At The End of A Decade, Ten Ways To Address The Future
Posted by tonybiscaia on December 29, 2009
A VIEW FROM THE FORT By Jim Dow
This column is dedicated to the memory of Nick Katz, as devoted a Revs supporter as has graced the Halls of Foxborough Stadium. I suspect he would approve of these suggestions, offered below.
A lot of people have been moaning on various subjects since the sad but spectacular end to the New England Revolution’s season played out on real grass in front of a sellout crowd with real flares and with no quarter given by either side. The fact is, while the Windy City’s resident Olympic diving master, the aging, bandy-legged Kid from Tepito, now the sleaze ball from Veracruz, dominated the match providing service left and right, his season stats (games played 21 – games started 15 – total minutes 1452 – 5 goals – 8 assists ) a carbon copy of the other, injured, younger (by one year) mid-western maestro Steve Ralston (GP 20 – GS 17 – min 1543 – 7 goals – 7 assists ) to the point where they might as well be twins.
The difference, of course, was that Blanco played and Ralston sat for the second post season in a row but for those who think that the Revs are significantly less of a team than their Chicago counterparts, imagine what might have happened had Ralston been on the field, even with no forwards to speak of.
And this isn’t idle speculation since of the eight teams that made the playoffs, five counted heavily on greybeards like Barros-Schelotto (Columbus), Beckham (LA), Blanco (Chicago), Lunjberg (Seattle) and Ralston (had he been able to play) for their innovative spark. Indeed, for many teams in MLS the crux of creativity hangs in an actuarial balancing act between aging legs and subtle minds able to see the field in ways that the younger folks can’t, at least in the cut-price world of top-flight football in the U.S. of A.
But this is all somewhat academic, the 2009 Revs are toast and in the seven weeks since the season ended there has been significant movement out with the retirement of Jay Heaps, the waiving of Stephane Assengue, the loss of Brad Knighton in the Expansion Draft and the likely departure of Jeff Larentowicz to Scandinavian parts unknown. Added to this is the unknown status of injured players Albright, Badilla, Ralston, Reis and Twellman, potential starters all, plus the likelihood that Edgaras Jankauskas may not be back and as of now New England can trot out only three certified MLS-quality first-teamers and no forwards in Kevin Alston, Darius Barnes and Shalrie Joseph. Everything/everyone else is in flux and with a management well known for frugality can there be much hope for proper replacements? Further, in point of fact, is anyone really accountable in the current setup? Certainly Nicol and Mariner, when the latter was here, went all over the place looking and finding players but their requests often disappeared into the hazy mists of upper level management where they languished and possibly expired in secrecy.
To be fair international player procurement in soccer is a tricky business even with the fullest of coffers. Between duplicitous agents, sleazy managers, nefarious national association officials and obdurate immigration agents trying to pry a useful performer from anywhere can be daunting at best. Add the crapshoot nature of the draft and other home-based development methods and you have to award Nicol high marks for what he has been able to dredge through the various recalcitrant systems.
In a pre-Xmas piece on NESN.com a writer named Michael Hurley presented a gift list entitled “(The) Top 10 Presents for Boston Athletes in the Holiday Season.” His tenth item was “Attention for the New England Revolution,” and went on to opine, “If a highly competitive professional soccer team shares a home with the New England Patriots, does anybody care?
The answer is, for the most part, no.
Despite four appearances in the MLS Cup and a SuperLiga championship this decade, attendance declined sharply in 2009 (according to Wikipedia, a source that is never, ever wrong).
The Revs aren’t asking for much, they just want you to care…”
While the ignorance of local flacks on the subject of the world’s game makes provincialism look sophisticated, the point about caring is well taken. For fans of the team, both serious and casual, there is the rampant perception that ownership really doesn’t give a fig and is content to opt for the status quo. But now with the CBA looming, the roster in turmoil and no concrete news on much of anything, what can fans and followers of the team and the league expect as the Revolution enter a new decade?
