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From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Could A Departure De-Briefing Lead To A Fruitful Future? Plus An Interview With Mark Watson

Posted by tonybiscaia on October 31, 2009

A VIEW FROM THE FORT

By Jim Dow

This past Sunday the world of world football was chock full of classicos and derbies (River-Boca, America-Guadalajara, Liverpool-ManU and Arsenal-West Ham, just to name what was on TV locally), the self-proclaimed globally meaningful NFL Patriots and Bucs were wallowing at Wembley and the New England Revolution faced off in a do-or-die match to determine their playoff fate that culminated in a gutsy, grafting, hard won 1-0 victory that propelled them forward, albeit limping as has generally been the case in 2009. All this after a Saturday series of events that defied every bit of received wisdom as to both quality and odds.

No one but a truly grouchy grinch could wish for anything but success for Steve Nicol’s plucky band of brothers against the terminally evil Chicago Fire in the forthcoming two-legged face-off and beat down but it shouldn’t mask the fact that an era is passing, signified by the seemingly sudden departure of Steve Nicol’s sidekick Paul Mariner but really brought about by a far broader team transition fueled by age, injury and lack of offensively adept acquisitions that must be addressed in the forthcoming off-season for the club, oops franchise, to flourish in the immediate future.

Finishing only a few points out of first place shouldn’t mask the disappointment of underachievement in a presently watered-down league full of clubs that share such demarcations (underachievers and watered-down). Had the full roster been available the 2009 Revolution might well have taken the Supporter’s Shield but that doesn’t hide that there were major miscalculations made in advance of the just completed campaign. If they were driven by honest mistakes, that is one thing but if they were a result of management/ownership-forced bottom-line concerns that is another matter and supporters, coaches and players should all feel hard done by should such prove to be the case.

In his last pronouncements while wearing Revo red and blue and only hours before jetting off to don Argyle black and green departing Assistant Coach Paul Mariner conducted an “exit interview” with assorted Kraft FC honchos; a debriefing, info-sharing exercise that may, or may not have been revealing and, over time, might even prove to be helpful. However, other than to say “I told them that we need to win MLS Cup,” no one is talking about what actually transpired, at least thus far but I couldn’t help fantasizing what might have taken place when I heard an NPR program on what the British Foreign Office called “valedictory dispatches,” which prior to 2007 were the final official communication sent to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, MI5 (security), Buckingham Palace, i.e. the royal family, the Bank of England and, of course, the FO itself by a British ambassador as he or she stepped down. Please note it is only circumstantial that a Brit was asked to talk about his experiences toiling in the colonies.

In these communiquÈs the exiting ambassador often put forward his or her true feelings about the people, place and situation to which they had been posted, and the responses were sometimes in less than flattering terms. Given that Coach Mariner is a person who has proven to be demonstrably honest, thoughtful and quite open regarding both accomplishments and failings, I certainly hope that his parting observations were offered in the same manner and, in fact, I’m confident that such was the case.

But what might he have said that would be useful? By his own admission it was clear that during the team’s supposed salad days from 2004 through 2007, that there was never a complete complement of cash made available to push those rosters over the hump to better the odds of winning the Cup. An addition of a top-level player to buttress the classy but overworked core would have almost certainly led to at least one MLS trophy if not two and maybe even three. The 2002 final doesn’t really count since that team was held together by gaffer tape (yes, I mean Nicol’s ability as a coach) and stumbled into the playoffs in a manner similar to the current squad. But during those subsequent successful seasons the selfsame coaches had little depth to work with and were forced to play their starters far too often, thereby bringing exhausted teams to the 05 and 06 Finals and having no additional offensive threat to force the issue when push came to shove late in the 07 match against the Dynamo. In all three cases the margin between winning and losing was paper thin but one could argue that in each and every case the differences could have been addressed by spending perhaps an extra $250K, money that appeared to be in the account, just waiting and wanting under the cap.

The question will always linger about the ambition of an organization that knew that the coaches had to send out tired troops as the season(s) wore on. At the same time, repeatedly, the same coaches, with the season over and now serving as scouts, came back from foreign tours with serious shopping lists, which included some high quality talent. Again, no one is talking as to who wasn’t signed but we do know that there were some very good players suggested by the staff who were not.

