From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Of Passengers, Stadiums and Goalkeepers, plus an Interview with Gwynne Williams

Posted by tonybiscaia on April 25, 2009


Back in the day, actually around 1965, when Paul Mariner and Stevie Nicol were wee lads kicking banged up footballs against brick walls in Bolton and Troon back alleys, the English league began to permit the use of substitutes. Prior to that an injured player was either carried off or simply carried on, usually by getting out of the way and gimping gamely up and down one wing or another insofar as their wounds permitted.

This hapless soul was referred to as a “passenger,” carried through to the conclusion of the match by the ten other fellows on his side. Last Friday night, the redoubtable Jaime Moreno was reduced to being just such a person along for the ride when a combination of injury and terrible substitution decisions by his coach, Tom Soehn, meant that the classy Bolivian had to spend much of the second half alternately stretching, gimping, jogging and grimacing until the moment when he languorously lined up a free kick in extra time and delivered a precise ball to the far post where a back header to the gizzie sent the Revs defenders into last minute meltdown, proving that a quality passenger, no matter how debilitated, can move from coach to premium class in the twinkle of an eye.

Of course the hard truth that the Revolution brain trust have to face is that the real passengers on the R.F.K. pitch that evening were the Revolution forwards and wingers who, booked perpetually into chicken class, spent ninety-plus minutes huffing, puffing and losing the ball at every opportunity and managing to scupper the best efforts of such veteran, high class foragers and providers as Joseph, Larentowicz and Ralston. While there were occasional flashes of ball-playing interchange, including a gorgeous sequence between Ralston and Thompson that led to Shalrie’s goal, most every pass given to Dube, Mansally, Nyassi and the same Thompson ended up being wasted, with even a simple possession maintenance manuver often proving beyond their collective ken. While the situation may improve with the return of Mauricio Castro and Taylor Twellman, the arrival of Osei, and the maturing of the aforementioned young’ns through the heat of battle, the unfortunate fact is that New England might have stolen two more points from D.C. had any one of the recently departed former front or flank players such as Cancela, Dempsey, Dorman or Noonan been in the line-up. All four of these individuals knew how to hold the ball, give a pass and/or take a foul and could provide a foil to the artistry of Ralston, the accurate distribution of Joseph and the ball winning of Larentowicz which allowed the tempo of the Revolution attack a degree of unpredictability that is generally absent from the current side.

The scary thing is that at the moment there isn’t much prospect of any better use of the ball on the horizon. Although Mauricio Castro has good skill and vision he has yet to prove that he can ride or take a foul in MLS. Kehli Dube gave signs of being a good partner for Twellman for one half last season before the Energizer Bunny bounced off injured yet again (and this prior to his current, very serious trauma). As a forward Kenny Mansally is an excellent outside midfielder. Michael Videra, late of Hamilton Academicals has yet to be tested and the same goes for the new Cameroonian, Assengue. To be fair, all of this could become academic come autumn but at the moment tales of Dempsey’s heroics at Fulham, Dorman’s “miracle strikes” for the Buddies, Pepe’s presence in the pampas for Atletico Fenix Montevideo, or even Noonan’s benchsit with Columbus give pause to the paucity of reliable control that the Revs possess at the perimeter. And, just to get the boot in, everyone save Dempsey would have willingly stayed on in New England. Oh, and then there is this Schelloto fellow… But regardless, after the injuries heal and the weather warms, profligacy with the ball will prove to be the season breaker, unless there is clear improvement at the periphery.

Now that the MLS 2009 season is truly joined it is patently obvious that the clubs that will do best attendance-wise in the current depression are those with some sort of urban relevance, as opposed to being sequestered in a far suburb, accessible only by long, gas guzzling drives. Sound familiar? While Toronto’s string of sellouts may founder slightly, any shrinkage there seems more due to the incompetence of the coaches in finding and signing top quality players. Seattle, on the other hand, is going great guns and even D.C. with all the threats of moving, etc, still profits from being on a major subway line. The sad sack Red Bulls will get a huge boost next year from their new Ironbound digs in, of all places, Newark!

