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?

US National Team Changes Point Toward A Revolution

This week US Soccer fans saw something new.  They saw a team in the red, white and blue attempt to possess the ball, pass the ball, and play out of trouble.  They saw players chosen on the hope (if not much prior proof) that they can play a fluid, attack minded game of soccer.

They saw glaring imperfections, certainly.   It was, after all, a loss.

There were weaknesses at certain positions. There was a dullness in the attack – a certain lack of killer instinct – that let down some of the more fluid passing which led up to the final third.  Defensive confusion and giveaways remained.

But these imperfections were forgiven, if not forgotten.

Why?

Because the product put on the field by US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (recently hired by US Soccer head honcho Sunil Gulati) showed a new, better direction than what fans and critics had been seeing in a flat, seemingly stagnating US team.

Despite the result, this loss was at least a sign of intent that the USA is looking for a better way to play, and that maybe – just maybe – our players are actually capable of it.  Credit to Jurgen Klinsmann for that change of heart and change of style.

It may or may not be fair for this laissez-faire reaction to a loss to a tiny CONCACAF region, certainly Bob Bradley would not have been let off the hook for it.   Nor is this optimism in a new style not meant as an indictment of former USA coach Bob Bradley, a capable tactician and able coach who achieved admirable, and in some cases headline-worthy, results from the USA team during his tenure.  Bob should be respected, thanked and will undoubtedly find (and perhaps has already found in Mexico) other coaching jobs in which he can sure up his legacy if that’s even required.

However, there is a reason that the phrase “change is good” has come to be.  It’s not, it turns out, just a desperate under-breath murmur of someone whose cheese has moved.

The jury is out on Klinsmann’s long-term effectiveness in finding, recruiting and motivating the type of creative, skillful and reliable players the US Men’s National Team seems to lack. But he’s certainly showed he’s going to give a chance to players others might write off.

There were some new players on the field who had not seen much time prior to Mr. Klinsmann’s hiring, but no absolute unknowns. In fact, this improved soccer happened with many of the same faces as we’ve seen before – including quite a few that are favorite targets of the soccer pundits as unable to pass muster.

If the first couple games (at least the middle 90 minutes – second half against Mexico and first half against Costa Rica) have shown, you don’t need wholesale changes in personnel to play attractive soccer at a high level. This is noteworthy, as the only significant difference is the coach.

I also briefly mentioned Sunil Gulati above, as it was his long flirtation with Juergan Klinsmann that ultimately brought the passionate German to lead this US team. Say what you will of Mr. Gulati, but he did (eventually) get his man, and presumptively he wants the style that Mr. Klinsmann appears to espouse.

However, as I scan my home for red, white and blue soccer artifacts, I see not only my US Men’s National Team colors, but those of another property in which Mr. Gulati still has a role. Mr. Gulati is, however behind the scenes, President of the New England Revolution. From RevolutionSoccer.net:

“In addition to his role as President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Gulati is in his ninth year as President of the New England Revolution (Kraft Soccer, LLC), following a three-year term as Managing Director. He came to the Revolution after serving as Major League Soccer’s Deputy Commissioner from its launch until 1999. In his role with the Revolution, Gulati oversees and advises on every aspect of the soccer organization, including the club’s technical and business affairs.”

There’s more than a passing resemblance between the pre-Klinsmann US National Team and today’s New England Revolution. Results aside, there are (unfortunately) many stylistic similarities that jump out as well. The inability to score from open play with any regularity. Over dependence on defensive midfielders. Constant proclamations of wanting to play possession oriented soccer, without any visible ability to get it done. A fan-base that worries that the current on-field product is the best our talent will allow.

New England fans are yearning for similar changes for their red, white and blues as they are for the US National Team.   And increasingly, glances are being cast at the coaching staff in New England.

Of course, the New England Revolution is coached by the very well respected, traveled, and tenured Steve Nicol. Steve Nicol, as the Revolution’s multiple appearances in MLS Cup can attest to, is a good coach. He’s also the longest-serving coach in MLS history and is managing what appears to be a stagnating club.

Nicol’s supporters, and there are plenty, will claim that he’s done yeoman’s work with the talent provided to him. Perhaps so, but that’s likely true of any MLS coach if people are to honestly assess talent levels across the league, and it rings eerily familiar to the refrain US Soccer fans used in supporting Bob Bradley.

Wholesale changes in MLS are not only unlikely and are often unproductive. One wonders however, what is possible with the players already on the Revolution roster if a breeze of change blows through the coaching ranks.   Isn’t it funny how much better players seem to acclimate or “fit into the system” when that system is totally bought into and producing results?

