With The Replacements Being Raw, Will The Wounds Get Worse Before They Heal? Plus An Interview with Darius Barnes.
Posted by tonybiscaia on May 14, 2009
A VIEW FROM THE FORT
By Jim DOW
At the end of what was a disappointing 2008 season Soccer America ranked nine of the eleven Revolution regulars in the top half of the league’s players or higher at their respective positions. After well over 20% of the 2009 campaign could one truthfully evaluate any of the New England starting eleven at anything but the bottom third of the league table, exactly where the current edition of the local MLS club is to be found.
As Bill Parcells said, “you are what you are,’ and his wisdom on that statement permeates the Foxborough Morgue like Jimmy Hoffa ghost rattles about Giants Stadium.
Sure, Shalrie Joseph made the current MLS Weekly Eleven but as a midfielder when he played seventy minutes of the match against the Fire as a forward! Who was watching what? Steve Ralston’s entry into a frenetic match brought calm but no goals while Matt Reis did revert to his former, wondrous self, also qualifying for this week’s all star listing but the current Revolution record and form chart precisely mirror the lack of experience, guile and skill available for Stevie Nicol to call on to play and the local punters to watch.
Yet this is not to say that Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston, Shalrie Joseph, Jeff Larentowicz, Jay Heaps, Chris Albright and Matt Reis can’t regain their top half or better stature, or that Emanuel Osei, Kevin Alston and Darius Barnes won’t meld into a reasonable replacement for Michael Parkhurst. But at the same time, if your best all around player is starting out of position at forward alongside your best playmaking attacker, we are watching the soccer equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, where a fine midfield gets raided to disguise the fact that there are no good forwards at the moment which then ripples through the team with Madoffian malevolence.
Recently MLS Commissioner Don Garber has managed to insult the overbearingly provincial New York Yankees, they who call themselves the world’s most popular sports team, umm, er Man U, Real Madrid, Barcelona or A.C. Milan anyone? To extend the observation of that great philosopher, Sir Charles Barkley who quoted Lazlo’s Relativity Axiom, “One billion Chinese couldn’t care less,” unless, of course, it happens to be Manchester United. The Bronx Bombers, who they? Fairly local stuff when compared to the world’s biggest footy clubs. But, more importantly, the Commish also criticized his own league, “Major” League Soccer by admitting that the teams, read ownerships, need to step up the flair factor and make their matches more attractive to attract an increasingly discerning public here in the United States. In fairness, nobody amongst the league’s founding fathers, least of all the Foxborough Krafts, ever foresaw the enormous expansion in cheap cable coverage of the world’s game which now manages to penetrate every nook and cranny of the globe and costs more or less the same as season tickets to an MLS team. With this in mind, heaven help the New England Revolution, at least at the moment, when compared with much of anything available on TV, from Arsenal of North London to Arsenal de Sarandi in suburban Buenos Aires.
A supposedly telling statistic emerging from the last home match wass that barely 9,000 made it to the Foxborough to see the Revs, while over 8K went to Harvard Stadium to watch the Breakers, admittedly on a much nicer evening but with the endless bounceball playoffs in direct, seventh game competition. The Breakers won, the Revs tanked in totally flat, feckless fashion and while there are any number of reasons as to why a stolid, defensive, dull Houston team could totally outplay the home side, the fact is that any casual fans and most of the faithful were offered little reason to return for 2009, it was that bad. Last week’s draw against Chicago was certainly far better quality but again, the lack of purposeful ball movement compared to the opposition, to say nothing of most what might be seen on ESPN, Fox, Galavision, Gol TV, Telemundo, Telefutura and Univision, well, the best thing to say is there was improvement.
What the Revs have lost in the last few years, among other things, are a player who quite possibly could be thought of as being in the top half of attacking players (if only barely) in the English Premier League. They also lost another attacking player who is allegedly on the shopping list for the two biggest clubs in Scotland, perhaps soon to also be part of the bloated but high quality EPL. And they lost a defensive organizer and stalwart who may be too small for the big big time but is now giving it every shot in Scandinavia. But the greatest loss was the opportunity to win it all when Dempsey, Dorman and Parkhurst, along with others like Pat Noonan, Avery John, Jose Cancela, etc, were all together on the teams of 2004/05/06 and 07 (note: Dempsey left after 2006). We will never know if the failure to come up with just one more top quality squad member would have made it possible for these worthies, plus Heaps, Larentowicz, Joseph, Ralston, Reis and Twellman to hoist a championship cup or two but the suspicion nags that the extra mile was never taken by those in charge and now it is too late and the retooling has begun, in fact it started immediately following that heartbreaking loss to Houston in November, 2007 when Nicol and Mariner set off for Argentina in search of replacements.
