The Revolution’s Words, Actions And Colombians

To kickoff 2012, my first (and only) blog entry centered on a plea for the New England Revolution to be “blog worthy” in 2012.  A hope that it would “show the fanbase how big the Revolution dream is, and steps you are taking to achieve it.”

Given a week of activity, I’m concerned the team still cannot explain the vision of the team’s future the way I’d like, but its actions actually give me hope.

The two news items of note are the addition of two reasonably young Colombian players (Fernando Cárdenas and John Lozano from América de Cali) and two additions from the MLS SuperDraft (Kelyn Rowe and Tyler Polak.)

For most of us, the addition of four players is news enough to get the chatter going. However, I’ll admit (as I have along the way on this blog) that despite being a full-blooded, US Men’s National team supporter, I have a particular soft-spot for Colombian players and Colombia generally. So my heart fluttered just a bit more than might have been necessary. It also led to my latest team suggestion, so read on…

First, I’d like to personally thank the team for bringing these players in to appease yours truly. Clearly, the fact that the team added two Colombians a couple days after I plead for news-worthiness means they were reading the blog, knew my Colombian soft-spot and jumped at the opportunity to please me.

OK, perhaps not.

But the fact that one of my fondest, foreign soccer adventures was going with my brother and family-in-law to a Millonarios vs. Tolima match at “El Campín” (quick clips here and here), and that I’m a couple weeks from my next visit to my adopted second country, means I may well overstate my impact and the likely impact of these players on the team.

So, with my biases stated, I’ll do my best to avoid hyperbole.

The reality is that the Colombia’s First Division is not the league it once was. With clubs that were once the hobby of ridiculously wealthy drug kingpins in the late eighties and early nineties, the main teams of the league “benefited” from an influx of ill-gotten cash to fund player acquisitions and operations. (A trade-off none of us should want for the country or league to revisit.)

Despite the change in stature, the league continues to produce, and provide MLS with, quality players that tend to have strong ball skills, a creative outlook and impressive composure. In Colombia, the game is typically played at a slower pace, with a greater emphasis on skill, passing and even (gasp) dribbling capabilities. These are not the skills we are used to from our own youth development efforts here in MLS and US Soccer.

Of course, the same can be said of other leagues as well, but there appears to be an ongoing clearance sale on Colombian talent, with MLS being a primary shopper. Until Colombian professional clubs start seeing better success in pan-South American competitions, this will likely continue, and MLS would be wise to keep an eye out for continued discounts.

I know very little about these new players, so I will not venture to estimate their upcoming fortunes in MLS and with the Revolution, but the fact that the first foreign additions new head coach Jay Heaps and “revitalized” team management have made were Colombian, young (Lozano is 27, Cárdenas is 23) and yet have experience in tense first-division soccer, is a good step.

That one is a creative attacker and the other a stout central defender and the team also gets credit for shoring up two of its weak spots as it readies for the 2012 season.

The team still has some significant shortcomings though, which brings us to last week’s MLS SuperDraft.

I’m less of a draft-junkie as some of my compatriots (which is pretty obvious when you listen to my fumbling on The Midnight Ride podcast from earlier this week…) but there were a couple things any Revolution-watcher knew going-in.

First, the team needed strikers. (Among other positions that also needed addressing.)

Second, the team had the highest pick it’s seen in quite a while.

At least in Revolution terms, expectations were high and interest was intensified.

The results? Pretty darn good.

Now, “pretty darn good” might not sound like ticker-tape parade stuff to most people, but in Revolution country, team followers will worry about more than “pretty darn good” after it once again provs an ability to hit that low-bar with consistency. At this point, local supporters have become realists.

Now, there are questions to ask, as the major gap for a “pure-forward” went unfulfilled. But two solid, Generation adidas players with US Youth National Team pedigree were added. Forgetting everything else, the Generation adidas status of these players is a major coup. Players in this program bring two major benefits, 1) they have already signed with MLS and 2) their salaries do not cost against the team’s salary cap.

Without even delving into the players’ skill-sets and credentials (which are solid), these facts point to a – dare I say it – savvy draft strategy – and make even critics forgive the lack of a pure forward.

First, the team needs players, and it knows it. The fact that there is no negotiation with these players (as they have already signed with the league), there is no risk of losing them to the lure of a European dream, among other distractions.

While to a casual onlooker this could seem trivial, contrast it against the fact that only one (Clyde Simms) of the team’s three Re-Entry Draft selections has signed so far, with both Nate Jaqua and Danleigh Borman apparently still deciding what direction their soccer futures will take, and the pre-signed nature of these Generation adidas picks seems like a wise move.

Second, the team knows it needs room under its salary cap to bring in the players needed to become competitive again. To that end, the Revolution have cleared out high-priced European imports, given Designated Player status to Shalrie Joseph (which, based on the sometimes counter-intuitive rules of MLS, means he’ll cost LESS against the salary cap) and have now added two promising young players for no-charge against the salary cap.

Savvy indeed.

