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From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Number Seventeen With A Bullet: Could It Be Across The Bow? Plus an Interview with A.J. Soares

Posted by tonybiscaia on June 22, 2011

A VIEW FROM THE FORT: by Jim Dow

Recently a Soccer America article rating the seventeen sites where MLS teams ply their trade placed Gillette Stadium at number seventeen, the absolute bottom of the table.

The capsule justification offered for such an indictment read, “…What is there to say? It’s too big, too far out and burdened by artificial turf. And lately, attendance is no better than in other long-suffering markets.” And, despite a now relatively thriving contiguous mall with actual restaurants serving tasty food and shops jammed with everything from bait to bras, free parking on game days, seating on both sides of the pitch and a number of other improvements, there really isn’t much to offer as a rejoinder.

It is a particularly damning view of Poppa K’s glitzy Patties playpen since when the Revolution were far worse than they are now, playing against raggedy opposition in a legitimate dump in the same far suburban location, surrounded by rutted gravelly, dusty parking lots that one had to pay for, with nothing better on offer food-wise than cinder-burnt sausages and bathrooms that flooded, the New England Revolution drew a significantly larger average number of fans per game than last Saturday night’s fourteen and a half thousand, even if you subtracted padding events like doubleheaders with the U.S. Nats or touring European glitterati.

On the other hand, with the exception of the recent Fort kerfuffle (more on that at another time) in the midst of an edgy, fast-paced relegation battle against the arch-foe Fire, the attitude of those in charge at the stadium has seemingly evolved, albeit slowly, even tortuously to being relatively enlightened; from the plethora of tifo, including banners, flags, pennants and colorful coils of crepe paper in the visitor’s eighteen yard area to smaller touches such as bringing in Bruins stalwart, Rene Rancourt to apply his resonating tonsils to the double anthems on the night of glorious Game 7, when the locals played Toronto. Indeed, it may not be general knowledge that the Revos management tried to change the game date when it became clear that the B’s would be in the penultimate Stanley Cup tilt at the same time, but their opponents on the night refused, so the match went on in front of a few close friends.

All this might be on a back burner somewhere if the team itself were doing well. The significant influx of new players; Coria, Dabo, Domi, Feilhaber, Lekic, Soares to go with proven quality like Joseph, Perovic and Reis and a rejuvenated Kevin Alston has been sent far, far south by injuries, likely for the duration even if a promised DP or two shows up over the long, hot summer. Luck, compounded by possible dollops of misjudgment, has been that bad for Stevie Nicol’s side and the long and short of it is that pretty much everyone in Revland is grumpy, even on a good day and verging on the ballistic on a bad one.

That said, a positive thing to say about the recent goings-on is that if, as reported in at least a couple of instances, the players actually noticed and commented on Saturday’s second half depopulation of the Fort speaks volumes about the connection between the team and its’ fans and offers huge potential going forward, should the crowds swell and the atmosphere amp up, non-electronically, of course.

The completely deserved congratulations currently being showered upon the Stanley Cup champion Bruins offer an interesting case study for the future in Foxborough, or wherever the Revolution may find themselves. Jeremy Jacobs’s lame attempt at a joke to Cam Neely at the speechifying before ascending the Duck Boats stating that the current B’s squad had managed to achieve what the great Number Eight’s teams had not in winning the trophy may have been a blooper of the “measure nine times, cut once” variety but it did serve put things in a useful historical perspective that might apply.

For years and years the Jacobs stewardship of the Bruins was noteworthy for its penurious approach to running a professional sports team. With the legendary Harry Sinden in charge as GM and the owner’s son as VP, the bottom line was of topmost concern, a sort of throwback to the Original Six when players plied their trade for a pittance and, interestingly, the Big Bad Bruins were just plain bad. I know, I went to games then and, indeed, was a season ticket holder when NHL 2.0 became operative as Bobby Orr and Co. hit town and the NHL expanded.

As an aside, after last Saturday’s parade NESN ran a post game interview show from back in the day, where Derek Sanderson, fresh from putting the Rangers to the sword in the 72 Final, stood calmly flicking ashes from his burning cigarette into Lord Stanley’s Cup while admonishing the kiddos not to get into bad habits. Can you imagine the ultimate rink rat from Niagara Falls in the capo stand and with Pie Mackenzie taking over for the second half?

But seriously, what changed the modern-day Bruins from an economically starved bunch barely able to make the playoffs to their current, competitively successful iteration was the insertion of an indefatigable will, a force of nature combined with impeccable credentials as the titular head of hockey. The GM and coach did the heavy lifting day to day but Number Eight set the tone.