So as New England fans sit (eerily) quiet, they can only wonder if Mr. Gulati has now finished celebrating his success in reeling in Klinsmann for the National Team, and plans to take the same seriousness in reviewing how to get more out of the talent that is in New England today and perhaps how to get more on board.

Much like Mr. Bradley, Mr. Nicol deserves our gratitude, respect, admiration and thanks. But after 10 years at the helm with the same coach, a team going nowhere fast maybe it is time to test whether “change is good” for New England too.

So President Gulati, we know the “thrill is in the chase.”  Since you’ve landed your last conquest, isn’t it time for a new thrill?

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.

Planting the Seeds of the 2011 Revolution

It may have been a bit slow in starting, but the New England Revolution offseason transformation (we hope it will eventually be qualified as such) has begun.   Today’s announcement that the team has waived Emmanuel Osei follows a week player movement and news.

The changes started with the addition of Didier Domi, an experienced, left-sided, French fullback that has played in many of the top European leagues.  We can talk about Domi’s addition, questioning everything from his age (we are replacing Gibbs, a 31 year old American left back, for Domi, a 31 year old French left back), his cost (not yet known) and his current playing level (the Greek league isn’t the EPL now is it?)… but he clearly has some pedigree if there is still gas in the tank and the right mentality to come in and compete.

Roster changes, however, must be thought of holistically since small rosters and tight salary caps mean every change causes ripples throughout a team.

With the addition of Domi there are some interesting roster implications that were highlighted the very next day when the Revolution announced the re-signing of Chris Tierney.  Tierney is most frequently used on the left side at both defense and midfield and we should suspect these two to battle for playing time, unless Tierney can make the left midfield slot his own.

These moves also suggest that Seth Sinovic, who Nicol seemed to lose faith in toward season’s end, is happy that there is a larger senior roster in 2011.

When it comes to the draft, I love hearing (fellow?) pundits grade how the Revs made out.   These grades are typically based on such little information that they are hard to take too seriously.  I don’t believe that I am prone lathering undo affection on Mr. Burns or Mr.  Nicol, but I’m not about to launch a stinging critique when I’ve not seen a single minute of soccer played by anyone we drafted.

And I doubt most of the graders have seen more than snippets either.

By the end of the 2010 campaign, it became fairly clear that the Revs needed help across quite a few positions.  There were too few threats at forward and too many worries in defense.  While midfield may not have been concern number one, a bit of offensive spark and a less predictable attack would be nice.

And since none of us know what prospects Nicol and Burns are chasing outside of the draft – and to keep Revs fans from going completely crazy, there better be some more news there – saying they picked too many or too few of any one position is a bit crass.

What I like about the Revolution draft strategy is that they led with a central defender.  Why?   It was clearly a need, and if there’s one position that Burns and Nicol should be able to both scout and grow, it’s that of a defender.   Nicol is a defensive legend, and say what you will about Burns but he played at the highest levels the USA has to offer.   And that’s more than anything we have on our back line today.

The Revolution certainly CAN succeed at drafting for other positions (see Clint Dempsey as the most obvious example of a non-defensive success), but I suspect those players are harder to find, and harder for our current leadership to nurture.  Maybe it is safer to go for experience there?

Some other quick thoughts on the recent moves…

  • Cleary we drafted for SuperLiga fights… I mean games. Or for the Chicago jihad… I mean rivalry.   Four of the five players are six foot plus.  I wonder if they will be paid in rolls of pennies…
  • With a name like Stephen McCarthy, could he really have gone anywhere BUT New England? 
  • If Steven Perry ends up making the roster, the Revolution will finally have someone to inherit the dusty hair product left behind by Darren Sawatzky.  Oh, c’mon… PerrySawatzky.
  • Speaking of the Stevens…  The Revolution have Steve Nicol, Stephen Myles, Stephen McCarthy and (potentially) Steven Perry playing or coaching.  Phew, with Steve Ralston’s departure I was afraid the team was running low on Steve’s.
  • Emmanuel Osei showed moments of real promise in terms of athleticism and skill, but each of those moments seemed more than balanced out by mistakes that frustrated and confounded coaches, fans and teammates alike.  (Even Brad Feldman had trouble explaining some of them away.)  In the end, there’s new blood coming in with Ryan Cochrane and A.J. Soares, and the lapses are too big of a liability be balanced out by a low salary.
  • The idea that the Revolution helped arrange for supporters to be at the draft and support the team is a very positive sign.  It suggests that 2011 might not be business as usual for the team front-office.  We’ll see…

So the Revolution has started the offseason changes and more are promised.  It’s hard for me to complain about any of these moves, as they all seem directionally positive.