Now, all this money-saving and movement toward skillful youth (Colombian or college) aside, the team still needs to figure out how to fill out the roster. That flickering of light of hope which is ever-present in the Revolution faithful should glow a bit brighter when it looks as the signs in front of them.

When Jay Heaps was appointed as the Revoltuion’s new coach, there were serious questions about what type of soccer local fans should expect to see. As Jay readily admits, his impressive playing career was highlighted by dedication and effort more than pure soccer skill.

But, in bringing in Kelyn Rowe, as opposed to a forward to fill in a glaring hole in the team’s roster, Jay Heaps noted that Rowe’s skill was “…important for us because we want to be a possession-oriented team and we want to keep the ball. He’s a player that can do it.” Interesting words.

If the team’s followers hadn’t heard Steve Nicol tell them for the last two years that the Revolution were looking for a “possession oriented style” – while delivering something quite a distance from that goal – it might be a bit more believable.

However, these early player additions – which on the surface seem to point toward creativity, youth and an acute understanding of MLS rules – might just point to a brighter future. This is the kind of surprise many have been waiting for, and were not expecting. Interesting actions.

The question will be, what will follow this promising beginning? Do these player acquisitions point to a different direction – potentially one that focuses more on soccer-skills and creativity and less on athleticism? I sincerely hope so.

Does Mr. Heaps have the chops to coach fluid, possession oriented soccer out of skillful, creative players? Good question.

The imminently likeable Mr. Heaps, likely realizing some of his own potential deficiencies, added “longtime U.S. Soccer coach and talent evaluator Jay Miller” who is known to be a savvy tactician and student of the game. Tactics are important, yes, but in US Soccer coaching ranks are far too frequently prioritized ahead of talent, rather than seen as an augmentation of that talent. Hopefully, that will not be the case with the Revolution.

But it’s clear that Mr. Heaps is still in the market for a second assistant coach. In my last blog, I continued chasing Colombian shadows with a pipe-dream that Leonel Álvarez would get a look for some type of coaching association with the team.

Other than his history of a brief stint as a Revolution payer and his recent ousting as Colombian National Team Coach, perhaps this was a reach. But I still like the idea of a Latin coach, one who brings Spanish (or Portuguese, I suppose) to the team. And considering our two recent South American additions, and the success the league has had with Colombian player acquisitions lately, a Colombian coach doesn’t seem like a reach. Of course, one that understands how to deal with younger talent sure would be a bonus given our recent moves and the high hopes around Diego Fagundez.

Whether I simply need to pull my head out of the clouds or not, I’m not quite ready to give up on my vision of a Colombian on the coaching staff for the Revolution. In fact, if there hasn’t been a call placed Wilmer Cabrera at this point, it’s a terrible oversight. He would bring a unique and extremely valuable addition to the staff, with almost too many positives to mention.

He’s a Colombian, with exceptional years at América de Cali where he won three Colombian championships. That is, of course, the same club from which our two new Colombian signings came from.

He has worked within, and is clearly familiar with, MLS as its one time “Manager of Fan Development.”

He brings a solid coaching record as both an assistant (Under 18 US Youth National Team) and as the head coach with the Under 17 US Youth National Team – with very good recent results – including a a 3-1 victory over Brazil in December.

He is likely already bringing a familiarity with some of the Revolution Youth Prospects from time they spent at the US Soccer residency program.

It was an article in Soccer America is what both excited me about this possibility and immediately worried me about its likelihood to come true.

Exciting because I knew all of the above areas that would seemingly bring a new and interesting addition to the Revolution sideline, and Wilmer is quoted in the article that he is “in conversation with an MLS club to try and join the staff and we’ll see.” Why not the Revolution?

Worrisome because while much has changed with the Revolution, and as we’ve seen here, some of that is very good news. But some oddities remain, like the team’s propensity for near over-the-top, hard-ball contract negotiations that sour ex-Players on the team and the process.

Unfortunately, despite his seemingly good record and positive momentum, this sounds eerily similar to Cabrera’s departure with US Soccer. From the Soccer America article we learn that he was offered what a much shorter contract than he had been accustomed to (and which would be the norm in the youth coaching ranks) and that he rejected it. “I had been working very well with the Federation but I couldn’t accept that offer. It wasn’t good enough for me or my family.”

Rajko Lekic would sympathize. Of course, Sunil Gulati, President of US Soccer, is just a “consultant” to the Kraft family now, right?

So, what we’ve learned this week is that the team has taken positive steps forward in terms of adding some apparently skillful players who have their best soccer still ahead of them. Jay Heaps and the team may still lack the ability to cohesively describe WHAT they plan to turn the Revolution into, but if actions speak louder than words, than I don’t see much to complain about.

And if the team wants to make a strong statement, I’d love to see a continuation of the Latin focus, the emphasis on technique and skill and the growth of young promising talent by adding someone like Wilmer Cabrera to the coaching staff.

It would also be an action that would speak louder than words about this team’s new direction, a lessening reliance on Mr. Gulati and a departure from whatever tactics have seemingly poisoned contract negotiations of the past.

