Ralston’s Back and The World Cup Break Is Make Or Break For The Revolution. Plus An Interview with Cory Gibbs.
Posted by tonybiscaia on June 12, 2010
A VIEW FROM THE FORT By Jim Dow
When the news came through that the huntin’/fishin’ version (Steve Ralston) of the better half of El Millizo (“The Twin,” Guillermo Barros Schellotto) was to back in town for the remainder of 2010 my feelings were, admittedly, mixed. Delighted that one of the three Revolution greatest all around players (the others being Joe-Max Moore and Shalrie Joseph) will get to finish his career in Foxborough but, like Peggy Lee singing, “is that all there is?” when it comes to roster movement during the World Cup-dictated MLS close season, if this is to be the big roster change for the rest of the campaign the song fits.
At the same time the stats, from 2007 to 2009 go, Guille – 73 GP, 24 goals and 33 assists vs. Stevie – 61 GP, 19 goals and 28 assists, not exactly a wash but damn close given injury time; and with the fact that the baron of the Mid-American pampas is 35 and the pride of Boca Juniors is 37, we can declare it a wash, dodgy knee and fake turf aside.
Watching Ralston race about at training, haring down breaking forwards, going in for full metal jacket slide tackles and spraying cross-pitch passes it seemed that he may have sipped from some fountain of youth hard by the shores of the Mississippi. He does wear a brace but given the intensity of his play against a field full of young’uns it seems relegated to a combination of fashion accessory and placebo.
Over the next three weeks both Bob Bradley and Steve Nicol will face important management and tactical decisions that will determine if their respective campaigns will be judged as successful or a failure. One will be operating on the world stage as his squad faces not only the England team but the English press and, as the Brits are wont to say, “the eyes of the nation (take note of the definitely non-post colonial use of the indefinite article).” The other will face a Foxborough press corps of perhaps three folks but far more importantly his own thoughts in the dressing room mirror as in, “what the f–k can be done in the present circumstances?”
Bob Bradley must manage expectations re. the monster match on the Saturday and then likely regroup his charges to try to stuff a stout Slovenia and aggressive Algeria in order to go through to possible second round glory against the likes of Argentina or Germany. Bearing in mind his sides’ ranking of 14 on the FIFA scale to not make the round of 16, aka the “real World Cup” would represent a significant step backwards. And if the Red, White and Blue possibly manage to beat the overconfident (read the British papers), over-valued ($705 million to $73 million according to Frank Dell’apa) and oversexed (again, read the British press) Three Lions, then managing expectations just might be even more difficult through a postprandial crash after the orgasm of victory. Either way, it is a huge task and it will be fascinating to see just how far all this goes with a flawed but talented team playing in a whole new setting. Bear in mind how ineptly the footballing great and good performed in Japan/Korea; perhaps the same thing might happen in South Africa as we saw last year in the Confederations Cup.
It has been said that with worldwide interest in the England team, plus the new-found appeal in the States of the USA as well as the Lions, the match on Saturday is the biggest sporting event that any American team of any sort has ever been involved in. Given the parochial nature of Super Bowls, World Series and NBA Finals, this is likely the case since, to quote Sir Charles Barkley, “one billion Chinese couldn’t care less,” except, of course, for English football.
On the local level Steve Nicol has less than three weeks to re-group, to take a team that is presently totally down in the mouth and figure out how to deal with the remainder of the season. What we saw in Seattle was shambolic, but frankly not that unusual in 2010. Truth be known, the score could have been much worse and that has been the case in a number of Revolution games this season. While it is true that the ideal starting eleven as projected back in preseason has yet to cross the chalk to compete this campaign there is a time for a pragmatic assessment of reality and the reality is that the team needs at least one more good senior player brought in immediately, the Ralston addition being an undoubtedly good start, but only that.
It is now the midseason/World Cup break in MLS, the moment between the apertura and clausura, a moment for teams to address their needs and retool, retrench, refresh for the push towards the playoffs. In the case of the New England Revolution all three requirements are clearly on the front burner and demand immediate attention as the long slog towards humiliation or glory starts again on June 27, less than three weeks away. The question is, does the ownership even know that, are they even aware that their second team is in danger of holding up the very bottom of an expansion diluted league table and are at present far more deserving of relegation than Paul Mariner’s doomed and now down Plymouth Argyle were just a few short weeks ago? Do they, or the people hired by Kraft FC even know what a league table or relegation are? Do they even care? Does what smarts for the supporters and kills the players and the coaches even translate in the cushy confines of the executive chambers? More importantly, will they now commit the money, energy and person power to address the team’s obvious problems before the folks who labor long and hard playing, coaching and supporting the side are completely done in by what seems to be a perpetually frustrating combination of indifference from above?