As a player, once arrived from Vancouver Cam Neely gave everything he had, including his body, to further the cause of the sweater that bears the spoked B. What let him down, besides his knees and hip, courtesy of dirty checks and grafting in the corners, was the fact that those above him failed to assemble a sufficient team around him, both on and off the ice. When he became consultant and subsequently president he helped to drag the organization into the 21st century with all the force that he used to employ in front of the net. As a result the Bruins now venture into free agency, sign long-term contracts and sport a supporting staff that rivals any.

Exactly how much day-to-day influence Neely actually exerted and now exerts is open to debate. It might even be that the Jacobs clan gained enlightenment independently but the point is that his inclusion in the corridors of power coincided with a distinct cultural shift from mediocrity to excellence within a short amount of time. While Sinden and the Jacobs family had a long hockey history behind them their obdurate refusal, perhaps inability to recognize the changing nature of the league and game had entrenched the team in an increasingly muddled state with a poor playing style and a worse attitude. As a result, the season ticket base atrophied, press coverage and public presence shrank and the new kid Revolution outdrew the hoary hockey club on per game average.

All that has changed as 1.5 million fans lining the streets on the Saturday and 64% viewing share the previous Wednesday demonstrate. It isn’t clear whether this latter stat includes the few hundred fans clustered on Gillette Stadium’s north walkway watching the big screen at CBS Scene during Game 7 but no matter, the town went daft and rightly so. In my lifetime and likely far, far into the future no proper football team will pull that kind of excitement in the Hub of the Universe. Hell, the vast majority of the 65,000 who packed Gillette for the US/Spain fiasco likely had never been to an MLS match and a lot of them hadn’t been to any sort of football contest. But between 15 and 20,000 used to regularly come out to the old place and nearly that many showed up regularly in the first years of the reign of Team Ops in the new place.

But buzz, excitement and competitive juice doesn’t need to be measured in millions, everything is relative. Suppose, just suppose someone stepped into the driver’s seat down on Route One who had the cred to get everyone involved in a room and tell it straight, to give a reality check and pitch about being a committed, serious player in the MLS of 2011 and beyond. It might be an ex-Revo with blue in their blood, it could be someone from outside but they would need to have currency of Cam Neely quality in terms of the world’s sport. It wouldn’t have to break the bank to achieve all this, remember this is MLS, but it could cost significantly more millions than are currently spent.

Think, for example, what Red Bull, Galaxy, Seattle and even Real Salt Lake spend on support, over and above player salaries. Remember that the current New England management has pledged to bring in a DP, perhaps two, so spending there isn’t an issue. There are, however, transfer fees, scouting, more coaches, etc. that are potential expenses above the salary cap and other constrictions. However now that the Man Mall is over its’ birth pangs and with the Bruins as a model, wouldn’t this be a perfect time for an operational reboot that likely would prove far more effective than just a surface rebrand?

From the first day he turned up for training A.J. Soares has been a presence with the New England Revolution. While he has made his share of rookie mistakes, he has been instrumental in reviving the core of a backline that has suffered from the departure of Michael Parkhurst, the retirement of Jay Heaps and a two-year, injury influenced plateau in the development of Kevin Alston. Many are touting Soares for possible ROY and a place on the MLS All-Star team as was the case with Alston two years ago and that could mean, among other things, facing Manchester United twice in a month. The idea of Chicarito vs. the confident Californian gives one pause. And then throw in Rooney, or Berbatov if he’s still around… Yikes!

I spoke with the emerging star recently after training…

JIM: This is your first year; you have been playing football professionally for four months now, so if this were college, the season would be over. How do you approach this new reality?

A.J: I think there are two sides that are really important; one is having your base fitness level at a place where you aren’t breaking down after this point, which I think I have… I work hard in the weight room; I work hard on my fitness…

JIM: Excuse me, and that comes from off field stuff as well as on the training pitch; the weight room, etc…

A.J: Absolutely, the weight room, just taking care of your body, stretching, you know getting on the massage table when you need, treating every little thing that you feel because things add up and what not, so having that base fitness and health level is vital, because you can’t play on an injury and go on and go on, you just break down. That and then too, just mentally, that might even be the bigger issue but I think mentally you just have to come out and appreciate every day. Take your training, have fun with it, I think if you take it too seriously I can see where guys would get mentally exhausted but I have fun every day out here. These (guys on the team) are a lot of good friends of mine now, you know the sun is out now; I have a good time every day.

JIM: Right, a month ago it was like forty degrees…

A.J: Exactly.

