From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Are We Arsenal In Disguise? Plus an Interview With Kevin Alston

Posted by tonybiscaia on April 8, 2009


Saturday’s exertions against the hapless Dallas back five gave the circumstantially youthful Revolution a third straight weekend with points taken but only after the introduction of perhaps the best true footballer to ever don Kraft, Inc. colors, Steve Ralston, who introduced guile, order and skill to a match that previously featured bluster, energy and a complete lack of tactical nous.

Far more important than the somewhat fortunate W was the hopefully prescient view of what might be, come the return of a healthy Badilla, Castro, Ralston, Reis and Twellman, suiting up alongside an improving Mansally, Nyassi and Thompson, an already rampant Joseph and Larentowicz, a fast track developing Alston, Barnes and Knighton, plus two new African signings and the wise heads Albright and Heaps and, well, you just might be looking at a new and exciting version of a now traditionally successful team.

It bears mentioning that Revolution supporters have gotten used to a certain economy of play, developed over the middle part of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The hallmark of those sides, from 2004 through 2007, was one touch passing, the occasional flash of brilliance, resourceful strategy based on experience and keeping the whole enterprise on the deck whenever possible. This new iteration is much faster, a bit more mistake-prone, but quite possibly far more exciting to watch develop. Time will tell but based on what has been demonstrated thus far, with barely half a squad dressed and playing, summer and fall 2009 could be some fun in Foxborough.

Back in the days when Paul Mariner and Steve Nicol were plying their trade in front of the urine-soaked terraces of the old English First Division the worst possible insulting chant that could be invoked on any hapless team was to sing the question, “are you Arsenal in disguise?” invoking images of terminally boring efficiency coupled with perpetually airborne balls flying to nowhere. This legacy of unwatchable mediocrity continued right up through the successful George Graham years and was only redirected by the ascension of “The Professor,” the Frenchman Arsene Wenger to the helm and his subsequent decade-plus of flowing, even poetic football brought on through a seemingly endless supply of Dutch, French, Spanish and, most importantly, African talent who replaced the honest but gormless British cloggers who were efficient but indistinguishable, Paul Mariner and a few others excepted.

So now, twenty-plus years along, two old-school Brit/Scots are presiding over a team, 20% of whom are about to be young guys from that hotbed breeding ground of soccer greats, the East African coastal countries, mixed in with Hondurans, Ticos, Californians, mid-Americans and Duke graduates, just to name a few. Remember, when Stevie Nicol played for Liverpool, Scottish players counted as foreigners, along with Welshman, Northern Irelanders and anyone else who wasn’t 100% Brit and if the rules were changed around that time, it took players of the quality of Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera to break down long standing, old-fashioned prejudices against garlic eating “continentals” and feckless foreigners playing the national game in the mother country.

If you tot up the frequent flier miles that the Revolution coaches have accumulated from multiple trips to Africa, Central America and Argentina one could easily have multiple first class upgrades to anywhere to say nothing of a surfeit of cramped coach seats, dodgy meals and crumby beds mixed in with aggressive agents, badly edited DVD’s and patchy training matches. And, despite Argenis Fernandez now summarily on the road back to Costa Rica and the jury still out on Gabriel Badilla, Mauricio Castro, Kenny Mansally, Sainey Nyassi, to say nothing of Stephane Assengue and Emmanuel Osei, it is impossible to fault the effort of the brain trust and not to hope for the best of results.

While much of the transition has been forced upon the coaches by the team (and league’s) inability to hold onto some ambitious players (Dempsey, Dorman, Noonan, Parkhurst) while alienating others (Joseph and Twellman) the evolution is a natural one and the Revs response has been, at worst, creative, even innovative, to the point where, if the searches prove successful. the Fort might bust out a chorus of “are we Arsenal in disguise?” from a celebratory, Wenger-era, global game point of view, far, far from the pre-Premiership insults of yore.

When I brought all this up to Coach Nicol his response, loosely translated from the Scots, was “eyahh, they’re all footballers, it’s that simple; brown, green, black or white, it’s all the same ta mee!” And when I mentioned that Cameroonians, Gambians. Ghanaians and Zimbabweans might prove as different stylistically as Costa Ricans, Californians and Grenadians the response was identical, “they are all top-class footballers and a delight to work with, that’s the end of story.” Which, I suspect, is the same answer you might expect from a slightly tweedy, extremely lanky and professorial Frenchman, late of Strasbourg, Monaco, Nagoya now a long-term resident of the red republic of Islington, North London.