Because as much fans want to hear the vision, but they will get excited by the actions.  Speak loudly Revs.

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The Revolution Re-Org: Reboot or Upgrade?

If first impressions matter most, it is hard for New England Revolution fans to take much solace in the recent organizational reorganizational announcements.

The Revolution is viewed as being stuck in MLS 1.0, while the league has largely moved on to MLS 2.0 (or more.) Apparently Revolution ownership seems to agree, with Robert Kraft suggesting: “Major League Soccer has evolved significantly in the last few years and while we felt we had a structure in place that had worked well earlier and led us to success, the last two years did not live up to our expectations.”

However, addressing such fundamental league changes by redrawing lines on an organization chart seems more like a reboot than a system upgrade.

Maybe they have patched the team to MLS 1.5?

Appearances Matter

If there were concerns about the on-field performance, player selection and overall treatment of players, adding responsibilities to the VP of Player Personnel Mike Burns, seems at first glance like an odd way to address it.

If there were challenges with moving your “number one, two and three priority” priority of a Soccer Specific Stadium forward (in the words of Brian Bilello), your in-stadium atmosphere is probably the worst in MLS and your fans cannot buy Revolution merchandise outside of the Patriots Pro Shop without jumping through flaming hoops, it would seem out of place to promote your Chief Operating Officer Brian Bilello to even greater responsibility.

Yet, that’s what happened.

Well, that and the enigmatic (for New England) Sunil Gulati being moved from his (way) behind the scenes role of President of Kraft Soccer to a pure advisory role for the Krafts. Ummm, Ok.

Welcome to a MLS 1.5…

Any Hope To Be Found?

If you are looking for good news, this isn’t a downgrade.

Brian Bilello, the once COO and now President of the New England Revolution, is clearly a smart guy. He seems to really care about the team, the sport and understands the business model and on-field/off-field challenges. If nothing else his having “surrendered his other leadership roles” with the Kraft’s means greater focus, and less Twitter/Blog/Facebook abuse.

Focus is good, but only time will tell if any of this translates into better results. And it seems with the removal of Sunil Gulati from day to day activity with the team (words that are hard to type, since his day to day roles were never understood), one would imagine Mr. Bilello will have greater control and ability to get changes made.

Mr. Bilello senses that new breath of fresh air from a redefined organization and refined role for Mr. Gulati, right? “How [Sunil Gulati]’s utilized on a day-to-day basis, I don’t have a great answer for you on that.” Ok, so there’s some confusion about how he’ll still advise on the Revolution.

Well, Mr. Gulati will clearly use his connections to get us some great international games, right? “I don’t have a great answer to that… If he can be helpful in that regard, sure, I’m sure he will be.”

Great Soccer On The Way?

Well, now that we’ve cleared all of that up… let’s talk about the vast “soccer” improvements we should expect from the expansion of responsibilities for Mr. Burns.

The idea of Mike Burns having a greater span of control will be the most frustrating one of this re-org for many Revolution faithful. The team hasn’t been the shining example of player management in most regards. What would have been interesting is a clearer statement as to what led to that particular decision, since the recent past hasn’t been a shining example of success.

Recent drafts? OK, I guess.

Bringing in impactful foreigners? Not great.

Keeping, or at least adequately replacing, talented players? Arguably the most obvious failure. Demspey and Parkhurst might have been Europe-bound no matter what, but who replaced them? Larentowicz, Dorman and others? Painful.

Parting ways at midseason with a player voted your team MVP the prior year? Bordering on absurd.

I have met, but don’t know, Mr. Burns but I do know he has a long history in the sport, was an accomplished US player (if not fan favorite) at all levels and should by all definitions “know the game.” But as in many professions, individual contributor success does not always define successful management and Mike Burns has a lot to prove. At least in this new clearer (I suppose) role he can be more easily judged on his success.

The problem many Revolution watchers have, is that it’s unclear how, other than having been a good soccer player, Mr. Burns is fully qualified to take on his added responsibility of managing “all aspects of the club’s soccer operations, which now includes the coaching staff and player acquisitions, in addition to continuing his oversight of the youth development program and the team’s operations and management.”

The last few years would be a blemish, if anything, not a vote of confidence. He doesn’t have a public soccer opinion nor does he engage well with the media. He hasn’t explained a Revolution soccer “point of view” and we’ve already discussed our player-management concerns.

Perhaps Mr. Burns is ideally suited for his new role. But when Jonathan Kraft says “During the last few years, he has proven to us that he is talented and more than capable to take on these responsibilities and lead our soccer operations.” It leaves many wondering, HOW that has been proven in something better than an MLS 1.0 world.

The team has rebooted, but the significance of any upgrade is clearly not yet known.

(There’s way more to cover on these changes, my public relations conspiracy theory, the role that should have been announced, and new coaching possibilities. But after watching the US get blanked in the Stade de France last night, I better go enjoy some of this wonderful city to soothe the pains of the loss. More to come very soon!)

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?