From where I sit this might be an opportune time to send a series of clear messages on the subject of caring and the care of a club that is generally seen as an afterthought on the New England sporting landscape. While the Revs are a very real, competitive, even pugnacious outfit who have provided a great deal of good football over the past ten years, some of it has been like the tree falling in the forest and that needs to be and can be changed. Of course expenditure of money would be required but investment can beget investment and with the current state of the franchise it would be money well spent.
With this in mind and as a retort to the know-nothings at NESN here are “Ten Ways To The Future” offered in the best of good will and supportive thoughts in keeping with the season (next).
ONE: From this moment forward no employees or business associates at any level are allowed to “bad” or “poor-mouth” soccer, MLS or the Revs. This goes from parking lot attendants through security to “partners,” and yes, even ownership (as in “soft” stadium openings and the like).
Over the years this has been a consistent problem which, to be fair, may reflect reality to some degree but has a cancerous effect when encountered over time. An old advertising adage insists that repetition begets perception, eventually morphing into fact, and the varying negative attitudes that permeate some aspects of the operation from scoffing TeamOps operatives to shrugging staffers are inexcusable. From everyone’s point of view, anything should be possible concerning the Revolution and the sky, not the bottom line, should be understood to be the only limit.
Correcting negative perceptions requires positive actions, often to an exponentially greater degree to effectively erase what has gone before. Old habits die hard and sometimes a real change in approach requires significant changes in personnel. At the least everyone involved, this writer included, have to look at themselves in the mirror to assess their contribution towards negativity.
Certainly the Revolution will never be Barca, Real, Chelsea or even the Galaxy in the sense of spilling huge amounts of cash for talent and constantly occupying the headlines. On the other hand, establishing themselves as a serious soccer-smart operation along the lines of Argentinos Juniors, West Ham United (Icelandic investors excepted), Pachuca, Nantes or Ajax where players are groomed and taught from youth through the senior squad would only build on the excellent reputation the Steve Nicol has already developed during his tenure at the helm.
TWO: Negotiate the purchase of Wonderland Greyhound Park for location of a multi-use soccer stadium as well as other types of development.
This certainly would require a considerable amount of money, a great deal of initiative, significant vision and a lot of creativity. If Patriot Place can feature sex and violence with the presence of Victoria’s Secret and Bass Pro Shops (to be fair, air guns, knives and ammo only) then betting on simulcasts of dog and horse races certainly won’t pollute the soccer/concert environment.
While the location might not be as central as Brickbottom, there is T and highway access, considerable parking and a site just waiting for multi-use development along the lines of Patriot Place should the Pats/Revs ownership and any investors tolerate the presence of the two-dollar punters required to keep the canine and horse flesh aspects of the operation flush and active. Boxes of bullets can’t be much more profitable than a flutter on Fido and certainly the latter is no more morally objectionable than the former.
Plus, Boston being Boston, the negotiations, purchase, construction, development and ultimate opening might take years to bring to fruition but a side benefit, in addition to the huge cred due to the Krafts for actually making this happen, would be the generation of a constant stream of gossip, invective, scandal and kudos that would keep the project burning bright in the media as it moved, maybe even stumbled towards completion.
THREE: Reconfigurations of the current seating plan for better atmosphere, along the lines of the new Soldier’s Field, Qwest, etc.
While waiting for number Two there needs to be a major re-think about the lower bowl of Gillette as a hospitable soccer venue. A vocal crowd in the area of 20,000 or more can pump enough pugnacity into the Morgue to send everyone home happy. The 2005 Conference Final against Chicago emphatically proved this with a basso profundo, full-throated mob of grown-up soccer fans whooping it up throughout the match. Certainly the high stakes, one-off contest played at the end of a highly successful season with a team that was easy on the eyes with Cancela, Dempsey, Noonan, Joseph, Parkhurst, Ralston, Reis and Twellman all on song, made the tickets attractive.