JIM: For example, when filling up the day, when you are in college you have classes, whatever, all this other stuff. Now you are here and you are training perhaps an hour and a half a day, plus perhaps working out an hour on your own, whatever…

A.J: Yeah, I mean for one, early in the week before games I’ll go explore Boston a little bit because I live that way and I haven’t lived here too long and I still have a lot of things to see but really, I try to put as much work as I can into my game, so once I go home I just want to relax, rest a little bit; once one training (session) is over, the next comes pretty quickly, so…

JIM: Yeah, I would imagine that is true…

A.J: So I take that time to try and rest and really get my body back, because the games come quickly too, like we’ll see this week, you know we are going to have three games in seven days or whatever it is.

JIM: Now in college, it is certainly true that you would play three times a week sometimes, but the difference is that you are playing the full ninety minutes here, there are no substitutions (for center backs unless you are injured) although I presume that in college you were playing all the time, in every game. So, is the recovery from games significantly different from the more general recovery from daily, intense training?

A.J: Yeah, I mean after a game you have completely depleted your body, so I definitely have noticed that you know, in college we would do things but the travel wasn’t as much, here I’ve taken the time to make sure that I’m hydrating, wearing little things on my legs trying to get blood flow and what not, you know doing a lot of stretching and really focusing on that, the level here is a lot higher and a lot more intense, so even though in college you might play Friday/Sunday and then you play the next Friday… the level is not as high so it is easier for you to recover but here, once the game is over, we come out to train two days later, the training level is so high that I feel like I really need to get up for it, just like I am getting up for a game.

JIM: Correct me if I’m wrong but my observation is that college teams play basically the same style, so if you are playing a twenty, twenty-five game season, you may be playing better teams or lesser teams but everyone basically approaches their tactics in a similar way. Here, in MLS, there is a significant difference between playing Salt Lake, say, and Colorado. How important is it for you to be aware of the differences in the opposition at this point?

A.J: I think it is important, I’ve always been big on preparation, knowing my opponent, watching film, stuff like that so, like you said, there are so many different styles and little nuances that teams do and they’re good at them, so if you are not aware of them, it is difficult to play against. I think really knowing your opponent, and a good thing is you play one game a week, sometimes two a week, so you do have time to kind of get to know your opponent and think about them a little bit in the week leading up, so yes, I think it is definitely important, because there are different styles and (while) it’s not that one style is better than another necessarily, they are just very different and so you have to be ready… One game might be more of a bloodbath and one game might be more of a technical battle.

JIM: And do those things tend to happen not only as a result of the styles of the teams involved, but say from something that happens early in the game? Do games change as a result of something that happens early on, say somebody kicks someone, whatever?

A.J: Yeah, absolutely, especially in this league where guys have been on different teams and they know guys, I think there is an individual pride that people have, you know you never want to get beat by the guy that you are playing against and, so yeah, if you get kicked by a guy I’m sure that you are pretty heated about it. I mean, I know that I definitely have a pride in my own play where if a guy knocks me down, I’m going to knock him down next time he gets (the ball). And then, also, just having pride in your team which everyone here at Revolution has, yeah, the game can be dictated by what happens early on, what the refs are allowing, if someone scores early on and it changes game to game, depending on who is in the lineup and who’s not and all that.

JIM: You are likely going to laugh at this but I like to refer to you as the defensive version of a young Clint Dempsey because you came to the Revs as a rookie, made your place as a starter and the position of center back yours and you play with a certain sort of, well… arrogance isn’t the word, I’m going to have to go to the thesaurus here…

A.J: It’s called “swag.”

JIM: Oh nice, “swag as in swagger,” OK, yeah, well you got the swag and was that a conscious adoption of a role or have you always played that way? Is that a game face, a professional face?

A.J: I think everyone’s got to have a little bit of swag, I think most players do, it can’t be an arrogance, you have to respect your opponent… I’m not out here thinking I’m better than anyone, there’s so many good players in this league, I mean it’s a hard job. But yes, if you don’t have confidence, if you don’t have that swag, you’re going to play scared and that is when you don’t play to your best (standard). It doesn’t matter how many people are in the stands, what people are yelling at you, telling you on Twitter, whatever, you have to go out there and be confident, thinking that you’re going to beat your guy every single time, that’s what swag is.

JIM: And do you think a certain number of people wash out at this level because of that mental issue, rather than physical ability or quality?

A.J: Yes, I think it is mostly mental, because it is easy to come in and, for example, there are a number of guys who might try out and they are at the level but… maybe they give a ball away, or someone yells at them and they don’t have the mental confidence to stand up and just say, “forget that, I’m just going to do better next time.” It’s definitely difficult. It’s hard to come into a team where there are so many good pros, everyone is at such a high level, and… if you do make a mistake to bounce right back from it and the next play, do it perfectly.

