In the crazy world of professional sports, no one's job is untouchable. Players find themselves played out of starting positions and even roster spots every day. The reality of it all is that it's a results business, and if you aren't producing the goods, you're out.
It could be argued, though, that the most tenuous position of all is that of the head coach. The head coach doesn't play in any games, and at the professional level it can be argued that there is little instruction associated with the job. When a team succeeds, the star players are lauded in the media. And yet, when a team fails, media, fans and owners alike waste no time to blame the coach.
With that said, it's probably a rhetorical question to ask if this season's results will determine whether or not the 2011 campaign will be Steve Nicol's last with the Revolution. If the Revs are a basement-dwellers again, it wouldn't surprise anybody to see Nicol lose his job, deserved or not.
The real question is this: what is the threshold of success - or lack thereof - that would prompt the Revs organization to part ways with one of MLS's few 100-match winners?
More after the jump.
If the Revolution have an implosion of DC United-like proportions, the front office will likely have no choice but to can the inimitable Scot. But what if they remain competitive but miss out on the playoffs?
The gut reaction is to think that he stays on, provided he still wants to. But stop and think about this again; New England spent almost the entire last decade as a playoff club, battling for an MLS Cup and making the dance four times. Last season they were mathematically out of the playoff race a few weeks before the season ended, but realistically it was painfully apparent by mid-to-late August that they wouldn't be in the postseason in 2010.
A season like that doesn't generally go over well in organizations and cities used to seeing a consistent winner. However, Nicol does have a well-deserved reputation as one of the best coaches in the league and the Revs spent most of the season dealing with a shorthanded roster and debilitating injury woes, so giving him the benefit of the doubt was easy.
This probably won't hold true in 2011. League expansion has been offset by an expanded playoff bracket, and Revs fans are going to be looking for a return to November soccer. No one is expecting the Revolution to come off of last season and suddenly be MLS Cup favorites again, but a franchise attempting to take a step in the right direction can't tolerate another season like the last. A losing season (unless they still make the playoffs a la RSL in 2009) will probably result in termination.
Again, though, the question is whether or not making the playoffs is essential for Nicol to remain head coach. As previously stated, a winner wants to keep winning, and anything less than that is failure.
But if the Revolution miss the playoffs again, how much of that will be Stevie's fault? The Revs finally have depth and veteran presence in a defense that conceded a league-worst 50 goals last season, but questions remain. Didier Domi has no MLS experience, there isn't a Dynamo fan in sight lamenting the loss of Ryan Cochrane, Kevin Alston can't stay healthy and the first-year duo of Soares and Coria are unproven. Only Barnes represents a dependable and known quantity at the back.
The midfield appears to be settled, but the Revolution are going to be relying on two players on the wrong side of 30 to maintain possession and make the squad tick. Shalrie Joseph is one of MLS's best-ever players and Ousmane Dabo oozes class, but if even one of them goes down with injury they will be replaced with unproven youth or great athletes lacking in vision and touch. Furthermore, though the left wing will be fine whether it's Perovic or Tierney putting in the crosses, Sainey Nyassi's decision-making and crossing ability remains suspect.
Up front, the Revs have zero proven goalscoring talent and have only added rookie Alan Koger to one of the most impotent strike forces in the league. Ilija Stolica's ability to hold up the ball and get others involved is a major boon, but little has been seen to suggest that Zack Schilawski can benefit from his knock-downs and layoffs.
On paper, the Revolution are not built to be a playoff team. They have somehow managed to address all of their gaps without really answering any questions about the potency of their lineup. There are too many questions, and no evidence that anyone on the team can suddenly explode into a double-digit goalscorer.
With all that said, is it fair to blame Nicol for this year's failures, should any arise? He certainly doesn't seem to be entering a favorable situation for a coach trying to resurrect a winning franchise. If anything, it would be a testament to his considerable coaching prowess if he manages to sneak into the playoffs.
All of this is said without even taking into account the fact that Nicol is the longest-tenured coach in MLS today. His hiring in 2002 immediately coincided with a significant improvement in the franchise's fortunes, including the Revs' record-breaking run of eight straight playoff appearances. At this point Steve Nicol is synonymous with the New England Revolution, like Brady and the Patriots, Bird and the Celtics or Williams and the Red Sox.
Unfortunately, the world of the professional sports isn't fair. Despite his incredible resume and unenviable situation, the punishment for another season of failure is going to fall squarely on Stevie come November. Like I said, I'd be surprised to see him lose his job. Still, if New England misses the playoffs again, Revs fans may need to prepare for life after Nicol's Army.