The latest tweets from Somerville seem to indicate a decreasing likelihood of an urban soccer stadium to accompany the new MBTA structure behind Brickbottom. At the same time, this doesn’t give the impression of being a totally closed deal and could be jump started by an enthusiastic push by those involved, i.e. Kraft Sports. However, at the moment, no one really knows what the benefits of being in the city might actually be. We all surmise that ease of access, less terminally corporate surroundings; increased edginess (think Davis Square hipster/punk, not Millwall death-wish) would all conflate to bring in bigger, noisier, more atmospheric crowds, but is this really the case? To test the theory and in the spirit of Harvard being a place that emphasizes and supports research, I propose staging a couple of games at Harvard Stadium, where the Breakers currently play in order to test the possibilities of having a presence in an urban setting. The logical time would be during the Superliga tournament, when the serious soccer fan who may not be able to make it to Foxboro, might be persuaded to come out for the likes of Atlante, Pachuca or Santos and, of course, the Revs. Not to say that metro Boston has many Mexicans and, of course, most Central American fans loathe the big teams from the north but they might well turn out to support the Revolution in their battle with the glitterati from La Primera and that would only add to the volatility of the mix of college students, Fort faithful, curiosity seekers and football fans that could possibly turn up on a summer night in Alston.

Just for giggles, I paced the width of the Harvard Stadium pitch, since I couldn’t find the information anywhere. Taking 34 inches to my stride, I calculated the distance from touchline to touchline as being about 72 yards, exactly the same as at the Morgue. Supposedly, the Harvard Stadium field turf is of the same quality as at Gillette, although the markings in Cambridge make the Patties bad graphics look good. But that isn’t enough of a reason to scupper what could be a revelatory test flight of the possibility of a proper football team playing in a real city, supported by folks who hop on the Red Line and knock a few back at the local before entering the ground. Certainly, given that the Krafts funded some studies of the Somerville situation a trial run in Cambridge, er Allston, could only help figure out if the whole thing might fly.

One of the revelations of the short season thus far has been the play of young Brad Knighton, thrust into the starting lineup due to the knee miseries of the incumbent, Matt Reis. While there have been a couple of scary moments, mostly the result of indecision, the new guy has slotted in along with the evolving, sometimes patchwork backline. He has seen a lot of shots but remained unrattled, playing above his experience and offering considerable hope for the future, should the marvelous shot stopper/comedian from California not to be able to make his comeback against Real Salt Lake, as advertised.

I spoke to Revolution goalkeeper coach, Gwynne Williams about the issues that surround such sudden switches in a position that demands confidence, both self and from teammates after training a week ago. As we began talking I noticed that he had a spanking fresh pair of keeper’s gloves on.

JIM: I see that you have the gloves on, are they putting you between the sticks in training?

GWYNNE: No, no, my days between the sticks were long ago, really I’ve just been keeping my hands warm!

JIM: How does the production line of goalkeepers work here in New England? I’d be interested in your views specifically in relation to the team but also generally in this country. Brad Knighton has had a great start (note: this interview was before the D.C. match), what are some of the things that you need to tell a young keeper who is suddenly thrust into the sturm und drang of first team football/

GWYNNE: Well, you work with the lad every day, this is his third year with the team and right from the beginning I’ve believed that he has got the potential and the presence to step up and play in this league. He was raw when he first came to us and he’s worked hard every day, waiting for a chance and, to be honest, his chance came much earlier than even he thought and I’m very proud of him, he’s done very well, he’s keeping his feet on the ground and just making sure… Two games (note: now three) doesn’t make a career and he’s learned from Matt Reis, (he) has been a great role model for him and the one thing that we do well in this country is produce goalkeepers and (so) I think it is part and parcel of a lot of factors… I think in Brad’s case, here (with the Revolution) it’s just the daily grind in the job, working every day just on fundamentals and getting stronger and stronger and better and better.

JIM: Relative to that, when you watch him, while he does have hair and he is skinnier but he seems to have the moves of Reis. Is it a question of training “in the manner of” Matt Reis, or are both New England keepers trained in the “Williams style?”

GWYNNE: No, no, they are (both) their own style, I’ve always encouraged all goalkeepers, not only these two, to take a bit from everybody who’s coached you and take what works for you, so any similarities are just by coincidence, they are their own people. Matt’s a great role model for Brad and I think that all in all he (Brad) still has several things to work on and improve on but we are doing it just one step at a time and he will play on Friday against D.C. and we hope that he has a good game and that things go well for him and we are just building on that, each performance now is just a stepping stone for him in building up and getting confidence.

JIM: In football a hot keeper is as important as, say, in ice hockey but you have a week or so between games, where hockey plays every couple of days, how do you keep the edge and sharpne3ss going?