This might not translate directly to the regular season but tarping off the upper fifteen to twenty rows all around the lower bowl might make it possible to put fans all around the field in the kind of dense pack that generates excitement by proximity, as in the Fort. As suggested by many, including Fort regular Jim Andruchow, such a strategy might condense crowds of 12 to 20,000 into the kind of heaving mob that would energize everyone and look good on television (see point Five). Full capacity of the lower bowl is somewhere in the neighborhood of 27,000, so with the suggested seating reduction a 14K crowd would completely encircle the playing field. Any larger crowds could cause the selective removal of covering to open up sections as needed. To save money, the catering stands might only be open on one side, with ticket prices perhaps lower on the opposite. By way of example, the atmosphere generated by similar size crowds in a like configuration at the New Soldier Field when the Chicago Fire were based there in the early part of the decade could serve as clear evidence, just look at and listen to the tapes.
FOUR: A new playing surface, with multi-use scheduling to insure no gridiron lines for soccer matches.
As a matter of research I watched a quarter of this past Sunday’s Pats game to try and ascertain the state of the field. When first installed, in mid-November 2006, every cut, plants and kick resulted in a flurry of movement on the part of the plastic “blades” accompanied by a shower of tiny rubber pellets, the under soil if you will. The surface then seemed even and soft, the ball rolled fairly true and sat up almost as if it was proper grass and there were few complaints about aches and pains inspired by the fake turf.
Watching the mastodons wallow for upwards of a half an hour I detected not one bit of blade movement nor any spraying of pellets, the whole sickly gray-green surface looked as flat and lifeless as it had most of the Revolution’s 2009 season when the eternal debate was how much the playing conditions contributed to the team’s lack of ability in controlling the ball when played to feet.
Since the Gillette ground staff can’t seem to make grass grow and thrive, at least for a multi-use stadium, it would seem that the Revolution are doomed to play on Field Turf forever, or until they move into their own digs (see number Two). Given that, is it too much to ask that the surface be cleaned, replaced, upgraded, rejuvenated, whatever it takes to make it playable, not for the track meet that is gridiron football but to properly facilitate close control, passing, shooting, trapping and maybe, just maybe just be a bit easier on the joints? The cost, according to the company’s website is as follows: Field Turf Base Preparation – $320,000 with materials at $5.00 per sq ft for$400,000 and maintenance at $5,000 x 10 years at $50,000, the total cost would be $770,000, or $385,000 per year over two years. With the Field Turf Field Care Service Contract Kraft Sports, Inc. would be entitled to a bi-annual “deep sweep and rejuvenation.” Which, according to the website would provide, “…in-depth grooming (which) will remove all dirt, bird droppings, gum, blood, skin and other detritus that ultimately collects in any playing surface, leaving (the) field bright and clean.” And possibly playable.
With one exception (Nico Colaluca) every single Revolution player and coach that I’ve ever interviewed has commented on the surface with differing degrees of candor but always offering consistent criticism of its’ playability and the prospect of their limbs prospering under a full slate of home matches. Some home field advantage.
While careful scheduling has produced far fewer soccer matches played on the cacophony of lines, dashes and logos that constitute an NFL sales, er, playing surface, even a single game viewed in such circumstances is an abomination on the eyes, what must it be like to actually try to line up a pass on? A fully clean sheet when it comes to the look of the field for soccer would do wonders for the home side’s image.
FIVE: Move the television cameras to better angles for a better presentation of games at Foxborough.
Full props to the Krafts for their long term backing of a complete slate of Revolution broadcasts, home and away. While some fans grouse about the announcers, there is absolutely no doubt as to their collective soccer knowledge and dedication and their efforts to make the game viewing as good as it possibly can be, save one important factor, the flat angle of the master camera(s).