In a recent profile on the exuberant personalities of Coaches Paul Mariner and Steve Nicol, Monique Walker mentioned their impressive track record at soccer horseshoes. While I have witnessed these high quality displays of gamesmanship and skill I can also vouch that the Scots half of the duo is something of a duffer at soccer golf, at least when he tees off left footed from atop a pile of surplus shaved ice from the training drinks cooler. While his opponent, Chris Albright, struck a lovely tee shot that floated high over the training ground fencing and hit the stadium press gate with both draw and back spin, the gaffer managed an awkward bloot that ended up stymied by a combination of chain link and canvas to the point where he had to chip back to the high ground, thus losing at least two strokes. Since the “hole” went all the way to the dressing room deep in the bowels of the Morgue, it is impossible to tell what eventual scores were totted up but to Nicol’s credit, he did not invoke the bosses’ mulligan, unlike managers across the world from Caesar Luis Menotti to Jose “Especial” Mourinho, who cannot stand to lose to their players on any terms at any time.

One of the revelations of the current campaign has been the play of rookie fullback Kevin Alston. The number one draft pick, an early school-leaver from Indiana, the D.C. native has proven to be a quick study, excelling in his first two matches before being laid low by a hamstring injury. The word along the touchline is that Alston is gifted, confident, patient and a very, very good listener who pays attention to his peers and elders and seems to seize every opportunity and piece of information offered to him. He already has the respect of his teammates and the coaching staff and appears to have a bright future despite its’ being the earliest of early days in his rookie campaign.

I had the chance to speak with him after a long training session in which he was the last to leave the pitch despite the cold, crummy conditions. He had been working on the distribution of his clearances with coach Paul Mariner and they had an intricate setup involving dummy runs and off the ball movement patterns involving five or six players, a complex drill that reminded me of a tough graduate seminar. Alston’s enthusiasm is infectious and he has an easy smile and disarming, ready laugh and makes continual eye contact with coaches, teammates and interviewers alike.

JIM: You are part of a generation that grew up being able to watch high quality football on television and in person here in the United States. I don’t know if you have ever heard of a former Revolution player named Darren Sawatsky, but he was with the team in the first couple of years and he was a super fast, not very skilled winger and he was told that he should try to watch Andre Kanchelskis, who was a great winger with Manchester United at the time. His response supposedly was, “Andre who?” For the young players coming along like yourself, it seems to be a whole different situation. So when you were establishing yourself and thinking about playing football seriously, who were some of the players you were interested in?

KEVIN: When you say establishing myself, around what age do you mean?

JIM: Let’s say as a young teenager, playing your first serious club soccer…

KEVIN: I’m a D.C. boy so you know coming up around that age we had season tickets to D.C. United so we’d go to RFK…and a lot of those players were inspirations, like Jaime Moreno, even Jeff Agoos back then, even Roy Lassiter, Ben Olson and all those players. And then Freddy, Freddy Adu is from my area, I actually played club soccer with him, so when he went down to Florida (at the Bradenton Academy) I kind of monitored him and saw what he was doing and liked the directions he was taking and eventually I made it down there and I kind of tried to follow along the same path and learning curve as far as just progressing every day. I knew that Florida had a lot to offer, so I just went down there with a positive attitude and just tried to do everything that I could to excel and just get better.

JIM: So players of your generation here in the States get to have models that say, ten years ago, kids didn’t in the sense that there are now established American professionals playing here in MLS, as well as in Europe but what about beyond the U.S, players?

KEVIN: A big player to me is Kaka, because I remember seeing him when he first went over to A.C. Milan and he didn’t start right away but I watched one game and he scored two goals and I was, like, this guy is amazing and I’ve watched him from then on, he’s been my favorite player ever since I can remember, watching A.C. Milan and he still is my favorite player, I just like what he does, (he) was the biggest player that I’ve followed a lot.

JIM: Now if you were are real cable soccer junkie, the two guys that you marked in the first two Revolution games, Darren Huckerby and Juan Pablo Angel, could have been people that you watched back in the day…

KEVIN: (laughing)…

JIM: How was that?