But, the fans who heard the front-office whispers about a Designated Player hunt are all still waiting for something a bit bigger… not just taller.

(Part 2) Some Revolution Questions That Needed Asking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What MLS rules would that have broken?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tag, you’re it.

New England Revolution’s Steve Nicol and the Intelligent Foul

Steve Nicol’s recent rant about the lack of referee protection for his creative players (namely the much improved Sainey Nyassi) was interesting on a number of levels.   When I first read the quote, I was struck by the unabashed choice of words that sounded as to me as if Steve was expecting, or at least wouldn’t be surprised by, a league-imposed fine.

The soccer-literati picked up on the quote as well. Paul Gardner of Soccer America jumped on the apparent contradiction in such complaints from Steve Nicol.   Gardner’s focus was on the fact that Steve Nicol’s teams push the physical envelope as far as they can as well.   Though Gardner sneaks in a commentary about not thinking the Revs are a “dirty” team, the general theme is that you cannot have your cake (push physicality) and eat it too (have your “skill players” see no physicality applied to them.)  

He also uses some arguments about Nicol’s ESPN commentary on other matches that allude to Steve’s respect for a physical game.   Fine.  Perhaps there is a some latent contradictions there, but Steve is not what I think most people would call out as a serial complainer – either when the Revs players are getting fouled or getting called for too many fouls.

Despite his (typically excellent) review of coaching, over-coaching and the many ways that the beautiful game is getting stifled, I was surprised Gardner didn’t comment more on Nicol’s potential motivation.

I’ve written about Steve Nicol’s coaching for the New England Revolution with admiration before, so my general view of his capabilities is fairly obvious.   Given that, I looked at the commentary about too-lenient refereeing with more interest in “why did he go there?”

Given the week the New England Revolution have had (most notably losing Shalrie Joseph for an as yet undetermined length of time) and the month they have coming (eight games in a month, really?) the rationale for this commentary seems straightforward in two areas.   It is both a tactical calculation and a hope for self preservation.

The cornerstone for either of these ideas is the belief that irrespective of referee impartiality – refs who know there are complaints out there by the Revolution/Nicol or that Nyassi (or others) have been getting little protection might have that in the back of their heads as they call upcoming Revs matches.   Much like a rabid crowd can help influence calls for a referee, such thoughts lodged into the brains of referees may be able to sway decisions or demeanor.  (And, given the reserved crowds the Revolution get there’s little risk of a significant home-crowd advantage.)

The Revolution is dealing with a reality of a foreseeable future without Shalrie Joseph. Without Josepph, the Revolution have looked downright ordinary.   It’s not that Pat Phelan or Joseph Niouky are bad players, but they are not players who are about to take over a game and own a midfield.    Without the ability to control the midfield, calm the game and spring attacks, the Revolution are very vulnerable to opposing offensive moves.

What is a coach to do?  Clearly Nicol will look at tactical changes he can make, and how to wring the most out of the players he has.   But it never hurts to get a little outside help – and that’s where his complaint about the referees comes in.

In games that refs call tightly, more fouls and more stoppages are inevitable.   It slows the pace of the game and would allow the Revolution more time to organize their midfield and adjust positioning.   It also means that forays into the other penalty area are a bit more likely to lead to a foul and a dangerous dead-ball opportunity.  (Which newcomer Marko Perovic has shown he can be quite useful with.)

On top of that, Steve Nicol is looking at a criminally busy month of games.   He has a roster limited by injuries, personal leave and MLS reality.  He has to worry about playing his homestand on the punishing artificial surface that usually lengthens recovery time.  He has to work about young, skillful players trying one to many tricks in front of grizzly MLS defenders.   Even if  the games don’t appreciably slow down, any protection advantage that is there to be found would help.

So Steve bet that he might get referees to watch more carefully and call his games that much closer.   He’s hoping that his team can survive the month, and surprise some opponents while their two best and most expensive players remain inactive.

Steve played the card he had.   It may cost him personally, but it sounds like one of those “intelligent fouls” we hear so much about. 

It’ll be interesting to see how closely MLS is calling this game of public relations.

New England Revolution: Stink, Brink and Other Over-Reactions.

Having last written about budding optimism about the New England Revolution’s current state, I now sit here at 36,000 feet on a cross country flight worried.  

About what?  Stink and brink.  Stink, as in “they stink.”   Brink, as in “franchise on the brink.”

