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?

(Part 2) Some Revolution Questions That Needed Asking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What MLS rules would that have broken?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

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

Tag, you’re it.

Is Steve Ralston’s Return to the Revolution Good News?

Steve Ralston is back with the New England Revolution.  Revs fans are rejoicing the return of one of their favorite, most dependable and talented players. 

As one of those fans, I should be screaming, “Thank god, the Ralston-forcements are here!”   And to a degree I am, but only to a degree.

In fact, it pains me so to say that this is the worst good news I have heard for a long time.

Let’s start with why this IS clearly good news for the Revolution.

Steve Ralston is a great player.  Be it his status as the first-ever MLS rookie of the year, his league leading number of starts or assists, or the simple intelligent play he brought to the hectic Revolution midfield for as long as fans can remember.  It is clear that Steve is easily in a rare class of MLS elite.

Steve Ralston appears to be a great guy.  I’ve briefly met him a number of times at games and season ticket holder events, and while certainly I don’t know him, he always lived up to his reputation as an excellent person.

Steve Ralston seems to be a great teammate and captain.   As captain of the Revolution, Steve clearly had the respect of his teammates.  Many have talked publicly about how hard a loss he was to the team and the locker-room when he left for A.C. Saint Louis.  It was no surprise that Sainey Nyassi gave up his number 14 immediately upon Ralston’s return.

(And especially important THIS week…) Steve Ralston is a United States National Teamer.   He wasn’t on any recent roster, but no player that scores against Mexico is ever forgotten.

Clearly, I’m “pro-Ralston” and happy to see him back with my local team.

So, why is this the “worst good news” I have heard for a long time?

As I look around the league, I see things to get excited about.  New stadiums, exciting new players (designated or otherwise) and even (occasionally) attempts at fluid, attacking soccer.

When I see the Revolution, I mostly see a team that is trying to be as good as it once was, and trying to regain that consistent strength through minimal, incremental steps.   The mentality that seems to suggest, “Who knows, maybe Steve Nicol can draft another Clint Dempsey every year…”

For a moment, compare the Revolution to the (still very much imperfect) New York Red Bulls, who – for years – were a league laughingstock. 

All of a sudden the Red Bulls have arguably the best soccer stadium in the country, dedicated and respected Designated Player who brings quality to their team, and it looks like they will be adding a top international player after the World Cup in the form of Thierry Henry.  Sure, they have their issues, but that is a list worth getting at least a little excited about.

What newsworthy steps have the Revolution taken to improve?  Gibbs and Burpo were good additions.  The new rookies are fine.  (Yawn.)  Khano Smith is back.  (Wait, is that a positive addition?)   Perovic seems skilled.

But the biggest news? We welcomed back a mid-thirties, ex-Revolution captain with a knee brace

Despite knowing that he will help our team, this is the “worst” good news because the Revolution’s fans expectations are now so low, this probably will keep them happy for a while. 

But it won’t add to their number.  And it won’t fundamentally change much.

Welcome back Steve, you were missed.  The team should have made it so you never had to leave, and we’d instead be announcing some great big additions to “your” team this week.

Well, hey, maybe next year…

The New England Revolution’s Steve and Shalrie Show

For fans of the New England Revolution this has been a pretty tough offseason.  Reading a very interesting interview with Steve Nicol at FoxSoccer.com made it very clear that there are some very interesting hurdles to make it over this year.

  • Paul Mariner: Hugely respected Assistant coach with vast experience and knowledge – gone.   What did Nicol have to say in the interview? “To be honest you can’t replace him” 
  • Jay Heaps: Defensive leader who was part of the “soul” of the team – gone.   Heaps wasn’t called out in the interview, but Nicol glowed about Heaps the player/man during his retirement event.
  • Jeff Larentowicz: Half of our reliable, trusted midfield core – gone.   In the interview, Nicol says “Jeff was huge for us. . .”
  • Steve Ralston: Team captain and a player that made all the others around him better – gone.   Nicol, though asked about Twellman and Ralston, only commented on Twellman’s importance.   Interesting, as they were probably negotiating Ralston’s contract . . . and we saw how that ended.
  • Taylor Twellman: Goal machine and often the “face” of the Revs – still here, still trying to get well.
  • Matt Reis: Confidence inspiring keeper, one of the best in the league: out injured.
  • Chris Albright: While less of a Revolution mainstay, an experienced player with a winning tradition – gone.

