A View from The Fort: If We Aren’t Arsenal in Disguise, Can We Aspire to Be Burnley?
Posted by Mike Marshall on June 11, 2009
Plus an Inteview with Pat Phelan
By: Jim Dow
Heading into the Super Liga break, a contradiction in terms since the games have proven to be pitched battles, a number of things have been clarified for the New England Revolution. To begin with, if Taylor Twellman isn’t a bargain basement but brittle version of a Designated Player, then who is? Remember, both Luciano Emilio and Guillermo Barros Schellotto earned promotion to that exalted rank held by the likes of Angel, Becks and Blanco after stellar 2008 seasons and no one has been more instrumental in hauling Stevie Nicol’s charges out of their first third torpor and making it possible for the fans to begin to think of a post-season. Of course recent rumors have it that TnT’s recent recovery and return may be sporadic at best, possibly short-lived, maybe even a chimera, thus making the acquisition of a supporting, or even replacement striker absolutely necessary.
And speaking of the fans, where are they? While the Saturday night match of a fortnight ago against D.C. brought out a raucous throng that seemed to be far more than the official count of 15,216, the blowout accompanied by Twellman’s century against the Swamp Things was viewed by only 11,184, taking the season’s average after five matches to some 11,498 souls rattling about the Razor when the Revs take the field, surely a cause for concern for Brian Biello & Co. However, a look at the recent past offers some degree of hope in that the first five home dates in 2008 averaged only 10,289 and the 2007 figure of 16,024 was heavily salted through two doubleheaders with the men’s and women’s national teams. However, with the economy in the crapper and the Breakers and Cannons diverting the multi-kid, middle-class families to Harvard Stadium, it will be interesting to see if the summer and fall will bring the usual larger crowds to see what seems to be an improving team, or at least a far more watchable one than what was on offer in April and May. Of course that watchability presumes the presence of a healthy Twellman up front.
To give a bit of perspective on attendance, if the Revos continue to draw at the current rate of 11,500 fans per match, they would be just short of AS Bari of Serie A (12,002), ahead of Maccabi Tel-Aviv (10,600), Hajduk Split of Croatia (10,167) and Slavia Praha (10,910) and behind Bradford City of the English Championship (12,659) and Emmanuel Osei’s old club, FC Timisoara of Romania (13,347). Of course with a U.S. Nats doubleheader coming up, plus possible Beckham Bounce when L.A. comes to town and a back loaded schedule in late summer and fall matches when crowds are generally larger, the numbers might get up to teams like SK Rapid Wien of Austria (15,650), AIK Sweden (15,535) or FK Metalist 1925 of Karkov in the Ukraine (16,025). And there would be bonuses all round in the ticket sales department if the 2009 figures matched FC Copenhagen (17,676), Rosenberg BK of Norway (18,957), or Real Sociedad of the Spanish second flight (18,094).
While these figures are arbitrary and gathered from differing recent seasons, the fact is that of all the aforementioned cities only greater Vienna (2.25 million) even comes close to metro Boston (5.8 million) in population and none of the clubs have the other big four Yankee sports to compete with, nor stadiums located somewhere well outside the Weiner Gurtel (ring road) and far beyond the range of the U-Bahn (the Vienna “T”). It might be fair to say that with all the local competition for the spectator dollar the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer are currently about 2K below the average attendance for the Russian Premier Division (13,334), might realistically aspire to match the Scottish Premiership (15,301) and would be pleased to attain the norm of the English Coca-Cola Championship (17,518) for 2009. One could further the comparison by looking at the dominant clubs in those leagues, Spartak Moscow (23,666), Glasgow Celtic (57.670) and Derby County (28,768) and then realizing that the Revvies current support more or less matches FK Amkar Perm’ (12,916), Hibs of Edinburgh (12,684) or newly promoted Burnley (12,600). And after that it would be interesting to compare pay packets, sponsorship and television income to see what the traffic actually bears with these different clubs and leagues. My suspicion is that all of them have more ready cash available than the Revolution and are far more willing to splash out whatever they can to strengthen their respective sides.
Hard core Revolution supporters carp about the fact that the team doesn’t bring in a big star or hold onto the ones that they develop but a cursory examination of the comings and goings of players on the teams listed above would certainly reveal similar traffic patterns, both in and out of the squads, it is the nature of all soccer clubs below the very biggest ones. On the one hand, two weeks of Pats pinup hottie Tom Brady’s wages (about $560,500) would likely fetch a handy striker to partner and cover for Revs poster boy Taylor Twellman but what might be the return? Two thousand extra fans per game for the season at $20 per ticket would fetch an additional $600,000, likely enough to pay the new player but would hardly cover a significant transfer fee and, short of Luis Figo, who exactly is going to put an added 2K bums in the stadium seats? Michael Owen? Raul? Even Freddie Ljungberg? No one really, the cold, hard fact of the matter is that the New England professional soccer franchise is structured to operate within its’ means and it likely makes more sense to plunk down any extra dosh for TV coverage, decorative stadium banners and the Rev Girls in the hope of drawing additional customers than paying inflated prices for aging attackers with avaricious agents. In many countries the fans key player’s cars and pelt the owners with spoilt vegetables if the product on the field isn’t pleasing to the eye. The pressure in Foxborough is a fiduciary one, which means that better-known players won’t be coming here until more fans show up making for a kind of Gordian Knot or Catch 22. If Joseph and Twellman’s Celtic and Preston North End dreams have died languishing deaths and they are resigned to playing out their careers here, that is likely a realistic scenario for this team as far as big names go. It may not be acceptable for the serious supporters but it could well be the bottom line. No disrespect to Emmanuel Osei, he seems a terrific addition to the team, but Nicol, Mariner, Burns and Gulati seem more likely to be able to compete for talent with clubs like Hearts of Oak (around 4,500) than Hearts of Midlothian (14,397) and even then should a scout from Edinburgh show up in Accra, he’d be the more likely Scot to attract attention.