At the same time, there is no question that those veterans who remain are, when healthy, excellent players by MLS standards, some of them even qualifying for Commissioner Garber’s attractive to stylish list. But they aren’t all healthy and some may never be again, so we are on to a new era, a different time, with a slightly sulfuric aftertaste born of suspicion and deep, deep disappointment. But now the question is, can there be a place for patience and rebuilding in the success-glutted professional sports environment that is the current state of things in New England? Remember, two years ago the Celtics were on life support and the Bruins officially hardly registering a competitive heartbeat but both teams went from crap to quality almost overnight, thereby joining the wildly successful Pats and Sox in the competition for attention. While the winter teams have far bigger bucks available for attracting new players than the Revs, the important thing is that teams do rebuild effectively and it is often ugly for a good long while as the ducklings get their feet on the ground.
One youngster who hardly fits into the toddler category is the stylish Duke graduate Darius Barnes, he of the long throw and well-timed tackles. While he has been on the field for all the opposition goals against the Revs this term, his efficiency and calmness on the ball give every indication that he will develop into a top player. When Chris Albright is healthy, Kevin Alston back in form, Emmanuel Osei settled and with Amaechi Igwe and Jay Heaps playing well, the back line of New England seems to be in multiple good hands. I spoke with Barnes recently after training.
JIM: You seem to have settled in very quickly, coming from college, starting every game so far and being at ease with the pressure and situation. Are there any secrets to making the jump from the ACC, admittedly the best college conference in the country, to the Revolution?
DARIUS: It is important to transition in naturally and gradually, you don’t want to get acclimated too quickly, to try to force yourself in, to try to do things that you aren’t used to doing or what is going to hurt you in the end. You don’t want to play lax either, you want to bring that same intensity day in and day out and kind of get yourself in there gradually, so you are able to learn and pick up some things from these veterans. That is the biggest part, you can take a little bit from everybody’s game and (when you) put it all together that is going to make a pretty good game.
JIM: Yet you seem to have arrived here at the professional level with your own style, I think it was in the first and even more so in the second match of the season, you were really confident with the ball at your feet in a way that a lot of younger players, particularly under pressure, they look around and kind of go “oooh, s—t, what’s going on?”
DARIUS: I have a lot of confidence in my own ability, I do think that I have a lot of room where I can grow, I feel I haven’t reached my full potential at all, I really don’t think I’m close to reaching my full potential but I’m definitely confident when I’m on the ball, trying to just get better every time out, I mean you aren’t going to get better if you’re not willing to take chances and take risks, so you just have to go out there and play. If you don’t believe in yourself then nobody is going to want to, so I think that is the biggest thing that I was able to go out there and show my teammates that I can actually play. Once I had the confidence in myself then their confidence comes along with it.
JIM: You are playing in a physical league, MLS and you came out of the best college league in the country, hell, the world, the ACC but now you are playing against opponents who are five, six even ten years older than you, they’ve been lifting, pumping, training and playing longer than you have, what is the biggest difference for you, coming from college to the professional ranks?
DARIUS: I just think that the forwards that I am marking now are a lot smarter, in college I was able to push people around and get up on their back but now the guys are so smart that if I go up on somebody’s back they are just going to turn me (around), that’s one thing that Stevie has really stressed with me, just being in that position on the field where I’m able to be physical a little bit, to bump them but not be too close where they can spin me and that is something I’ve really been trying to add to my defensive game over these past couple of weeks is just playing little mind games with the forwards, just letting them know where I’m at but don’t let them be able to feel me and get too close, so I think that is the biggest thing just trying to outsmart the forwards because in college I was able to beat them with my physical ability but now the forwards are so smart that isn’t going to cut it, so you have to bring other aspects to your game.
JIM: When did you set your sights towards being a professional player?
DARIUS: It has always been an aspiration of mine but I don’t think it became a real reality until after my freshman year in college, I’d had a pretty good… year and the coaches were telling me that there was a bit of interest in me, so after that it got me really excited and sparked everybody, so that is when I really started (to prepare) I went to summer school to get my classes out of the way so I could get out early, so it wouldn’t be a burden coming into the draft and everything, so it really kind of struck me that I wanted to do this for a career, so I just kind of took it from there.
