Brad Friedel will be the first to admit that he’s a stubborn individual.
It’s a characteristic that propelled him to a 21-year playing career that included 450 English Premier League appearances and 82 caps with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
It’s also a characteristic that contributed to him being fired as the head coach of the New England Revolution just 18 months after taking the job.
In 2017, Friedel left his post leading the U.S. U-19 team to take his first gig as a club head coach. Announced as the seventh coach in Revs history on Nov. 9, Friedel immediately began to make changes to the club.
Players were now required to arrive at Gillette Stadium two hours before training and three hours and 15 minutes before games. No one was allowed to enter the meal room unless everyone was present, and cell phones weren’t allowed when eating. Players had to wear team-branded gear while traveling and on game days. The starting lineup wasn’t announced until 90 minutes before kickoff.
These are just a few of the policies that Friedel brought to the club in his bid to establish a more professional atmosphere. When creating the guidelines, Friedel leaned on his 18 years in Europe, which included stops with Galatasaray, Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa, and Tottenham. As a coach, he hoped to replicate what he experienced as a player.
“When I met with Jonathan and Robert Kraft and Mike Burns and Brian Bilello, one of the reasons why I was hired for the job was because of my experiences with some of the top clubs in the world,” Friedel told The Bent Musket. “I was asked by the regime to instill more professionalism into the club and I have no doubt that players struggled with it.”
Although many of these protocols were standard in Europe, MLS players found them far too rigid, and over time, those constraints were tested.
The rule about being two hours early for practice was particularly difficult because some of the players lived in Boston. Three anonymous sources told The Bent Musket that a group of players who were normally on time once failed to arrive two hours early because of traffic created by an accident. They were still fined despite having an excuse and arriving before practice began. Players could refute fines by pleading their case to a jury of their peers, but appeals were rarely successful because the boys were hard on each other.
The dress code was another sticking point because the players were accustomed to wearing their own garb. Friedel noted that he was used to dressing up on game days. His desire to bring this tradition to the Revs was dashed when a deal with Men’s Wearhouse fell through. As an alternative, the players wore team-branded gear.
Some players didn’t like that Friedel waited until game day to reveal his 18, a policy he encountered in Europe. Most teams in MLS tell their players a day or two beforehand but Friedel named his lineup and bench right before the team talk that precedes warmups. Friedel did state that the groups he made during the week’s latter training sessions hinted at who would be starting.
Friedel explained that some of the rules were implemented to build a culture akin to what he saw in Europe. Another driving force behind his policies was to encourage good habits. This was the case when he introduced strict diets.
Friedel said some players arrived for preseason with a stark increase in their weight. One individual told him that he consumed multiple Big Gulp sodas a day. To remedy this, the club developed meal plans for the players. The early arrival time on game days ensured that everyone ate together.
On the field, the players were asked to participate in high-octane sessions, sometimes twice a day. Off-days were limited, another idea influenced by his time in Europe. He remembers answering a preseason call from the MLS Players Union, who informed him he was going to receive his first warning because players needed a day off every 11 days. Friedel had planned to give the players four days off after a 21-day block.
The sources we spoke to stated that, although training exercises included the ball, they were primarily focused on fitness. All three sources said that there wasn’t much of an emphasis on tactics.
Friedel refuted these claims, saying, “That’s completely untrue. We wanted to high press teams. I wanted to make it predictable. I can show you hours and hours and hours of videos on patterns and tactics that we wanted to do.”
Friedel explained that his methods were inspired by coaches like Gerard Houllier and Mauricio Pochettino. He stated that the tactics were embedded in the training exercises, all of which were designed with competition in mind.
“I think this comes down to a lot of the players not being able to absorb quicker what we were trying to do,” Friedel said. “This would probably be the biggest thing that I learned during my time is to take a more slower methodical teaching of the tactics for the players because when you went over it quickly and incorporated a hard part of the training session a lot of the players immediately thought it was a fitness session when it was not. It was actually the tactics on how we’re playing on the weekend.”
Early on, players went to Friedel with their complaints but found it difficult to make headway with him. Friedel noted that there were some people that he listened to and some he didn’t. The ones who felt ignored explored alternative routes to voice their grievances, including discussions with people higher in the organization.
Our sources indicated that Friedel lost the locker room by the summer of his first season, a statement that Friedel says is an opinion. Losses were piling up and the players had little faith in a turnaround.
Friedel did say that by that time he had identified the individuals who were willing to work for him and those who weren’t. He hoped that he could send out the players and staff that didn’t appreciate his methods. This wasn’t the case.
“When it was time where I knew the players that I needed to get rid of and knew some of the staff members I needed to get rid of I was not able to make those moves. And then it’s just a problem,” Friedel said.
Although he wasn’t able to trade players, he could make changes to the starting lineup. Claude Dielna was the captain but soon found himself outside of the gameday 18. Gabriel Somi suffered the same fate despite being brought in to be the starting left back. At one point, Somi was separated from the team for two weeks due to a conflict he had with Friedel. He spent those two weeks running as a consequence. On game days, it wasn’t unusual to see Friedel make personnel changes at halftime.
Friedel ended his first season with a record of 10-13-11, which put his team as 8th in the Eastern Conference. Things didn’t improve during his second season, as the team was at the bottom of the Eastern Conference at the start of May with a record of 2-8-2. In his last four games in charge, the team conceded 18 goals.
Reflecting on his time as coach, Friedel stated that he didn’t get everything he needed from the front office, though he declined to go into specifics. He did note that he believed there should’ve been more turnover, both in terms of players and staff.
Friedel also willingly took on some of the blame. He understands that he could’ve compromised on some of his rules, saying, “If I had to do it all over again in MLS then maybe I would not have instilled so many of the rules that many of the top clubs in the world adhere to because the players simply aren’t ready for it.”
He recognizes that he could’ve adjusted his methods based on the feedback he was hearing from his players. He states that he wouldn’t budge on some things, mentioning that he was asked if girlfriends and wives could travel with the team during preseason. Other issues, such as the dress code policy, might warrant more of a discussion.
Coaching wise, he could’ve taken a different approach to teaching his tactics, though he does believe in what he was asking the players to do.
As a whole, Friedel stands by his methods, saying that he’s seen them work in Europe. They just weren’t right for the players he had in MLS.
“I would openly take that type of criticism on board,” Friedel said. “I’m not saying I would have changed anything necessarily because I was trying to instill a level of professionalism and a different level of fitness into the club.”