With all the shuffling and scrambling in the first third of the season, players like second year midfielder Pat Phelan have held down vital roles on the team and stepped in to play effectively. I spoke with the team’s number two carrot top after training before the Red Bulls match.
JIM: You had been drafted by Toronto and spent the 2008 preseason with them and then were traded to the Revolution after about a month of the regular season, is that correct?
PAT: I got traded about this time last year (the first week of June), in fact it was about exactly this time last year, so it was just a couple of months, I hadn’t played a game (with Toronto).
JIM: And was there any sort of switch in systems or approach for you, having gotten used to John Carver’s way of doing things, and now coming to New England?
PAT: it was actually pretty similar, remember when I came here (Michael) Parkhurst was still here and they played a 3-5-2… and that’s what they tried with five in the midfield when I was at Toronto (but) all the guys in front of me were veterans but I actually played both, almost every system in college, so it really wasn’t difficult, I’d watched the Revolution for the past couple of years, I’m a local kid so I knew the way they played before I even got here, so it was a pretty easy transition for me.
JIM: Is this becoming a team that is more like what you find in Europe or Latin America where there are always a number of local products in the squad? It is pretty interesting because for years and years that wasn’t so here, with a few exceptions like Michael Burns in the early days, Jay Heaps via trade and then Parkhurst came along and now I count four, plus a Brown transplant in Larentowicz.
PAT: I don’t know, I mean there have always been good players in this area… I think it is just luck of the draw ending up here. It’s good you know, it helps growing up and playing in this climate and watching the Revolution and knowing what Stevie and Paul want out of the players and how (they) want the team to play.
JIM: Speaking of that, a few years back I was involved with Juventus, the Worcester based club team and the coach who ran the U-18 boys group used to say that the great handicap for really good local players getting national recognition was the shortness of the outdoor season, that if you wanted to play all year, which certainly players aspiring to college-level and beyond have to do, you had to play and train indoors almost half the time, as of course even the Revolution do for a fair amount of preseason. how did that work out for you?
PAT: It was the same for me; the indoor season was just about as big as the outdoor season, which is a lot different than it is over a lot of the country. When I tell people that I played for Oakwood for a while and we won the national indoor championships for club teams and when I went down to North Carolina to school they’d never even heard of it, you only trained indoors when it was raining. It is a completely different game but it helped me keep sharp and keep fit, so this was how I grew up playing and (the adjustment) is easy for me.
JIM: You went to Wake Forest, what is it in the water there? Certainly the ACC is the strongest college conference in the country, you could even argue that it is about the third division in the United States, after MLS and PL 1 but what is it about the program at Wake in particular that sends so many players to the pros?
PAT: I think it is how the program is run, how (Coach) Jay (……..) brings players through the system… it is a very academically rigorous school, so you have to be a smart person (to go there) which means you have to be a smart player, his whole philosophy is that winning people make winning players, winning players make winning teams, so if you have a bunch of winners, guys that want to succeed, that play to their strengths, that aren’t selfish, (that are) team oriented, they fit in perfectly with his style because, man for man we’re probably not the strongest team in the league but collectively we can be very, very dangerous.
JIM: It’s funny, your description of Wake could sometimes apply to Steve Nicol’s Revolution and at this point in the 2009 season the team has now switched to a 4-4-2 and it looks like with the young guys, Alston and Barnes, plus now Osei that it will be the formation of choice. What does that change for the dynamic in the midfield? Obviously playing four across the park instead of five is quite different but in practical terms for a player like yourself, how does it shake down?
PAT: It makes it more difficult to get a spot, obviously, and that is the first thing but it also means you’ve got to be smart about how you are attacking, you’ve got to get the outside backs involved a lot more, you’ve got to be conscious of when you go forward, you don’t want to leave a big gap because when you have five in the midfield you don’t have to really worry about that. We like to get the ball out wide, Stevie and Paul like that, so it is pretty much coming in the middle and then going out wide as fast as we can, so the attack (in a 4-4-2) just goes through the middle rather than centering on the middle now.
JIM: This team happens to have its’ size in the midfield, with you, Jeff Larentowicz and Shalrie Joseph being big guys by MLS standards. This isn’t a league with a lot of really big, tall people, does that influence the way that you guys play?