Nicol has a demonstrable track record, he can assess and develop talent but how can he be expected to continue on that path when the pipeline seems to be regulated by the bottom line, or at least the line of least resistance? Some of the Revolution kids, notably Alston, Barnes, Boggs, Nyassi plus the only SSS likely to be seen in this lifetime, Schilawski, Shuttlesworth and Sinovic may well develop into top flight MLS pros and, who knows, could eventually aspire to going on to Euro paydays in the tradition of Brown, Dempsey, Dorman, Moore, Parkhurst, etc. But at this moment they need added support to develop and what has been scouted, signed and brought to Foxborough has not, collectively, been of the quality required to keep up with the forward progress of most of the rest of the teams in MLS. The addition of Ralston, as gifted a creative player as has been developed in the States, Dempsey included, is a wonderful but short term start but playing as the Revolution do in the softer half of the league, the Eastern Division, flatters their position. Based on Saturday’s match in Seattle they are the worst team in a sixteen-team league at the moment and as currently configured are destined for whatever humiliation proper football has to offer in the football-provincial US of A. This is not written with the slightest disrespect for Burpo, Gibbs, Jankauskas, Osei and Perovic; they are all quality players who complement Joseph and Reis, but there is a desperate need for another mid-career, standout professional to blend with the youngsters and veterans in order to help the team move forward.
Concentrating on selling bait, bullets, panties and tacos in a depressing, rapidly emptying mall reminiscent of downtown Detroit doesn’t help in real football and if the ownership doesn’t possess the vision for the task it is time to admit that they don’t buy into how the world game works. At the simplest and most difficult analysis, the current roster needs to be significantly different by early July, either through one or two major additions to what is a reasonable and potentially good base or a less dramatic but equally effective housecleaning at the lower. To do otherwise is to send a sure sign that this franchise isn’t serious as a major league, competitive team in the present day MLS environment. This will be particularly true should the predicted post-World Cup influx of quality players to a number of different destinations prove to be the case.
In the salad days of the Revs (2004-07) the younger players could be brought along while surrounded by demanding, competent veterans who set the tone for the standard of play. Again, the presence of Ralston will help exponentially in this regard but at this point circumstances have forced everyone, kids and grownups alike, onto their back feet and the young players are being rushed into the breach well ahead of their learning curve. Injuries haven’t helped but do they ever in competitive sports? There always has to be a plan “B” and “C” and beyond. Jeff Larentowicz took three years to develop as a professional with a far better cast around him but now he is gone and new kids are in his place, panic in the form of upfield bloots has set in and that could be truly cancerous.
With the new MLS salary cap of $2.55 million there are two readings of the Revolution situation, neither of which offer much hope. Remember, there has been no publication of post-CBA salaries, so all is speculation. Current calculations, including the half salaries owed Gabriel Badilla and Mauricio Castro put the Revos at about $75,000 under the salary cap, which likely is budgeted for Ralston and may well have taken the packet to the limit. This figuring takes into account the new minimum ($40K) and some likely raises with new senior contracts to players like Dube, Mansally and Nyassi.. Admittedly, it is a worst-case scenario but there appears to be little wiggle room unless significant, perhaps even painful cuts are made in anticipation of the upcoming transfer window. Another view would be that the Generation Addidas money paid to Alston and Colaluca, slightly less than $200K, could be used to pick up a good player but when I asked the press folks for information I was told that they didn’t have any information on such matters.
With the huge age and experience disparity on the current Revos I thought it might be interesting to discuss the situation with the newest resident greybeard, Cory Gibbs. With a playing portfolio that includes Brown University, the Bundesliga and Premiership, he has the experience and perspective to offer interesting comments on the task ahead.
JIM: How do you see the task of rebuilding a team, as is the case here with the Revs in MLS versus in the world game where there are significantly less restrictions, presuming financial resources?
CORY: Well, it is a different type of level, I think in MLS they are trying to rebuild with younger players, the type of development is a bit on the slower side going from college right into the pros, I think. You know it is a faster pace because younger players (in the rest of the world), they already have that professional knowledge but (here) for them to adapt it is a little bit harder but I think as a league MLS has developed strongly enough where it is picking up and the pace (of development) is growing.
JIM: So here, for example, it is possible to think of a 25 year old player as being young as they have only had a couple of years of professional experience whereas a 25 year old player in the rest of the world is in the middle of their career, they might have been in the senior team for eight years or more.
CORY: You are exactly right, you know a 25 year old player there is going to be (far ahead) and I think it is because of the whole structure of college, some graduate at about twenty, twenty-one and so you are still considered a rookie and you are coming into the pros when you are twenty-two or so I think that is what make (for) a huge difference from Europe where you are sixteen, seventeen and you are a young player and you are going in and following the footsteps of older, more experienced players on the team. So, yes, there is about a seven or eight year difference in that structure.
