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.