JIM: Well, along those lines it is interesting, I follow football all over and have been to many games in Argentina, England, Portugal, Uruguay and one of the things in the culture here, not particular to football, but sports in general is that players on the same team don’t yell at one another on the field, court, rink, what have you. In football, players do, for one thing you have to talk to one another and sometimes in the heat of the game the talk gets edgy. The idea that one guy will turn around and verbally blast a teammate is hardly foreign to proper football; look at Tim Howard with the National Team and Everton, or Zenga or Twellman when they played here. So the communication that goes on here, did you, playing in the center, have to step right into that and participate, or did you have to learn the lingo?

A.J: No, especially being a center back, really anywhere on the field but particularly being a center back, such a big part of it is communication, yeah, it doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter what your experience is, you’ve got to go in there and talk the talk and you’ve got to tell guys what to do. You know, I’m out here trying to tell Shalrie which way to go and what not and you know that he has played at such a higher level than I have that one would think, “OK, this isn’t right,” but players like that respect guys who step up and try to do the job properly.

JIM: Literally, it has to be a level playing field, communications-wise, when you are actually playing…

A.J: Exactly, so a guy like Shalrie, or Matt Reis, I’m right in between two great veterans and I’m talking to them, trying to give them my input and they are obviously talking to me and helping me along, because they are great at what they do, so they’ve been a huge help for me.

But, yeah, I can’t back down and not say something, that’s part of the job and you’ve got to have the confidence to do that. I think guys respect guys who come in and try and do the job like that. If you come in and you are soft and you back down, you don’t tell a guy something, then you don’t tell him what he needs to change, (to) fix, then it’s not a respect, you know, so it is definitely a big (part).

JIM: It seems that you are pretty useful with the ball, suppose Stevie came to you tomorrow and said, “OK, we need two up front, we’re going to put you in the middle of a 3-5-2,” how would you like that?

A.J: You’re saying me at the middle as center back or are you saying up front?

JIM: No, no 3-5-2 with you in the middle at the back but then, why not? We’ve got to try something…

AJ: I’ll do anything, I mean I’d play goal if you said play goal…(seriously) I’d be fine with it, it would be an adjustment but I wouldn’t have any problem doing it. But it is up to the coaches, really, I can’t even… when it comes to tactics I have no comment on it, the coaches, when it comes to tactics, they know much more than I do. When it comes down to just attitude and will I do anything? I’ll do anything, I’ll play right wing, or I’ll play left back, or I’ll play goal, it doesn’t matter.

JIM: One of the criticisms of MLS generally is that players tend to speed up with the ball when under pressure, they don’t slow the ball down and one of the qualities that you seem to have is that the ball slows down when it is near you, is that a skill that you have worked on over the years or does it just happen?

A.J: It is a skill that I’ve worked on; I think that you need (it). I was a midfielder my whole career, until I went to college, so that was a big help. I was on the ball all the time with my club teams and you get used to playing with guys all around you so that when you go into (play) the center back (position)… you know I’m only looking at the field from one half, it is all in front of me, so I think I do have the ability to kind of slow it down, pick out a pass, try and find the right guy. But we have (other) guys who can do that too, Ryan Cochrane, he’s so good, I mean…

JIM: Yes, but even when you thump it out of danger, it is like you look at it, you weigh the possibilities and then you hoof it into the back row, where some people just thump it, without considering the options.

A.J: Yeah, you have to pick the best pass because you can connect a pass but if it isn’t the best pass you’re not really helping your team out, so I definitely try to do that. I pride myself on my passing, I used to watch a lot of tapes of guys like Beckham, where they pick not only a connecting pass but the best pass, so that is something I try to do. I definitely could get better at it; I think I have a lot of improving to do, even in that range.

JIM: And do players on the team have certain preferences of the way they want the ball that you are beginning to memorize, that are becoming instinctive, like put it to the right side with him, the left side with the other, roll it with topspin and so forth.

A.J: Yes.

JIM: As the long season grinds on and you have the time to think about the long term, I read somewhere that you are interested perhaps in coaching one day.

A.J: Yeah, I think it is a while away…

JIM: Oh yes, certainly…

A.J: Soccer is such a passion for me and I have such a pride for American soccer, I love our national team, I love all the guys on the team, those are my favorite players in the world. I do look up to the Spains and what not but what I’m really looking up to is guys like Bocanegra, Landon Donovan, you know, so I want to one day coach and try to continue building American soccer, whatever level is be at, I’ve always admired guys who’ve had good college jobs or they step up into the pro jobs, which are even more pressure. So yes, one day I’d definitely like to do that.

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