So where does that leave the Revs?  Enter the Steve and Shalrie show.  

Steve Nicol, the longest tenured coach in MLS is the one constant in this team over the last few years.   He is respected by players and other coaches alike, due to his stewardship of the Revolution as well as his history as a Liverpool great and Footballer of the Year.   Last year his managerial skills were tested during an injury filled campaign that left him without key players (Twellman, Albright, Ralston to name just a few) for long stretches of the season.   The team made the playoffs, but rarely dazzled.   Given the roster issues, that’s probably considered a success.   Unless some major acquisitions are announced before the season, Nicol will again need to wring out the most of an unspectacular roster.  

One area of interest – and big question mark so far – will be what Steve’s draft choices can offer.   MLS draftees are typically less impactful than in some other major sports, but the Revolution have been among the best at pulling solid MLS players from the draft, and often, MLS standouts.  Surprisingly stellar rookie campaigns from Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes last year helped buoy a troubled back line.   It will be interesting to see if a similar magic act is performed this year.

The other constant is the excellence of Shalrie Joseph.  Nicol put it this way in the recent interview, “How Shalrie Joseph does not win the MVP award is beyond me.”   Many Revolution fans agree, as do quite a few MLS watchers.   If Shalrie isn’t wearing the captain’s armband next season, there will quite a few fans scratching their heads during the season.  But Shalrie is only human.   His game is the engine that keeps the team humming, but the more that is asked of him – and the fewer trusted players around him – can only serve to lessen his impact.   He cannot simultaneously be the midfield general, defensive anchor and center forward.

So the Revolution Front Office and fan base have put their trust in Steve Nicol to steer the ship for the last few years and for the foreseeable future.  (A good choice.)   He has Shalrie Joseph – and Taylor Twellman, if healthy?? – and a band of supporting characters with which to work with in 2010.  He’ll need every ounce of coaching to make this season work, but a couple pre-season signings wouldn’t hurt.  (I see they’ve already hit their “Steve” quota again despite Ralston’s departure with the addition of new Assistant Coach Stephen Myles.)

There are other signs of hope that we can dig through at another time.   But if Shalrie pulls up injured in pre-season, we’ll need to have Revolution fans – and their team manager –  hand over any sharp objects, belts and anything else they could use to end the misery.

“Cero a Cinco” Caps a Long Soccer Weekend

Well, that was quite a weekend of soccer.   My eyes hurt.

“Cero a Cinco”

Surrounded as I am by a large Colombian family of in-laws, I understand and revel in the “Cinco a Cero” (5-0) hysteria that rang down as a high-note of 1994 World Cup Qualifying when Colombia downed Argentina by that score in Buenos Aires.   Any Colombian of the right age will remember that night, or at least remember the hang-over from the partying that ensued.   And why not?

I never expected that today’s Gold Cup final could be the flip side of that for the USA vs. Mexico. Since this wasn’t a World Cup Qualifier, it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as that Colombian victory . . . but Mexico really needed a victory like this against the US to set them back on the right path.  And I’m sure they are delirious South of the Border.  (Well, or in lots of places North of the border too, like Giants Stadium which looked like an Azteca preview party today.)

On Friday, I acknowledged that we didn’t yet know enough about our USA “B” team and that “. . . it’s Sunday against Mexico for the final where we’ll really learn something.”  Well, lesson learned.

Stepping back . . . a questionable penalty tilted the field toward the US goal and then the flood gates opened. The US team on that field is further away from the best 11 we’d start than the Mexican team was from their best eleven (since it certainly contained some first team starters.) And for good stretches of the match, the US looked as dangerous as Mexico.  At 0-5 though, none of that will matter, nor should it.

