Another summer has come and gone, and as the leaves begin to change into their familiar autumnal hues, the brazen few citizens of Revs Nation once again will be forced to mutter the all-too-familiar statement, "well, maybe NEXT year". It's a statement that is fortified in 16 years of heartache and near-misses, as well as what can also be perceived as organizational apathy. As someone who has loved this club since its inception, it's almost impossible to not obsess over finding answers among the wreckage. It's like a never ending search for a black box that simply doesn't exist. As I enter my late twenties (gulp), I'm left to wonder if my Revs are going to be to my life what the Red Sox were to the men in my family in the past century: an undying obsession, albeit a fruitless one mired in lost opportunities and mediocrity. With a few matches left in what has been an odd season (quite frankly, I can't find another word for it) , I guess it's time once again to search for a few answers. I'm not interested in piling on the Revolution here, quite frankly, there are enough whiners, detractors, and wanna-be pundits that do that. So I'll mix it up a bit, and try to put the Kool-Aid down in between sentences.
I guess the most pushing question to start with is, what, if anything has the club done right? Surprisingly, the club isn't all that lost. Try not to have a heart attack after you read this sentence: It really isn't all negative with the New England Revolution. Now, I know that a quick browse of the #revs hashtag on Twitter or the forum on BigSoccer would have you think otherwise, but there are a few things that the club has done right:
Benny Feilhaber. With an aging Shalrie Joseph, and the likes of Jay Heaps, Taylor Twellman, Clint Dempsey and Steve Ralston NOT walking through that door (to steal a phrase from Rick Pitino), the Revolution NEEDED someone to carry on the torch as franchise player and recognizable face within the fan base. Benny has settled in well within the fan base, and the best part of it all? The kid can play. The talent is undeniable, and at times we've seen flashes of brilliance from the USMNT midfielder that the faithful haven't seen at Gillette in some time. As this young team continues to grow together, and Benny is surrounded by better talent, his quality of play will only increase.
Youth Development System. Recently, US Soccer conducted their end of year evaluation of youth systems in the country, and the program at the New England Revolution finished among the top eight in the US. While developing youth players and bringing them up through the system isn't quite yet a proven successful commodity within MLS, it bodes well for the club if they continue to develop and nurture young talent within their system. If Diego Fagundez is any indication, home-grown players will play a part in MLS in the very near future.
A Franchise-First Designated Player. It's at least a step in the right direction. I'll come right out and say, I really like Milton Caraglio and his style of play. He's without a doubt the prototype for this league at striker: big, strong, physical, but not lacking in finesse skills and quality. There's all kinds of mystery surrounding his contract agreement with the club, but if the front office can manage to hold on to him, even for just one more season, it will do wonders for this club.
Results Aren't Terrible. Hear me out. I've watched every match, either live, or on MatchDay Live's DVR. I can only think of two, maybe three matches where the Revs were absolutely outclassed and never in it. This team is in every match they play. Now, while they have raised losing to an outright art-form at times, they at least manage to stay in matches and at the VERY least, give themselves a chance at points on a nightly basis. I don't particularly care for stats (here's something you don't want to hear: possession is over rated.) The only "stat" that matters is the final score line. Trust me, I'm an Arsenal fan, and I can tell you all that possession and "pretty" styles of play mean exactly jack. As long as the team remains competitive, you can't really ask for much more.
So it's not all bad. There are at least a few things for this team to build upon going forward. It's a young side, especially at the back, and it's going to take time. You can't just go out and make a bunch of acquisitions and throw it all together and expect to make jambalaya. This isn't baseball. Soccer is one of the most team-oriented (organizational and tactical also) sports in the world, and you can't expect magic. However, there are a few things I'd like to see changed, or perhaps, examined going into 2012 and beyond, but don't expect me to touch on the SSS debate because, well, that one's been beaten to death:
Pick a Philosophy and Stick With It. How many times have I screamed this year at the team's style of play? Excluding the 2-3 year stretch where the team played a 3-5-2 (In their defense, look at the TALENT those teams had. Oh my God.) the style of play has remained, for the most part, unchanged. The club needs to evaluate exactly where there talents are, fit the style of play to what they have, and then as they progress forward, scout, sign, and draft, according to that style of play. I think Steve Nicol has done that to an extent, but it's not working recently, which leads me to my next point...
It May Be Time for Steve Nicol to Go. Now, I said MAY. However, Red Sox fans will tell you, after firing Francona (and that guy won TWO world series titles in 8 years) that sometimes change is good. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, and after 16 years, the club has yet to win a title. I love Steve Nicol, and will always be in his camp, but I truly feel that sometimes a new voice and perspective is needed. The club is treading water, and as seemingly EVERY other club is moving on to "MLS 2.0", New England still seems to think it's 1998. I can wholeheartedly assure you, it is not.
Better Decision Making in the Front Office. Here's a crazy thought: You're already a young squad, why continue to sign these over-the-hill, injury-riddled journeymen? Commit to the youth movement. Caraglio was absolutely a step in the right direction. That's how teams are competing in MLS now: signing young internationals that are just beginning to hit their stride as professional players. The likes of Didier Domi, Ousmane Dabo, and Ilija Stolica were never going to help this squad. You could even argue about Rajko Lekic, but when surrounded by better talent his play improved. Continue to bring in young players, like Feilhaber, Ryan Guy, and Caraglio and let them grow up and develop as a team together.
STOP. ALIENATING. YOUR. LOYAL. FANS. I CANNOT stress this enough. I refuse to re-hash all that's gone on this year, and not even just in New England. It's all well-documented. If you REALLY think that the key to success is the soccer mom youth groups, please just sell the team. I can't take it anymore. I don't even want to fathom how much money, time, effort, and emotion I've spilled into this team. Just understand that when it's raining hard, or extremely cold, or late-September when the team is out of playoff contention, the only people in those cavernous stands are people just like me. We've been here for 16 years, and we aren't going anywhere, unless you force us to.
It's never going to be easy to be a Revolution fan. The team is mired in mediocrity, with a seemingly troubled front office. The comments from people that say they think the front office doesn't care are unfounded. The front office cares, but what does need to be addressed is the direction and purpose the FO wants to pursue. It's got to be perfectly evident to the organization that the current status quo isn't working. A stadium isn't going to magically change things overnight. The quality of the product needs to improve. When the team was winning in the early 2000s, there were people in the seats. As the club gets better, so will the numbers. So, going forward, the club needs to commit to their youth, find their identity, and then supplement the club with the right players that fit the philosophy. It's not as easy as it sounds, I know, but nobody said climbing out of the basement would be easy.
Matty Jollie is a New England expat in Naples, FL who remains a diehard Revolution fan. He was a collaborator over at Revs' ASN page, which recently went dark. Now, he'll be writing with us. Please give him a warm welcome!