Then there is the matter of the playing surface, good for gorilla ball but increasingly bad for soccer, as well as for soccer players. On Sunday’s ESPN broadcast it was mentioned that golden greybeard Guillermo Barros-Schelloto had played in only twenty minutes on fake turf in 2009 and this was offered as a reason for his relative good health in a physical, demanding, hot weather league with lots of long travel. By way of helpful context, in Argentina Guille was known as a physical player, here he is clearly an individual who survives amongst the behemoths through experience and guile. Certainly when the Gillette Field Turf was installed it was quite an improvement over the construction site class of mud bowl that it replaced but with each passing season it has become more and more matted and skeletal, particularly in the midfield and now resembles a 70’s motel carpet that offers as shoddy a game as would traditionally be on offer in such cheap Rte 1 establishments. Truthfully, if you hire folks to design and outfit a posh new stadium from scratch and they can’t get grass to grow, well maybe you, the folks who hired the folks who designed the place and are failures at horticulture are, well, incompetent at least at things that negatively affect their proper football team.

Finally there is the matter of playing style, which to some extent gets back to the quality of the groceries but also to the philosophy of the coaches. Jose Morinho, the flamboyant, designer Portuguese with an unlimited budget had his West London millionaires playing some of the dourest football imaginable while cutting a wide swath through the Premiership. Now Carlo Ancellotti, a podgy lifer from the terminally cynical world of Serie A cattenaccio, has switched the Blues to an up market version of jogo bonito with many of the same players in the same style he played at Milan. It is the intentions of the architect as much as the quality of the materials that carries the day.

Against Columbus, on a high quality surface, facing a team that wanted to play, New England put out some decent stuff despite not finishing their chances. Sure, they were without Ralston and Twellman and it showed but the level of the game was pretty good, even better on HD where the shape of the screen allowed the viewer to see both the passer and intended recipient, thereby showing the players intentions to be far more under control than they often seem. Yes, many of the Revs don’t run off the ball particularly well, or at least they don’t seem to anticipate one another but that would be greatly improved with the return of Ralston and Twellman, that plus allowing Steve Nicol and associates to really shop for the groceries in order to play their kind of game that, to the surprise of many, is firmly based on the ground.

Finally, as Coach Mariner was getting ready to shake hands and head for Logan I would have hoped that he would have said something like this, “make Stevie the real manager, give him the bottom line, whatever the amount of cash he has to spend for salaries, transfers, bonuses, the lot. Don’t make him seek approval from people who know far, far less about the game than he does (including Sunil Gulati), trust him, let the team thrive or not based on what he and his staff can accomplish and not on a standard that really applies more to a K-Mart idea of management (irony intended) and not serious football (soccer).

If that got said, well maybe, just maybe, it might have sunk in.

Way back in the day Mark Watson played a few games (4) for the New England Revolution at the end of their initial season. He was on the field when the Revs faced the Columbus Crew and indeed got an unfair red card that was part of a general meltdown in front of 38,000 people who showed up for the final match of the season. Since then he has played and coached for a variety of clubs in MLS, USL and Europe and is currently the number two at the Charleston Battery one of the consistently best teams in the USL (second division). I spoke with him after training during his second week with the Revolution.

JIM: You have been around MLS, in and out, off to Europe for a while and back in USL in the subsequent 14 years both as a player and now a coach, so you are in a unique position to respond to this question. We are looking at something between two and four new teams being added to MLS over the next few years, plus a couple having just been created (Seattle and San Jose), where the hell are the players going to come from?

MARK: It’s a great question. When the league started it was ten, ten teams, now it is fifteen and will be sixteen and in two years it will be eighteen, so the players do have to come from somewhere obviously and I think it will come from a couple of different places, there will be more opportunities for young kids, kids coming out of college will get an opportunity and I think the USL will supplement the league to a certain extent. I’ve been involved with that league for a while, so I know the level and there is a little step down but I think there is quite a few players there that could be a part of an (MLS) squad, the question is are there any impact players, any stars in that league that could come through? That’s maybe a bit more doubtful but in terms of a squad player that could make a contribution, I think 100%, I think that the one thing that the USL provides the MLS is that it catches some players that maybe aren’t ready right out of college to come in here to an MLS team and make an impact and stay with them. Sometimes you need a year or two of playing day in and day out, against (grown) men, people who are as strong and as fast and as quick as you but they are smarter and it is vital for some guys to take that step back and learn the game, you know and it is an important thing for…MLS to catch those guys who have the quality but just aren’t ready.

JIM: A combination of legend and rumor always has it that there is this great range of hidden, undiscovered talent that never gets discovered here in the States, for all sorts of different reasons. Do you think that is true, or just urban soccer legend?

