A VIEW FROM THE FORT: Fixing The Present, Forecasting The Future, 401K’s, and an Interview With Jay Heaps
Posted by Mike Marshall on February 22, 2009
By Jim Dow
And now the Revs head south, not to hostile crowds and bottled water in places like Cancun but to the heart of the BBQ belt, both in Texas and North Carolina, to train in peace, play some games on grass against tolerable opposition and set the squad for the coming nine month slog across America, hopefully with a couple of new Ecuadorians or Ghanaians in tow, to put some bite in the backline and flash up front.
The next three weeks will tell a lot about the quality and ambition of this club. Messers Mariner and Nicol have indeed shopped for the groceries and they have clearly identified players that they think can help the team on recent scouting trips to various continents but now that the goods are acknowledged it is up to the bean counters upstairs to lock up a couple of deals to go with the promising kids and proven veterans, in point of fact, to prove their worth as representatives of the organization and, by extension, the fans.
And promising a couple of the kids are, particularly the number one draft choice, Kevin Alston. I had a chance to watch him perform on a carpet better suited for the hog wallow that is Patties practice where the Revs concluded their final week of local training. The boy is, as they say in England, a bit special, at least thus far. And when, under pressure, he managed to crack a twenty-five yard curler that would have left the likes of Petr Cech grabbing at air – well if this can continue on grass, against slide tackles, bumps, grinds, kicks and grabs, we just might have ourselves a player in Revland, different than Dempsey, hardly Parkhurst, but maybe, just maybe offensively pure Alston, which could be precisely the spark this new iteration of the local team needs.
While the other potential flash, local boy Michael Videira, was off on another part of the Dana Farber Field house tarmac, too far away to critically observe, I can report that Argenis Fernandez can really turn on a dime and while he did get bumped about like a ping pong ball, it was always after having turned the opposition like a corkscrew and usually after getting off a shot on goal. He’s a player and if he is too small for the hurly burly of MLS, it is our loss as spectators.
As for other possibilities, at this juncture it is hard to tell. “Dado” Hamzagic looks skilled but slow. Igwe and Valentino are still open questions at the back. There are keepers all over the place but will there be an effective backup for Matt Reis? Who knows? Joseph and Ralston are as classy as anything that Becks pines for at Milan, their combined softness of touch and power of passing rivals Pirlo and Seedorf so if the supporting cast is up to it, they may be able to carry the day. Larentowicz looks like he is preserving his gimpy gam on Papa Kraft’s concrete, waiting to exhale on southern grass fields, but the bottom line is that there are some very good young players on this team that can only be helped by the addition of a couple of quality, mid-career professionals, perhaps from Ecuador or Ghana but really, from anywhere. We need them.
After watching the team train I had the opportunity to speak with Jay Heaps, the eloquent and opinionated veteran fullback who offered the following insights on the future of the team and the league.
JIM: I have three sets of questions, dealing with the short term, the medium and the long term, if you don’t mind. In the short term, this weekend, you are headed off to your old stomping grounds in the Research Triangle, with the best barbeque, if you like vinegar. What is the difference for you now going and doing the bulk of the preseason in the States, on familiar territory, playing against U.S. based teams as oppose to the Mexican and Central American tours that you have done in the past?
JAY: It offers a… different aspect, I think, for us, it gets us back to the roots of training. I think that when we are traveling, playing in other countries, we had a lot more games and we weren’t getting the training that we needed and this year we are in a bit if a different scenario in that we have lost some players that were pretty vital to the way that we play, so now we have to get back to training, to building the system that we are going to play this season, so you need to do that (by) playing with each other and in training sessions and not just games.
JIM: So it boils down to less external disturbances and more focus on building, or rebuilding the team?
JIM: And, along those lines, do you sense that everything is up for grabs, that you might be playing a different formation, etc, etc?
JAY: Yes, I think that this preseason, more than the last couple for sure, there is more up for grabs for sure, I think that the way that we ended last year was the first time in awhile that we had gone into a 4-4-2 during the playoffs, so I think that things have to be analyzed. That is what is so amazing about Coach Nicol and Coach Mariner, they’ll fit the right system to our personnel, and they will analyze training and see what system is going to work best, who knows? 4-3-2-1, you know what I mean, there are a thousand different options that you can play but they’ll figure out the best one that fits our group of guys.
JIM: Thinking about that, I was talking to Paul Mariner a couple of weeks ago about the idea that this team, the Revolution, must have a reputation, at least among people who are thinking of playing for them, a reputation for developing U.S bred players. From your point of view, as a veteran, what is the difference looking at the non-U.S. players who come in to play here vs. the college players, what are the different hurdles that they have to deal with?
JAY: I think that usually the U.S. player has a good understanding of a locker room fit, of how to carry themselves and how to integrate themselves into the team away from the game and that helps them with the transition onto the field and I think that is why American-based players have done so well, like Mike Parkhurst, or Clint Dempsey, they can… be coached by veteran players and the guys who have been here a little bit easier than someone who just gets thrown into it, brought in from another country or another culture…
JIM: And ends up at the Holiday Inn Express on Route One, completely lost…
JAY: Right, exactly, it’s certainly a timing issue, look at Sainey (Nyassi) who came on last year and a bit the year before that he was here for half a season and it took him a while to get accustomed and then last year he had a great year. I think there are hurdles for both and there are benefits and ups to both, to having both (types of players) but you can’t have too much of one or too many of another, you have to create the right balance and we lay that in the hands of the coaches.
JIM: As a veteran player who, as with all professional players, has a certain level of responsibility for taking care of yourself physically, what do you do when you know that you are going to start the first three weeks of training on artificial turf with concrete under it?
