July 8, 2012; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; The New England Revolution head coach Jay Heaps talks with Robert Kraft during the first half against the New York Red Bulls at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE
The mysteries of a front office in MLS are always intriguing. For the past few years, it has appeared that the New England Revolution's FO has received mostly negative feedback from its supporters. Poor player acquisitions, poor advertisement of the product, poor hiring of coaches and poor interactions with fans had led to a bad team and a disenfranchised fan base. Halfway through the 2012 campaign, it looks like things are changing in the front office.
When Mike Burns and Brian Bilello were given promotions following a disastrous 2011 season, a sense of skepticism rolled over fans. The biggest complaint with Mike Burns was that he was the Vice President of Player Personnel, so no one knew exactly what his position was. Many were unsure of the power he had in signing players. So as Sunil Gulati's position with the Revolution, which always seemed mysterious at best, lessened, people wondered if it was Gulati holding the purse-strings or if it was Burns signing relatively inept players that led to the current state of the team.
At the midpoint of 2012, Burns and Bilello have added some exciting pieces to the Revs. It all started with the hiring of Jay Heaps as the coach. A good portion of fans derided the decision to hire Heaps due to his lack of experience, but so far he has brought a new attitude to the team and an attacking style. This was the first of several moves by the new FO that have so far seemed to be bold, smart and brave.
Between Burns, Bilello, Heaps and the other people working in the FO, the team has been able to acquire some stellar talent. Saer Sene, who is perhaps the find of the season, was brought in as a trialist after spending years at Bayern B. He was an unknown commodity in MLS, but was given an opportunity and has thus far impressed. Lee Nguyen was, believe it or not, another risky move by the FO that has also turned better than imagined. After failing to catch on in Vancouver, Nguyen has dazzled on the pitch. Nguyen and Sene will almost certainly be in the conversation for MLS's Newcomer of the Year by season's end.
Additionally, Clyde Simms was a sneaky pick up in the Re-entry Draft. Simms was a risk-reward player with an injury history that the FO decided to take a chance on and has so far been rewarded for. And even though Shalrie Joseph's form has not been spectacular, I'd argue that signing him as a designated player was the right move to make. The roster has gone through an overhaul. Kelyn Rowe and Fernando Cardenas have served as great pickups, and even Blake Brettschneider and Florian Lechner -- who have not been stars -- have added depth to the roster. Then there is the excitement around the addition of Jerry Bengtson to this team as a designated player. A Honduran wunderkind to help with goal scoring, as well as holding the top allocation spot has people buzzing in New England over Burns's sudden ability to not only scout but to sign MLS-quality players.
And yes, certain moves didn't work out. The FO couldn't sign Danleigh Borman or Nate Jaqua, but those misses have been forgotten. Also, not every pick has been a success. Some high profile players didn't work out or haven't worked out as of yet. Bjorn Runstrom's brief New England career was a failure, John Lozano didn't pan out as expected and Jose Moreno has yet to impress. That said, the recent waivings of both Lozano and Runstrom -- along with Jeremiah White -- has shown an FO willing to admit to mistakes and unlike previous regimes cutting players like Marko Perović it seems that these moves were not just monetarily motivated. All in all, Burns has fared far better in a seemingly more public role than most had expected.
Meanwhile, Brian Bilello has taken a much more visible role. By appearing on television and radio shows throughout New England talking about the Revolution, Bilello has started giving a face and voice to what has seemed to be a faceless and voiceless organization. But perhaps more importantly he has been incredibly interactive with fans. Something as simple as his twitter profile has allowed supporters to interact with him. Additionally, his constant appearances at media days, season ticket holder meetings and pregame tailgates at Gillette is a welcome sight. Furthermore, we have seen Bilello sticking up for the Revs. When Michael Whitmer made snide remarks about having to cover the Revs for The Boston Globe it was Bilello (and our own Brendan Shimmel) who seemed to immediately bring the issue to The Globe's attention.
The work of Heaps and the coaching staff, the player acquisitions and performances of Bilello and Burns have led to an oddly positive feeling surrounding this club -- even to some of its more negative supporters. There are, nevertheless, still other areas that the team needs to work on. While hardcore fans are more excited than they've been allowed to be in the past few seasons, the team is still almost invisible to the casual sporting population of New England. The overall advertising of the team to the public has been interesting -- to put it mildly. There were ads running for the Revs during Fox's EPL Games of the Week, various billboards placed up around Boston and even more recently an improvement of the commercials selling the team -- which are still by no means Oscar worthy -- to the casuals. Meanwhile, Slyde the Fox has shown up in Boston magazine, Benny Feilhaber has been featured on Chronicle and Ryan Guy has made various appearances on morning talk shows. Still, the moves to get the players out there and more noticeable is nice, but thus far it does not yet seem to have moved the meter. The team is still less than an after thought behind the other teams in Boston. Part of it is the tradition of the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and Patriots, but part of this may have to do with the stadium situation.
And therein lies the biggest problem with the otherwise glowing first half of the season with the Revolution's front office: a seeming lack of progress on a soccer specific stadium. Without a stadium or a stadium plan, the Revs are stilled looked at by their supporters as Bob Kraft's redheaded stepchild and by casuals as a minor league team. While it was a welcomed sight to see Bob Kraft appear at the game this previous weekend; while it is terrific to see the much improved product on the pitch; while it is admirable to sense the palpable enthusiasm around the team, the promises about news on a SSS followed by a lack of news hurts the organization and FO's image in spite of all the other positives we have seen so far this season. Until there is some sort of notable news on a SSS for the Revs, the other moves of the FO seem to be mostly done without a view of the big picture. Hopefully some ilk of news will be released about a SSS, or at least a SSS plan, before the second half of the season is done.
Grade: C +