and every result, player rumor or team announcement.

I do, however, tend to be sucked into the twittersphere of touchy subjects, but sometimes one hundred and forty characters just isn’t enough. And since my somewhat tongue in cheek campaign to promote the Twitter hashtag #NErevs instead of the corrupted #REVS for following New England Revolution news is already out there in 140 character sound-bites, I figured I would explain.

And frankly, it’s not about #NErevs but about why I think change is needed the why.

First, I commend the energy and passion of the #defendthehashtag crowd. They feel that we were here first, and that #Revs is “ours” for following the Revolution, and that the UK partiers that tweet it up as they get sloshed are treading on “our” turf.

Good on you for the passion. But, recovering #Revs? Not likely. I don’t know if the Revolution has ever considered an official switch, but I would hope they give it some thought, and here’s why.

Twitter hashtags are used for a few basic reasons:

  • Following / Tracking
  • Promoting
  • Sharing
  • Identifying / Locating
  • Being Silly / Ironic

For A) and B) there are logical, helpful reasons to leverage hashtags. You cannot know everyone who plans to say something interesting about a given topic, to hashtags give an organizing principle to what might be difficult to gather, noisy Twitter traffic.

I have leveraged #Revs (among others) for both tracking (getting team news) and promotion (of the blog and of my random musings) as do most of the New England based users.

The team also leverages the #Revs hashtag for promotion and (one can hope) tracking fan sentiment – though I cannot speak with any certainly if/how seriously they track sentiment at this point.

Sharing closely follows promoting and tracking, since promotion is a very targeted type of sharing. And if nobody shared, why would you follow? The idea is that you have something you think like-minded people might want to know. If I see a player at Walmart on crutches that we didn’t know was hurt, you #Revs follower, might be interested.

People also leverage hashtags (#Revs or otherwise) to be identified with something, or as a simple “check-in.” New England’s #Revs users do this when they want to be associated with their team – a use which will hopefully be in more demand in 2012 than it was in 2011. Sometimes it could simply suggest what game you are at – if it were to accompany a picture of a nice green carpet with white lines, for example.

The current noise that invades the #Revs feed on Twitter, however comes from people who are neither tracking or promoting anything. While they are, in fact, sharing information – it is not in the traditional sense of sharing with like-minded individuals they do not know. I actually wonder if any of the UK-based #Revs users even follow the hashtag. Actually, I do not really wonder, I think we know they do not.

And herein lies the problem when typically logical folks think they can muscle #Revs back from the dark side.

The UK #Revs tweets are signals about either their location or their intent. It’s where they’re going. Where they are. Where they will be. They are associating with a bar, a plan, a state of being. But, that’s not really news, and not really worth following. If your friend tells you they are “headed to #Revs” – that’s all you really care about.

The British #Revs users are almost representing WHAT they are doing (or will or have)… drinking and partying. And, for better or worse, there’s nothing wrong about it. It’s certainly an unnecessary use of a hashtag, but you cannot break rules that don’t exist.

The New England #Revs users are living in a world where promoting, following and sharing are the unwritten rules ascribed to #Revs. Logical, sensible rules, indeed.

And, if everyone agreed (and went to mandatory Twitter training/indoctrination) a “defend the hashtag” twitter argument would make sense. Other users (in this fictitious, yet logical world) who were also intent on following or promoting the Revolution bar chain would also find all this annoying North American soccer talk to be very much against their goals as well.

But neither of those goals exist in “Old England” regarding #Revs.

If the Revolution bar chain had decided to actively leverage the #Revs tag, that would be promoting. Have you ever seen that?

If the partiers where actively trying to promote the Revolution bar chain to those who are not already aware of it, that would be promoting. I’ve not really seen that. It seems to me that a certain crowd is talking to themselves. Loudly.

Don’t buy the argument? Think about this, when is the last time you saw an “Old England” #Revs users retweet or quote something? I cannot remember one such share. It’s because all they are doing is saying in four characters: tonight I will go out, get drunk and probably test the line between flirty and slutty while on camera. (A silver lining to some young, male Revolution fans, no doubt.)

So you can scream #Revs and #DefendTheHashtag all you want, but don’t think you are about to out yell a crowd that isn’t listening to you.

Personally, I do not believe ripping off the band-aid of a too-generic hashtag (#Revs) to something a bit more specific (#NErevs, or whatever gets people on board) is really that bad an offense. Ask #Crew96…

But I do wonder, if the rebellion against #Revs twitter clutter is coming from a proud fanbase that is defending their Twitter-God given right to four characters, or if it is the last stand of a retreating fanbase who simply cannot tolerate one last offense?

If it’s the latter, it’s time to remember a phrase my parents (sometimes confusingly) used to use with me when I was being a petulant child. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Because Twitter is a popular, easily accessible communications platform and this ridiculous battle to save a character or two is now playing out in the public domain and adds to the stigma of a team that can do no right.

Because when casual fans probably are listening, or trying to, they hear 1) Revolution commentary, 2) UK bar hopping and 3) complaining about UK bar hoppers. (I guess one out of three aint bad, eh?)

So it’s time to ask if all this is helping further the goals you the loyal, local #Revs followers have to promote the Revolution, OUR Revolution on twitter.

While you contemplate that, there was one other kind of hashtag uses I mentioned. The silly or ironic use. You know, the “I’m wittier than you” kind. The punchline kind.

I’ll expect to see some… #SoccerSoapBoxSurrender, #FourCharactersOrDeath or #YouCanTakeMyLifeButYouCannotTakeMyHashtag.

Or, you can use #NERevs. Or #Revs96. Or #Revos. Or something.

Whatever works.