There’s a picture from the New England Revolution’s first-ever home game that hangs in Aidan Heaney’s home. Although it’s not displayed in a prominent location, the image is a favorite of Heaney’s, who was in net when the Revolution beat D.C. United in a shootout at Foxboro Stadium. More than a piece of nostalgia, the picture serves as a perfect metaphor for Heaney’s brief, but memorable, stay in New England.
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Heaney was an assistant coach at UNC Chapel Hill when he received an invitation to join the Revolution for preseason in Boca Raton, FL. It was an intriguing opportunity that was quickly shot down by a superior, who reminded him of his coaching responsibilities. Dejected, Heaney went to his office to regroup.
On the one hand, training with the Revolution was a chance to continue his playing career. Heaney was 26 at the time and most recently played with the Greensboro Dynamo, helping the North Carolina club to a United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL) championship in 1994. On the other hand, the coaching gig was a guaranteed job and nothing was promised by the Revolution.
Following ten minutes of thought, Heaney returned to his boss and told him he wanted to trial with the Revs. This time, Heaney’s request was met with approval.
After a few practice games in Florida, Heaney was asked to serve as the Revolution’s second string goalkeeper for the season opener against the Tampa Mutiny. An odd moment, however, would propel Heaney to take a more prominent role. Starter Jim St. Andre received a late-game red card after taking down Roy Lassiter, who would become one of the best goalscorers in MLS history. The ejection—the first in MLS history—forced Heaney into the game.
"It was a lot of nerves," Heaney said. "We were losing 2-1 at the time, so it was going to be hard to come back. But you don’t want to go in there and concede having not even have touched the ball. I mean, how embarrassing, right?"
With less than a minute left to play, it was easy for Heaney to avoid embarrassment. He stood in goal as the ensuing free kick hit the wall, only to be kicked out of bounds by a Tampa player. Heaney’s first and only touch of the game would be a goal kick that was followed soon after by the referee’s whistle.
Heaney’s debut was easy but the decision he faced afterwards was a bit more difficult.
"The woman’s coach from Chapel Hill Anson Dorrance was in the crowd at the time," Heaney explained. "I had been speaking to him about what to do. Would you play? Would you stay as a coach? What would you recommend? He was like, ‘play as long as you can.’"
Choosing to play professionally, Heaney served as the Revolution’s number one for the next six games. Large crowds at places like Giants Stadium (46,826) and Foxboro Stadium (32,864) failed to rattle Heaney as he helped his team to a 4-2 record, including two shootout victories.
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Just as Heaney was getting into a rhythm, tragedy struck. In an event that mirrored the incident that led to Heaney usurping the goalkeeping position, the Irishman was shown a red card, paving the way for St. Andre’s return.
In just the third minute of the Revolution’s game against the Colorado Rapids, Heaney was put in an awkward position when Richard Sharpe was played in behind the defense. Always aggressive, Heaney charged off his line but misjudged the play. Determined not to allow "Sharpey," an old friend and teammate, score, Heaney handled the ball outside the box. A red was shown and Heaney headed to the showers early.
It was a devastating moment for Heaney as he felt that he let down his teammates and fans. Worse yet, he had a special observer in the stands.
"My father had flown all the way across from Ireland to watch," Heaney explained. "So he got to see me play for all of two minutes and be suspended for the next game. That was frustrating on my end."
After serving his one-game suspension, Heaney returned to the net, but St. Andre was there to keep the pressure on. By season’s end, both goalkeepers had their opportunities to impress as Heaney finished with 18 starts, slightly more than St. Andre’s 14.
"It was a bit of a rollercoaster for me," Heaney said of sharing time, "but it was more circumstance than poor performance."
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The turbulence wasn’t exclusive to the pitch as there were plenty of ups and downs that came along with the pioneering of MLS. Even small, daily details, such as practice locations and travel arrangements, were hard to pin down at times. Worst of all was the fear of potentially losing your job.
"Everyone was always on edge," Heaney remarked. "You felt like you could be let go at any time. There was no real security. If you didn’t fit the bill, you could be moved on pretty quick. Those parts were pretty nerve-wrecking."
In a lot of ways, the nerves were understandable as the Revs struggled during their inaugural season. Players were shuffled in and out of the lineup as head coach Frank Stapleton tried to find the right formula for success. Nothing seemed to work, however, as winning streaks were often followed by losing streaks.
The uncertainties both on and off the field increased the importance of unity in the locker room. There was a wide range of personalities and backgrounds, including lower division stars like Heaney and Robert Ukrop, internationals like Welton and Beto Naveda, and US national team regulars like Alexi Lalas and Michael Burns. Despite the diversity, the players found ways to come together and have fun.
"I remember distinctly that one time the players had a bit of fun with Welton," Heaney recalled. "Welton asked what to say if someone says to you, ‘how you doing?’ Basically they told him to use a swear word. That was funny until he responded to someone high up in the Patriot organization who shall remain nameless."
The fun would end in September as the Revs were officially out of playoff contention. Changes would come in the following weeks as many players, including Heaney and St. Andre, and staff, including Stapleton, would move on.
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Since leaving the Revolution, Heaney has remained active in soccer. He now serves as the head coach of UNC Wilmington where he mentored current Revolution goalkeeper Brad Knighton and former trialist Jacob Van Compernolle.
Although he’s not directly involved with MLS, he follows the league closely, always impressed by the strides that have been made since that inaugural season.
"I feel privileged to have been part of helping this sport grow having been in the college game for so long," Heaney noted. "It’s exciting to see soccer specific stadiums, to see the quality of the players—the David Villa’s, the [Frank] Lampard’s, the [Steven] Gerrard’s—that come over to play. I think it just shows you the legitimacy of the league."
And while the league continues to grow, the picture that hangs on Heaney’s wall stays the same, bringing back memories of unique penalty shootouts and outlandish jerseys. These are fond memories, of course, but that doesn’t mean they belong in the modern game.
"I laugh when I see (those jerseys)," Heaney stated. "For me, as a goalkeeper, I think if anyone looked up to shoot, you’d just see bright colors. I might have had some sort subconscious effect for me. But it did look like someone might have been sick and landed on me."