PAT: Obviously to some extent, yes, it helps with 50/50 balls and just being aggressive and intimidating, obviously we like to play more than we like to just muscle people around but if we get in those situations it is obviously beneficial to have some size and strength and Jeff and Shalrie are great examples of that.
JIM: Watching the game against D.C. last Saturday when Twellman came in someone observed that his presence made the field twenty yards wider for everyone else in the sense that now there was a target player who could direct balls both back and wide to the midfield and therefore give you all more time on the ball to make decisions. From a player’s perspective what are some of the changes that take place when a player of his quality enters the game, besides just the adrenaline rush of him coming back from injury?
PAT: Before, in the last couple of games we resorted into going into Shalrie, getting it into him and around him and playing off that but Taylor’s not one who is going to run at you, you are going to play it in (to him) and the ball is going to get wide, so you expect that, you know what kind of player he is, he likes to play with his back to goal, it makes it unpredictable for the defense because when the ball comes in (to him) a second later it can be forty yards away and we can be getting in behind, whereas Shalrie can do that at times too but he is more a player who likes to turn and play it forward so it’s a lot more predictable for the defense.
JIM: I was surprised, watching Joseph, not having played forward at this level, at how good his touch was, to me that would be something that would take a while to get used to, were you surprised?
PAT: To some extent (but) not really, he’s always had a great touch, I guess he played forward in college but I don’t think any other team in the league would have thought to put him up top but he’s very strong, he’s very technical and he made a perfect target, so I’m not really surprised at anything he does, he’s one of the best players in the league, if not the best.
JIM: I agree with what you are saying but I was also surprised that when Twellman came back that his touch on the ball and quality of distribution seemed as if he had never been away and that, being so hard to execute under the pressure of a game situation, was really surprising.
PAT: Not to us, so much, he’s kind of been flirting with coming back for a while, he’s been training at least for the last month, if not every day then every other day, so he’s been actively training just not doing any type of collisions or tackling or anything like that, so he’s been sharp for the last couple of weeks. If you are out eight months your first game back obviously there’s some pressure and he handled it great.
JIM: What has been the biggest adjustment for you coming from college into the professional ranks, a lot of people talk about the length of the season, that it just goes on for so much longer than before, in college.
PAT: That’s not really a problem for me, if anything it opens up chances (to play), last year I was fortunate enough to get chances because we had a lot of injuries. The biggest thing for me is the amount of time and space that you have (in MLS), I only played midfield in my senior year, so really I’ve only been playing midfield for a year and a half, two years, so to go from the college level to the professional level is a lot different, I get caught with the ball at my feet a lot and not thinking quickly enough, that has been the biggest adjustment for me, just trying to stay simple, play to my strengths and know what I’m going to do before I get the ball.
JIM: I presume that in college most of the players in MLS were either dominant or at least significantly better than the vast bulk of the opposition so that you could do things, in some cases, almost at will. Is learning to be a professional, at least to a degree, a matter of finding out what you can’t do at this level of play?
PAT: Yes, absolutely, absolutely, that’s a huge thing but it is kind of the same way in college when you step in as a freshman, very few people can dominate as a freshman or even a sophomore, so it is kind of a relearning process all over again, you just have to learn your lessons quickly and not make the same mistakes over and over but you absolutely learn what you can’t do. I’m not going to try a dribble or run by someone and I know that, I’m not going to put myself in that situation which allows me to focus on playing simple and knowing what I’m going to do beforehand and all of that stuff.
JIM: You guys have two more league games and then you play at least three matches in the SuperLiga against Atlas, Kansas City and Santos Laguna. how do approach that, given that this particular season it looks like every single regular season match will be a battle towards making the playoffs, rather than being assured of it as has been the case for the Revolution in the recent past. Now you’ve possibly found a bit of form yet the team will have an almost month long tournament that on the one hand is a diversion from the core task but can produce the most exciting games of the season.
PAT: I think for us we’re not even looking towards (the SuperLiga) until these next two (league) games against New York and Kansas City are over and hopefully we’ll have Badilla and Castro and Albright coming back… last year, at the same time (in the season) we had a bunch of injuries and reserves played a lot of the games, in fact the Open Cup semifinal was a reserve team, so it’s not as important, it’s a bonus, it’s an opportunity to win another trophy which is always nice, it was nice last year and for the younger players like myself the money for winning always helps but the league is always far more important. We’re going to go out there and we are going to play (hard) and we are going to represent the club and the league as well as we can but I think that in the long run our minds are always going to be focused on getting into the playoffs and to the MLS Cup.
JIM: Relative to that, it looks like the season is shaking down that with 20 games left, every single game is going to be important for you.
PAT: Absolutely, Stevie said it best before the D.C. game, it’s not about playing pretty it is about getting results, so you look at teams like L.A. who have the fewest wins (but also) the fewest losses in the league and you realize that they are still in it, they have (around ten points, with nine ties, so at least you have to get ties but we have thrown a lot of games away where we could have gotten something out of it, D.C. away being one of them that I can remember, so every game is always important, you want as big a cushion as you can going into the playoffs, you don’t want to be fighting (for a spot) in the last couple of weeks, putting that much pressure on yourself, you want other teams to be under pressure when they come in here to play you.