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?