Because a proper football pitch is considerably wider than a gridiron the relatively low location of the broadcast booth at Gillette Stadium means that every high sideline shot offers a skewed representation of the field of play. The foreground is over-emphasized, the far side of the field is truncated and the play is slowed down significantly by the camera angles. Anything on happening on the far side of the pitch resembles a scrum of bodies as nothing is separated from looking down on the subject. By way of comparison watch any number of games broadcast from stadiums where the camera(s) are placed at a more severe angle to the ground. Perhaps the best examples of this was the way the matches in the French (1998) and German (2006) World Cups looked, where the cameras literally looked down over the shoulders of the participants. Compare these to Italia ’90, Serie A, or the Centenario in Uruguay where many of the matches are broadcast from flat bowls, much like the bottom part of Gillette.
This would be simple enough, since the club seats on the broadcast side are generally empty, so placing cameras at that level should be easy enough. It certainly would help make the game look better and give a more accurate representation of the speed and pace at which it is played, making a better advertisement for both the Revolution and MLS.
SIX: Get a high profile shirt sponsor.
There is no question that the idea that wearing a corporate logo equals some sort validation as a serious soccer team might be seen as a triumph of late capitalism but the fact is that only one team in the world, Barcelona, doesn’t look rinky-dink without some goofy graphic design on the front of its’ strip. For the Revolution wearing the colors of American Airlines, Dunkin Donuts, Harpoon, Ocean Spray, Papa Gino’s or Sam Adams across the chest or the back would place the team in the world of serious local advertising and thereby further legitimate the entire operation in the minds of serious fans.
While U.S. sports teams are lagging in this regard most MLS teams have picked up on the world-wide practice, making their uniforms look, for better or worse, “serious,” like everyone else’s from Arsenal (Emirates Airlines) to Zaragoza (Telefonica). I took a look at some of my old Revs jerseys with Pepsi and Sierra Mist logos on the back and they look, well more professional. If it would come down to the Krafts paying someone like AA or DD to let them put their logo on the shirt, well, that would be the cost of doing business, a bit like the TV broadcasts, or billboards, eventually folks will pony up for the privilege when it becomes seen as an asset and, who knows, maybe they would now.
SEVEN: Elevate Steve Nicol to manager and give him a full staff of specialty coaches and scouts.
If you put all the Revolution employees from the newest ticket salesperson to Sunil Gulati along one wall and Steve Nicol against the other the balance of soccer knowledge would always be on the Scottish side of the room. Given that, plus the fact that the gaffer was just awarded a new contract, what would be the harm of declaring him to be the manager of the team, in the English sense of the term? While he would unquestionably opt for being the “tracksuit” variety, like Gianfranco Zola or Big Sam Allardyce, the bottom line is that he should have the final say on every soccer decision, from the accent color on the kit to any possible transfers. Of course the folks who hold the purse strings can close off the cash flow, just like boards or owners do across the world but all assessments, choices and evaluations should be down to the boss and not to folks operating behind closed doors, in cubicles or in far off locations who aren’t directly answerable to the fans for their decisions.
By dint of his position Nicol is available to the press on a daily basis whenever the team is up and running. Further, any enterprising scribe can gain access to him during the off-season through the Revs publicity department. He has to give interviews and respond to unscripted questions and while he is very good at evasion, as he should be, he is the only member of management who has to present himself to the public and speak for the soccer side of things in Revland. Since he doesn’t suffer foolish questions gladly and generally responds in as forthright a manner as he can, he has the full respect of those who cover the team. Any manager worth their salt, from Bruce Arena to Arsene Wenger demands full control, not answering to anyone, save the board or owner. You often hear a manager say, “we’ve got 12 million to spend, that’s it but we’ll go for every penny.” There is no reason that Nicol shouldn’t be able to operate in the same unilateral fashion, particularly if he is given advice and support from those whose counsel he trusts.
Of course with the departure of Paul Mariner for Plymouth, there is a gaping hole alongside the gaffer that needs to be filled ASAP. Again, no expense should be spared and the person coming in should be capable of being a foil and consigliore to the boss, helping to form along with Gwynne Williams, a boot room board of expertise to help guide the team’s fortunes. Over the past few years there have been many stories of Nicol and Mariner jetting off to Africa, Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras and other ports of call to look for players, plus attending endless college games, combines and tournaments. There is no reason that the team shouldn’t have a full time scout to help with these assignments, perhaps of the stature and knowledge to be another member of the management team meeting over tea in the bowels of Gillette Stadium.