MARK: I really do, you look at the size of the country, look at how many college programs are out there, and it would take vast resources to scout this country properly. I know that teams do their best, they have combines, they see as many games as they can, they make phone calls constantly to try to cover the nation but it really is impossible unless you had scouts in every nook and cranny of this nation, so there are going to be players that slip through the cracks and you hope that the lower leagues pick them up, give them the opportunity, let them play some games, mature and then at some point show that they really can play at the MLS level.

JIM: What about the middle class, the sort of players that seem to be leaving now, not like Dempsey going to England or Altidore to Spain but the players who are going to Scandinavia for more money, for sure but not necessarily a step up in quality. Do you think a raise in the salary cap would help to keep those players, or is it more a question of a kind of ambition to try something new?

MARK: That would be ideal, to get into a situation where players don’t have to leave. I think the lure of top leagues is always going to be there, to play for Man United is something that every player should probably want and would probably be silly to turn down but it would be ideal if the league could get to the pint where players wouldn’t make more money in Norway, Sweden or Denmark and they could stay here because the standard here is good, it is getting better all the time and you want to keep your best players.

JIM: Looking at the Revolution, for example, a lot of the young players have gotten to play this year, which hasn’t been in the past, when the team was winning, coming close to winning the championship they were basically playing fourteen players, now I think they have played maybe 20, 21, 22 players and now the season is about to end, maybe, hopefully, it will go on for two or three more weeks but basically all these young kids are now going to sit still for three months, that seems to me to be a crazy system.

MARK: Yeah, you obviously need some rest throughout the year, I know in most places around the world (the close season) is between six and eight weeks, maybe four weeks if you are playing internationally, so it is a little bit too long but that is the situation that we are in, I think the climate dictates a little bit of that, it is maybe a bit too long but I think the one thing that is unique about the MLS and soccer in this country is the travel schedule. You look at the big picture and maybe our players do need a little bit more time to recover because you are playing the same amount of games but you are traveling exorbitant distances to fulfill your schedule. It may be a little bit too long but maybe not as much as you would think due to the travel schedule.

JIM: Well, I’m thinking in terms of development, when you have a 20, 21 year old player they are nearing the end of the time when they are able to physically improve, they can learn in the head until the end but to really improve physically, suddenly, boom, they are cut off and have to start from scratch again in January, February, three months down the road.

MARK: Yeas, that is a great point, I think they don’t need as much time off as they need to play more games and that is one thing that is a really difficult situation that the lower end of your squad, you never want injuries to happen but if they do it gives guys some opportunities but if all is well and everyone is healthy then a lot of guys aren’t going to be playing significant minutes which is a crucial part of a players development. I know there have been some attempts (and) it is something that is really important, if you are talking about the development side, it is hard for players to really improve if they are not playing 30 games a year.

JIM: Having played and coached in the USL will there ever be any hope for a working relationship between USL and MLS, loaning players to USL teams so that they can play regularly? I would imagine that on the one hand it would be quite disruptive.

MARK: Well, teah, I personally am a big fan of that and I think that eventually it may come to that because it is probably the right way to do it. I know they do that in baseball, I know hockey does it, it will demean the lower leagues a little bit the lower leagues franchise, you will lose your best players but I think that for the development of the game here it is probably the best solution, if the Revs have a couple of guys that are young, that aren’t ready for their first team and they haven’t played some games they can send them somewhere for a month and play week in and week out and get that little bit of experience, I’m sure that it is a very complicated issue and I do know that there are clubs in the USL that are receptive to that, they think that is the way to go forward and there are other clubs that don’t want to take the competitive side away from their team. I think it is a little bit split but for me, it makes a lot of sense and it would be nice if at some point we got there.
JIM: Of course USL has individual ownership, not collective like MLS, so decisions about things like this could be made individually, on a club by club basis.

MARK: For sure, anything could happen there, I know that topic has been discussed and hopefully for the greater good they get together and realize that it is the right way to go forward.

JIM: You were here in 1996, and back in the day things were what they were and you come back now, 14 years later, not having been here since, what strikes you as the most impressive difference?

MARK: I mean the club has really gone to the next level, ’96 was the first year of the league and it was fantastic but clubs were still in their infancy and learning and growing and probably making mistakes and learning from their mistakes (but now) to see the facilities here, to be in the locker rooms, to see how professional the club is was very much a professional surprise. They’ve got a great staff here, Stevie Nicol is fabulous, fantastic; he was a great player, a proven top, top coach, so to come join this type of organization is a real treat.

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