I’ll freely admit that before going off the grid for my flight’s take-off, I was barraged in the Twitter-sphere about Shalrie Joseph’s “indefinite leave” from the Revolution to take care of personal matters.  (I wish him all the best and a quick return.)   This barrage has spun me into a reactionary state . . . which I’m sure is bad for my sanity, but turns out to be pretty good for blogging.

The importance of Shalrie to the New England Revolution is no secret, and something I’ve talked about before in “The Steve and Shalrie Show” and elsewhere – but that anyone who watches the Revolution with their eyes open can see.

Do the Revs stink?  Maybe not.  But they’re not great.

The Revs have always found ways to have terrible performances mixed in with their usually Eastern Division strength.  “This too shall pass” we might think.

Perhaps winning isn’t out of the question, I remember sitting in the 2002 MLS Final with 61,000-plus friends cheering the Revolution though for much of the season I found the (hard working team’s) soccer hard to watch.

Watching how Steve Nicol deals with the cards he’s been dealt – including indefinite absences of two of his best players and two largest salaries – Taylor Twellman and Shalrie Joseph – will be very interesting.  

There’s always talk of building the “spine” of a team . . . right up the center of the field.   The Revs first choice goal keeper is out injured.   The Revs center-back, Cory Gibbs, is new to the Revs system.  The star midfielder is, uh, on hiatus.   The star forward is still dizzy, or at least not playing.  

Nicol (and Mike Burns, and company) did what he had to – including the clearly difficult decision to trade Jeff Larentowicz – to shore up that spine.   Capable Preston Burpo came in to man the nets in the same trade that brought us the solid Gibbs.   They have tried every forward we can afford to replace Taylor Twellman, and they’d still not hesitate to stick him in the starting eleven immediately if/when he says he’s ready.

Now that Shalrie’s taking care of personal business, that trade suddenly stings – especially as Jeff came into town and with mid-field counterpart Pablo Mastoeni – controlled the Revolution’s home pitch for most of the game.   Meanwhile, Burpo watched a few awkward long-range shots sail into the net.   

All is not lost . . . as examples, my optimistic view from a couple weeks ago still holds in some areas. Sainey Nyassi appears to have matured significantly and Marko Perović seems to have unique and impressive skills.   The Revolution rookies appear to be MLS caliber.  Etc.  Etc.

What I just described though is a group of maturing – or otherwise unproven – players that will need to play out of their skin to make this season something to remember.

Which brings me to this franchise being on the “brink.”   The on-field challenges are one thing, and if anyone will steer them to a good show this year, it’s Steve Nicol.   Being “memorable” though, is a bigger challenge.

But who will steer the franchise into relevance?  Who will help it become loved?   I’ve not seen signs that there is an answer forthcoming.   I do believe that people are trying, but the Revolution are from where they need to be.

One plane ride isn’t enough to come up with the ingredients of a successful MLS franchise.  But a common sense top-five list of what a team must have, might look something like this:

  1. Recognizable star players with skill, personality and a fan following.
  2. An attractive brand of soccer. (especially important in winning over skeptical MLS fans)
  3. A trophy winning record.  (especially in a market that’s grown accustomed to winners)
  4. Professional credibility that merits respect.
  5. A lively, community-oriented, memorable experience for fans.

I’ll likely want to expand on that list after more thought . . . but even if we consider that 5 of 20 things that a successful franchise needs, the Revolution are clearly on the brink.

How do they line up? 

  1. Most recognizable star?  Taylor Twellman.  Currently easier to find on Twitter than on the field.  (Not his preference, I’m sure.  I hope for his speedy return and full recovery.)
  2. Style?  Given the challenges to personnel this seems like quite a reach.
  3. Winning some games is probably more likely than attractive soccer – but at risk as well.
  4. Credibility? The Revolution playing in Gillette look like a little boy in daddy’s suit.   Speaking of clothes, why no shirt-sponsor?  Wait, I cannot find a jersey to buy anyway.
  5. There are two communities.  Supporters and those sitting on their hands. And they are separated by a stadium.

So I’ll be on the lookout for signs that I’m wrong and that the lackluster attendance, local chatter and momentum is just a temporary phenomenon.  Or signs that I’m right and major changes are coming.  

But aside from that, I’ll fly across the country over-reacting as I fester in bad news for the Revolution and for one of our greatest ever players that actually does engender fan “love.”

Was my optimism in my last post premature?  Yes.

Are my “stink” and “brink” concerns an over-reaction?  I sure hope so.