EIGHT: Come out publicly to raise the Salary Cap and to establish incentive bonuses for dressing, starting and performance.
Nos. 8 & 9 would require going to the mat with MLS HQ, something that the Krafts supposedly have done in the other direction, i.e. not raising the Salary Cap, etc. in the past but the fact is both of these issues are of vital importance to the Revolution and to the league.
To begin with, there has to be a major effort made to keep mid-level MLS talent, the backbone of many teams, playing here in the U.S. Certainly an ambitious player like a Clint Dempsey cannot be faulted for wanting to go to Europe but when the move is lateral at best, save for the paycheck, well the answer is obvious.
One way to make the league more attractive to quality players would be to up the intensity of the overall competition, both in the games as well as on the training ground. The desultory nature of some mid-season matches might be countered by the addition of significant bonuses for making the squad, the starting lineup and winning, plus all manner of individual performance clauses. If this strikes purists as bad form, consider that the perhaps most competitive league around top to bottom, the Bundesliga, uses such incentives across the board. Further, by rewarding wins the regular season would grow in importance, with teams really jockeying to achieve the best record possible.
In both cases, with the salary cap and incentives there would need to be a significant cultural change, particularly at New England but the quality upgrade of regular season intensity could reap significant benefits in increased attendance and a higher profile for the team. As things stand at present the Revolution lose at least a top player per year and have no real possibility of bringing in quality replacements, unless they luck out in the college draft. Considering that they currently have roughly 1/3 their salary allowance tied up in two players (Joseph and Twellman), there is no way that an established talent of any consequence can be brought in unless everyone else on the team gets peanuts as their pay packet. For an organization that is against the DP the irony is that, in effect, the Revolution have two, with one not particularly likely to play again. It is an intractable situation, since there are few, if any forwards of Twellman’s ability in MLS, so the gamble is irresistible. The only solution for the present predicament would be a significant raise to the Salary Cap to allow the coaches to buy more forwards.
NINE: Insist on Expanded rosters and the re-establishment of a full time Reserve League.
Again, the Board and Commissioner would need convincing but this is also a no-brainer after watching potential talent like Nico Colaluca, Amaechi Igwe and Michael Vidiera regress from not being able to play regularly. This doesn’t even bring up players like Stephane Assengue, Gabriel Badilla or Mauricio Castro, all of whom would have benefited from getting regular competitive run outs with the reserves. For Nicol and company assessing a player in a game situation must be easier than in practice and the evidence offered must be fairer all around.
There are many ways to approach the problem but the main thing is for everyone on the roster to get some kind of game every week, otherwise there really are no fair ways to assess the progress of the talent at the end of the bench. Players have such a short time to develop and hone their skills and there is no substitute for game action at any level. Considering the investment in players and their prospects across the league larger rosters to allow for injury, fixture congestion and player development and a high quality Reserve League for the added players to play in makes perfect sense.
TEN: Give a higher profile to youth teams, including matches before senior games.
The intent behind the Baby Revs is to form the premier professional development organization in the region, which will act like a beacon for aspiring pros that want to train with and learn from the best around. While the early years have been full of growing pains the idea remains an excellent one, particularly in an area where high end talent can be found playing everywhere from posh prep schools to inner city social clubs. It is a matter of convincing the kids and their parents that the Revolution offers the best options in coaching, competition, facilities, opportunities, and tournaments. Again, this costs money but the bulk of the investment is already in place.
As a side perk why not stage a few matches before regular season senior team games? Even if only the parents and pals show up to watch, the word will get out that the development side gets a runout on the big team’s turf, which hopefully will be brand new (see item Four).
All the aforementioned suggestions are within the realm of possibility and none of them are of such difficulty that they shouldn’t be obvious to the folks in Foxborough. They are offered in the most supportive of spirits with the very best wishes for a Happy and Prosperous New Year.