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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Under-17s, Luis Gil and the Maturity Quagmire

The US Under-17s are out of the FIFA U-17 World Cup after a tough loss to Italy.   I saw less of their World Cup play than I wanted, but a few thoughts remain hard to shake.

Maturity is over-rated – at least in soccer.

The game against the UAE reminded me most why watching the occasional youth game is so refreshing: even in a pressure situation the ‘kids’ tend to play with an offense-first mindset and a penchant for flair that will very likely (and sadly) be taught out of them in the pro ranks.   Our challenge is finding a way to add the professionalism, strength, speed of play/thought that is required to make the next step without squelching the joy of the game.   Not many countries have acheived this…

Possession soccer is not out of our reach.

Again, the UAE game was my primary taste of the U-17s this time around, but the way in which they controlled the ball – and thus the game – was impressive, even if the result was closer than it should have been with better finishing.   Luis Gil appears to be the real deal (as much as an almost 16 year old can be) and was able to add stability and an smart attacking mindset.   The full National team doesn’t have a pure center mid with those qualities – really Claudio Reyna (though often deeper sitting) was the last player that really was close to this at the senior level.    It will be interesting to see if we can add more of this to our game given our current roster.

Unfinished business.

At all levels, we seem to struggle to find a consistent list of “finishers.” If the amount of opportunities that could have  turn into goals – but didn’t – for the U-17s in this tournament show us anything – we may not have the answers coming soon.  At the Senior team level , Charlie Davies shows a nose for the goal (and is now facing a long recovery from his terrible accident) and Jozy Altidore has the potential, but not the playing time.   Most of our other talented forwards seem to be stuck in that perpetual midfield/forward dilemma – Landon, Dempsey, Adu, etc., or not making the mark we need them to make – Cooper, Johnson (who?), etc.   Given that, it’s not a surprise Conor Casey got time, maybe Robbie Findley is next?

What next for our talented youth?

Luis Gil is getting most of the attention, and (from my limited viewing) rightly so.   But for Luis and other talented players – the question becomes “what now?”   Luis had a trial with Arsenal, suggests MLS could be an option (what else would you say?) and has ignited a debate over what is best for helping a young star reach his potential.   While it’s hard to imagine there is a “right” answer, the idea of playing at Arsenal’s youth development system sure is appealing.  The style they play, their tendency to throw youth in the mix and their strong youth development all make strong arguments.   The question revolves around the demand (especially for a creative midfielder) for those roles – which will feature some cut throat competition.   If you are to believe that an American has the odds stacked a bit against them going in in a European team – would a smaller club offer more opportunities for success?    For slightly older players coming into the pro-ranks (Dempsey, Parkhurst, etc.), I think MLS is a good option – but without a developmental league, and with minimal development of the youth teams – one most wonder if it is the right option for some of the U-17s.    We best start to get more creative with development options for these players.  Could be a large Mexican (or other Latin) team play a role?  Luis (as this example goes) has a Mexican heritage, and some teams have very well established development systems.   If only there was a Mexican team that also had an American connection…   hmmm.   We need to get over our fixation on just a few leagues being worth the attention of our youth.

Wilmer Cabrera deserves some credit.

Coaches can help build confidence (we made it to the second round and won twice in a row when we needed it, and were within a missed penalty of a better Italian result) and style (see possession commentary)… but cannot take the field and put many of those wasted opportunities in the net.  Perhaps the refrain we hear so frequently that “American coaches” are needed for our US teams is true.  Maybe they don’t always have to be just North American.

Well, Wilmer’s (and my) team is out… but his home country (Colombia) is still there.  I know who I am rooting for.