JAY: (laughing) Well, I think I’m different than most, I guess that’s how I was made and how I am, I don’t even think about it, I just go 100% every day, I can’t think that way, it’s just my makeup, you know what I mean? It’s how I’ve approached (things) all my career, I play every second as if it’s the championship on the line, for someone like me, whose a little bit smaller than everyone, and a little bit of this and a little less than that, (I) have to do (more) to compete with everyone…
JIM: But you do play three or four inches taller than your height, with your jumping ability…
JAY: (again, laughing)… yeah, but I think it is just the way I am, I think that, obviously, you have to be smart and handle your body but once you get into competition there are ways of… I guess there are two ways, I’ll take care of myself in the locker room in terms of treatment and ice baths but once I get out on the field I don’t want to be held back in any way, I want to go 100%, that’s one thing that I try to instill in the younger guys that this time (in training) matters a lot, it does matter because you can create respect not only from the coaches but from the (other) players. I think there have been players here who have come in and haven’t given everything and they have been easily weeded out and then you get players like a Parkhurst or a Dempsey, or like (now) a Kevin Alston coming in…
JIM: yeah, he looks pretty good…
JAY: Exactly, he’s a player who’s listening, he’s watching, he’s learning and he’s the kind of player who, as a veteran, I love going over to him and talking to him about things because he’s absorbing it and he sees the benefit of working hard.
JIM: Jeff Larentowicz once told me that the hardest adjustment that a college player has to make is that the coaches are no longer professors and that the new player has to learn to read the coaches and figure out what is required and, of course, he has to do that with the veterans as well, which leads to the medium term question. Juan Pablo Angel just re-signed with the Red Bulls, the Beckham/Milan circus continues ad nauseum, not even thinking financially if possible, what is your opinion regarding the competitive success of the DP experiment?
JAY: Let’s be honest, I think that if you get the right player, it’s unbelievably beneficial. I think that Angel is the perfect example of the competitive aspect and Beckham as well. Beckham brings the whole package, like you said, you don’t want to bring in the financial (aspect) but he does bring in a lot but he still can play, Beckham, everyone says, “aw, they didn’t even make the playoffs,” but when he’s on the field (L.A.) is a better team, by far and a lot of (responsibility) fell on Donovan and Beckham’s shoulders but both of them had unbelievable years and so there wasn’t much (more) either of them could do, except for the team around them to get better, which it is, believe me, Bruce Arena’s not taking any time to get that team better.
But having said that, I think that for our team, we are on a different kind of tier or plan, because we have built from the bottom up and I think we have a system in place, a style, so if you just went and got a player that didn’t fit in, that would shake everything up and cause more problems than good. However, I think that if you went out and got the right player, someone that fit into our group, fit in to the way we play, it would be amazing. But the problem is, you have to find the right player that does both, we’ve always talked about a player that could fit in here would have to fit the demographic, maybe be a Portuguese player or an Italian player, someone that can draw (fans) and play still, that’s why we are different, we can’t just go get the draw, we have to get someone who can play as well.
JIM: And that leads now to the long term, economic times are somewhat different now, so that for a kid who is coming out of college who maybe two years ago could walk into a job at Goldman Sachs or go to law school, now a minimum MLS contract, plus money for housing and food and a chance to win a job that pays a middle class salary, doesn’t look so bad. I’m thinking of the fact that with soccer growing and growing in this country, in so any ways that the older guys in MLS, who are thinking about careers after playing, it seems like in many ways this is the best training for the next step, whether it is coaching, administration, whatever, but for continuing to work in the game and I would presume that most of the players who retire from the league will want to continue in soccer in some way, is that a fair assumption?
JAY: Yes, it is a very fair one, I think you see it now anyway, you see a lot of guys who just recently (went) to a coaching license (program) for players that are currently in the league, as well as some former players and it was out in California to kind of help players get (started) in the coaching aspect… There are so many opportunities now for the former player, Mike Burns as a general manager and player director, Chris Henderson, you see these jobs that are being created and smart former players are the perfect fit for that. I think you are right, I think that this game, obviously it’s an economic downturn that we are in right now but, having said that, you can see that the price tag for an MLS team has not gone down and from sponsorship deals that you are reading about, I think that this league is strong, probably stronger because, as you said, probably for a while there was ten guys on the team making $15,000, so there’s money somewhere and it is a matter of continuing to build and then growing the league from within, because as you said, there are going to be jobs on the field for the young players coming up and as they add teams, there will be more and more positions within the game for former players.
JIM: The final question, does the Player’s Association or the league have a retirement fund for players?
JAY: Absolutely not. We have a 401K that was part of the last collective bargaining agreement, which took, what, seven or eight years to get. The hardest part about the 401K was that we didn’t get one as players until year seven or eight (of MLS) yet employees of Major League Soccer had 401K’s since the beginning, the inception, so there’s obviously a majority of players playing now who’ve got eight or nine years less on their 401K than the average office worker who has worked at Major League Soccer, so I think that is something that has to be looked at in the next collective bargaining agreement because those are things that can be done the right way.;. Where the league and the union can put money aside and can grow a retirement fund and when it hits a certain level, it starts paying out but not until then… over an extended period of time. So there are a million things that we need to look at, and we are looking at as a union to better the situation for players because what’s great as players is to listen to the comments and read, and I’m a kind of student of reading what the Commissioner says and what the Deputy Commissioner, Ivan (Gazadis) used to say and it is interesting that they are very excited about where soccer is and if they are very excited there has to be a reason for it. If they can demand 30 or 40 million dollars for a team obviously, we’ve all done something right, MLS owners, MLS employees and MLS players. So everyone should be taken care of accordingly as this thing continues to grow.
JIM: well, as I’ve said before, I’d hate to sit opposite you at the negotiating table but it will be great when you sit down there, thank you…