JIM: I asked the same question of Kevin Alston and one of the things that so many players who come into MLS from college say is that they get to their fifteenth game, not even halfway done and what are you doing to prepare yourself for the long, long and sometimes very hot push that is ahead of you?
DARIUS: I think that the biggest thing is just trying to be prepared mentally. Physically, you are going to have your days when you get tired but the coaches take good care of us, they know when to give us some time off and they know when to push us a little bit, so IU think just trying to stay in tune mentally would be the biggest part. You just have to find your time on the field, when it is practice time, when it is work time that is when you come to work and off the field just try to find little things to stay relaxed and do things that you enjoy. I think that is the biggest thing…
JIM: Because suddenly there are no classes to go to, no obligations…
DARIUS: Exactly, so I like playing basketball, so I go shoot around, I lift a little bit in the gym, watch TV, just kind of hang out.
JIM: Do the lives of the younger players tend to center on being here at the clubhouse at the stadium and so forth, or do you spend more time with your host families and that kind of thing? Because, again, you are coming to a new area, etc.
DARIUS: At the beginning everything is kind of centered around (the team). I know when we first got here we were in the hotel a little bit, so I wanted to stay around he locker room as much as possible and guys were asking me why I was still in the locker room when I really didn’t want to go back to the hotel but I think that in the beginning it is nice being around this group of guys, you want to be around them as much as you can so you can learn from them and kind of get more comfortable with these guys and with the environment, so I think it is definitely positive and to our advantage that we are able to come in here and just get a feel for the guys, now we are getting accustomed to things and its’ nice that we are able to hang out with some of the players aside from being in the locker room and being on the field so that really helps our chemistry as well.
JIM: When you were growing up and coming along as a player, were there professionals that you looked to as role models to pattern yourself after?
DARIUS: Growing up I watched Eddie pope a lot, I kind of mirrored my game after his a little bit, if I had to compare myself to somebody it would probably be Eddie Pope because he was a kind of tall and lanky center back who played physical but also simple and easy and that is kind of how my game is, I like to bring my physical attributes to the game and also to keep it simple at the back, you don’t try to do too much but you don’t do too little either.
JIM: I have to ask you this, when you were in college and doing the long throw ins, did you do the roll over tumble, or did you always play it straight?
DARIUS: I’ve always done it straight, I mean I really think I started that when I was in high school, the last year in high school I kind of figured out that I could throw the ball and ever since then I’ve tried to make it perfect. I tried to get it on a rope, to really put it on a line, that is what I’ve been trying to work on, that’s what I worked on in college and that is what I worked on here.
JIM: But I’ve always been curious because I’ve never seen a professional player do that tumble and since there are only seventeen Laws of the Game in soccer, I’m certain that one of them isn’t that you can’t do a cartwheel when you execute a long throw in.
DARIUS: Yeah, I’m probably more scared that I’ll hurt myself than anything, with my luck I’d probably slip on the ball or something and that might be the last throw in you’d see from me.
JIM: Did you know before you came to the Revolution what the reputation of Nicol and Mariner as coaches and players in the world game?
DARIUS: Yeah, I learned more… my senior year when I was at Duke, we had a coaching change my senior year and John Kerr came in and he is really good friends with Stevie and Paul so he just told what great guys they were and when I got drafted he told me that I was going to love them and I definitely knew that they were good coaches and they have treated me well here and helped me learn each day coming out, so their reputation from being just top notch soccer players across the world is something that I just want to keep learning from.
JIM: Do you prefer a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 or is there any difference for you?
DARIUS: It doesn’t really matter for me, I’ve always played in a 4-4-2 but when we played F.C. Dallas in a 3-5-2 in the second half I felt comfortable in that too and I feel whatever it takes for us to win, we have to find that formation where we can get back to playing a bit with the ball, whatever formation that is, I’ll be comfortable playing that position.
JIM: It seems that these days you guys have the ball at your feet more than the forwards but that just seems to be a growing pattern with the team.
DARIUS: It is going to take a while for everybody (to be on the same page). The chemistry is still trying to click a little bit and the team is still kind of learning about each other with the different lineups coming in and out because of all the injuries it is going to take longer than it probably would have if we had everybody healthy but it is definitely coming, the team is definitely clicking, I feel we are going to have a good performance this weekend.
JIM: Just don’t get hurt…
DARIUS: Yes, thanks