There is a bigger picture here, both in terms of the Gold Cup and the US v Mexico rivalry.

Gold Cup: As I noted on Friday, the pressure in the Mexico/Costa Rica Semi-Final was much higher than what the USA faced against Honduras – a representation of the fact that the USA’s group stages overall shouldn’t have been that hard to get through. Reaching the final inflated expectations which were brought down to earth in a hurry today. When we started this competition, everyone acknowledged this was NOT the best eleven for the USA but would provide an excellent growth opportunity and learning experience for a (mostly) young US Squad. Well, this is one lesson the players on that field won’t ever forget.

US v. Mexico: US fans have had it easy for a while. The USA has “owned” Mexico on our soil, beat them at the World Cup and overall had a pretty clear sense of superiority about them recently.  Is that real though? Are we better than Mexico? Probably need to define “better” . . . our best eleven can beat Mexico’s best eleven, we’ve proven that. But be it the National teams or club teams (as evidenced in Superliga, CONCACAF Champions League, etc.), what was proven today is that there remains a pretty serious experience gap after you dig deeper into the roster.

Again, I’ll avoid player ratings here, as there will be too many offering opinions already. I heralded Jay Heaps for his improved play after a rough start . . . if I were clairvoyant, I’d have begged him to take the accolades and run for the hills.  Missed opportunities in the final third and tackles that needed to be all or nothing but missed that mark were shared by many. Risks were inevitable after the team was a down by a couple goals  . . . but the disintegration of the back line screamed for experience. Too bad Jimmy Conrad’s bell was rung against Panama, he might have helped.

The real question is what will happen on August 12th in Mexico City. Can new found confidence push Mexico to leverage the Azteca advantage and romp once more?  Will the USA “first-eleven” feel the need for some “revancha” in Mexico and be even more motivated than they already were?

MLS Games

Funny things happen when the New England Revolotuion can get some of their better players (Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston) on the field.   They win.   I have a secret (and perhaps unreasonable) hope that this season has some potential left. Why? Based on no-data to prove this it seems to me that many teams which start out gangbusters tend to run out of luck (injuries) or otherwise lose their way by the playoffs, whereas the teams who work through early season injuries/issues are fresher and more focused come playoff time. Hmmm, perhaps all we need to do is sneak into the playoffs and keep recovering from injuries.

David Beckham played and even shook a fan’s hand, but he didn’t score.  His captain did.  Both were out done by the more than half-field goal by Claudio Lopez.

I didn’t see the Red Bulls / Colorado game, but I didn’t really have to, did I?  RBNY really is THAT bad.  Unfortunate for MLS.   Hysterical for a Revs fan.

World Football Challenge

I struggled to care about these games. How is it possible that some of the best teams in the world are visiting and I struggle to care?  Frankly, it’s sad to me that the crowds are coming out for a pre-season warm up “competition” in such numbers as to suggest they had no other soccer to watch in this country. I thought Taylor Twellman’s (whose team gets maybe a third of today’s crowd) tweet said it all “gosh I wish the stadium filled like this for OUR games be so cool.”   Yes, it would . . .

Taylor also tweeted on the joys of playing on natural grass. Which makes me wonder . . . if it is feasible to install a grass field for some of these one-off games is it really out of the question for MLS to do something for the part of their season that doesn’t conflict with the NFL?

As for the AC Milan / Inter Minal game, the idea that this game was anything like a true “derby” is laughable if I’m being generous. I’ve been to a European derby (Chelsea/Arsenal), a Brazilian Derby (Fluminense/Flamengo — OK, preseason, but still) and actually stood in the last row of Inter’s Ultras at the amazing San Siro.   The intensity of those games is hard to describe.   What happened at Gillette earlier today pre-season warm up with a little extra juice than the others we’ve seen in this tournament.  But not much more.