GWYNNE: I think that after the Dallas performance, in terms of Brad’s position, it was a shame that we didn’t have (another) game (right away) because he’s so motivated and wants to play, so we’ve had now almost a two-week gap (the bye week between Dallas and D.C.) so he’s just itching to play. He’s sort of been bitten by the bug and is enjoying it and wants to keep going, so it is one of those things, you just keep your mind set on the next game and you adjust your training and you hope that you peak on Friday night, or whatever night (the game is on).

JIM: It seems to me that in the training you guys conduct with the Revs, the keepers see a lot of shots during a session, is that enough to keep a person sharp?

GWYNNE: Yes, we work a lot on shot stopping, it’s a fundamental of the game but we (also) do work on the tactical and technical side of the game as well. Just getting back to your last question about the goalkeepers, they are just as important as the strikers, they win games on their own, they get points for the team, so two saves from your keeper is the difference between going one-nil up and losing 2-1.

JIM: One of the things I notice with Knighton is that for a young guy he certainly tries to take command of the box, again, is that something that you can teach or is that instinct, etc?

GWYNNE: Well, it is certainly something that we work on and it is all part of that presence that he has and you can see that the senior professionals have great respect for him, he’s really one of the boys in the locker room and they’ve accepted him and they knew that when the time came, if Matt went down injured that they would have every confidence in Brad stepping in and he has proven that.

JIM: And, along those lines, the back three or four that he is playing with is, at this point a rotating crew and the guys in the middle are often kids.

GWYNNE: Yes, we’ve got a lot of injuries at the moment, our young players have done very well and I think that one thing Steve Nicol has always done is that he has always had the faith in letting kids play, he’s rewarded players when the opportunity has come around and they have repaid it, so we’ve got a good balance between youth and experience and there’s not a lot wrong with that.

JIM: Along those lines, do you think that there is going to be some sort of reward down the road, when everybody, or at least most everybody is back in one piece?

GWYNNE: That’s what you hope for, right now there’s fifteen teams that still believe that they can win the MLS Cup, so all the stars have got to be aligned but that is our goal and we just hope that all the pieces come together as we get players fit and healthy again and they come back in that we can actually just push on with it and get better and better as the season goes on.

JIM: This is more of a perspective question, when I started following football in the early 1980’s in England watching the likes of Ray Clemence, Pat Jennings, Phil Parkes and Peter Shilton, they were great players but they weren’t asked to do what keepers have to do now on the field, with their feet, etc. What do you reckon is the great change, Reis, of course, is the prototype of the “sweeper/keeper” but the whole game has changed so dramatically since that time?

GWYNNE: Well the game is certainly much quicker, much more athletic and in the olden days goalkeepers were just shot stoppers and played a lot of the game just inside the six yard box and today the goal keepers are much more complete player, they changed the rules where they had to use their feet and really made the goalkeeper become a complete player, so they are now very much the sweeper behind the defense, they are the springboard for attack as well.

JIM: In a sense do you think these changes threw a group of people out of work who used to be the guys who couldn’t play in the field and chose to get in goal and now some of the best footballers are keepers.

GWYNNE: That’s true and I thin that the importance of the goalkeeper role was overlooked for many years and now teams realize that if you are going to win something you need a good goalkeeper, fortunately we’ve got two good goalkeepers here who are competing for the one spot, so we’ll keep them going and as soon as Matt Reis is back and healthy it will be great for our team, so that will be an interesting time when Matt’s 100% and Brad’s 100%and they are both pushing for it and we’ll be a better team for it.

JIM: In your view, growing up and coming from the U.K. and as someone who has seen the game all over the world, is there a style of U.S. keeper or is it pretty broad?

GWYNNE: I don’t think that there is any particular style… most of the keepers in our league tend to be more of a European-style (keeper) as opposed to a South American (style), I think each goalkeeper just develops his own style, you could argue that ours look more European in the way that they play but I don’t even think about that, I just want them to be their own person and just go from there.

3 Responses to “Of Passengers, Stadiums and Goalkeepers, plus an Interview with Gwynne Williams”

  1. Love the idea of SuperLiga at Harvard Stadium. Can’t really think of good reasons why it shouldn’t happen.

  2. jeb said

    Great article, and hosting the superliga somewhere a little more accessible is a gem of an idea!

  3. Jim said

    If they can remove the gridirons, I say go for it. However, it really it’s that accessible from the T. You need to walk quite a bit or take a bus connection.

    Another time they could play there is when the Revs have to play USOC play-in games next year.

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