KEVIN: It was fun. I mean that is what I like, it is one of the reasons that I play soccer, I just like challenges, I like competing and going up against players like that, you know, it’s kind of like a dream, it’s an opportunity but I don’t want to get embarrassed, so I have to do what I can to prevent that.

JIM: I noticed a time in the Red Bulls game where, well let’s put it this way, you delicately sent Mr. Angel into the advertising boards and he looked up at you and I know that off the pitch he is a real gentleman, I don’t know about on the field but he looked up and you looked down and you both sort of went, “hmmmnnnn” and to me, as an observer, that was an interesting moment because it seemed that you were kind of breaking the plane as a young player saying to an obviously really accomplished and experienced player, “O.K. I’m here.” Was that the case?

Not that you intentionally dumped him into the boards but…

KEVIN: I feel that it was like just one of those things that happens, and it just so happened that it was me and him falling but it could have been me, it could have gone both ways. I have a lot of respect for the man, so after it happened I made sure (he was OK), I didn’t intend anything, it just kind of happened, so I spoke with him, everything was cool, and we kept going. So, it was just one of those things in the flow of the game but it was exciting, I felt we were on the same page and communicating.

JIM: When Clint Dempsey first came here there was a similar moment, a bit later in the year, in an early season friendly against Sporting Lisbon and Dempsey went out to clearly make his mark and there was a similar moment when these big time Portuguese players, who had no idea who this guy was, looked at him and he looked at them and there was this sort of tacit acknowledgement, “well, OK, you are in now, you are in the club.”

My other question is that it is a long, long season, are you already thinking about strategies as to how you would take care of yourself over the coming months. Is it something that you plan on and are other people talking to you about it?

KEVIN: I think that I have been thinking about it for a while, even through my high school years because I didn’t go to (a regular high school), I went to the (Bradenton Academy) program down in Florida and it is kind of like as young kids we were pointing to that professional aspect, it is on a semester bases, so if you don’t make it that semester you get cut and go home, so I was (always) thinking longevity and, as you know, progress is a slow process and I was (always) just trying to take care of my body and do all the right things, if you are sore, get in the pool and do a little workout, get in the training room and do your treatment, get the foam roll and the massage, do all that, stretching is important. I think (that) now, even more than ever I’m trying to focus on that more, I’m trying to get all my habits down, not just treatment for my body but (things like) sleeping right, eating well, I think it is something that I’ve been doing for a long time but I’m focusing on it now a lot more.

JIM: Michael Parkhurst said that when he first turned pro that suddenly there was no school, no classes, no structure and he trained two, maybe three hours a day and then there is all this time to yourself, what is that like for you?

KEVIN: It is definitely a change, it is almost like there is a lot of freedom, too much freedom at times, I feel like there is something that I need to be doing but there isn’t (any structure), so I kind of try to stay busy, I try to interact with people that I’m meeting, the host family that I’m staying with, they have a son and I try and talk to him, get in with his friends and find things to do to keep me busy.

JIM: when you were drafted by the Revolution did you know the reputations of Paul Mariner and Steve Nicol, both as coaches here in the States in MLS but also as former players at the highest levels in Europe?

KEVIN: I didn’t, I just knew the reputation of the Revolution, I just knew that they had a tradition of success, it seemed like every year I was watching them they… usually made the playoffs and they usually did pretty well and they were pretty good in the Eastern Conference standings. I remember watching Taylor Twellman for a while and it seemed like he was scoring goals all the time. One thing I remember, it’s kind of random but I remember he always had the hand taped; it was one of those things that always stuck out in my mind every time I watched the Revolution.


3 Responses to “Are We Arsenal In Disguise? Plus an Interview With Kevin Alston”

  1. mike said

    Good stuff. verry impressed by the rookies so far, all the so called experts are underestimating us this year so its nice to get off to a good start.

  2. Paul said

    Who is Jim Dow? This is absolutely the best Revolution commentary I have ever seen. I hope to see more throughout the season. This is the perfect antidote to those fox soccer and articles written by people who know next to nothing about this team and how it relates to the larger soccer landscape. I’ve been a latent revs fan for years, and it’s really encouraging to see stuff like this.

  3. Chris said

    I agree with Paul. I enjoy reading Jim’s articles on the Revs and other soccer related topics, but he writes so infrequently. Does anyone know where else he blogs or publishes?

    I’d also like to hear Jim more frequently on “In the Net” with Brad Feldman.

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