JIM: And that is a huge difference because a lot of people say that physically a player doesn’t develop much more after a certain age and so it becomes hard to change habits so you have a player coming out of college having played twenty-five games a year and suddenly they are playing against players who have played sixty games a year for five, six, seven years. How do you as a veteran advise the kids in relation to that sort of stuff?
CORY: My advice is just that a young age to learn and soak in as much as possible. With our society you are distracted by so many other things but if you want to make it as a professional player you try and get as much knowledge as you can from other players ho have done it before and try and seek (out) that much experience. I think a majority of our younger players get that and they understand it and they want to learn, like Zak and Seth and Boggsy they are always taking in information. Seth who plays next to me on the left back side, he’s always telling me, “keep talking to me, keep talking to me,” you can tell he appreciates the knowledge and accepts it, so you have to appreciate that, he’s not a young kid who is trying to be arrogant and just get games in. So he wants to learn and he’s learning and he’s taking game in and game out, each game at a time and I think Zak and Boggsy are doing the same thing.
JIM: When you say that he wants you to keep talking to him do you mean on the field, or in general, or both?
CORY: Both, Zak, sorry, Seth who I have more communication with just because he’s a defender and plays next to me, he wants to learn, he wants to know how to be a professional, he wants to develop as a great player, so I appreciate that, I understand that and I’m more than willing to help him in any ways that are possible, so on and off the field he’s been great.
JIM: The Revs as it has worked out thus far in 2010, if you chart it, have a bunch of kids and then you’ve got a bunch of veteran players and only one or two players who are in the absolute middle of their careers, so this team as opposed to a lot of teams is full of players at both ends when it comes to experience. Does that make the role of you guys, as the veteran players, different because you have so many young players next to you, number one and two, with the lineups changing so much?
CORY: Yes, it’s difficult, it’s been a long road because of injuries, suspensions and things like that, also with the players learning, etc, there’s a big group of, you know, disparity between younger and older players. But I think as veterans on our team, Matt Reis who’s come back now, Shalrie, myself, Burpo when he was here, we accept that responsibility and when things aren’t going well we put a lot of weight on our shoulders and we’ve tried to turn that around during this break and have a good run after the break, so we have nobody to blame but ourselves. I think the coaching staff has done exceptionally well, they’ve led us in the right direction, we just haven’t taken that on for the younger players and it is really ourselves to blame.
JIM: But again, thinking about in your case you have played, I don’t know how many games in your career, I’ll look it up (over 160 at First Division level), so you fly to Seattle, you lose 4-0, it’s not just another game, of course but then again, it is. On the other hand, if it is only the tenth game of your professional career, it must be like the earth has opened up and swallowed you, how do impart perspective to a younger player when this happens?
CORY: It’s a long season, they have to understand, you have to understand teams go on streaks and runs, I done it many times myself, especially last year in Colorado where we lost the last nine, so you have to understand that and not take it for granted and understand that it was a hard, hard defeat for us, we didn’t play well and on the flip side Seattle played out of their minds, exceptionally well, so as younger players they have to understand that it is a loss, take it to heart, that there is only to go up from there. You know, it is a long season and teams go on streaks and we’ll well deserve when our streak comes.
JIM: Thinking about this long season business, this particular season is like a Latin American season, you’ve got an Apertura and Clausura because you have this significant break during the World Cup. Is there a way that you pace yourself now, training and playing only one game, do you pace yourself in a different way if you are just training, not playing games, not traveling, as opposed to building to a game once a week, or even twice a week?
CORY: You mean in terms of this break?
JIM: Yes, how do you pace yourself when you know that you are going to go hard, two hours a day but that’s it…
CORY: Yeah, this is a great rebuilding time to just train as hard as possible, there’s nothing about pacing, there’s nothing about keeping ourselves back…
JIM: It looked like that today.
CORY: Yeah, it has to be a way where it is one hundred percent work hard and give it all you have. We need to go forward, we can’t rely upon (anything) the way we’ve started out the season, we can’t rely on that, it is only about hard work right now and in due time it will pay off. It is about training hard and knowing that we don’t have anything but that one game (against Cruzeiro), then we have our two or three off days and then we come back and focus on those four or five next days of training.
JIM: When you were playing with the various teams in Europe did you have any periods where you experienced similar losing situations and streaks and did you find any differences in the pressure there towards losing and the pressure here. There are the obvious differences but I’m thinking more about the psychological ones that would weigh on a player.
CORY: Yes, I mean I went on a streak like this at F.C. Saint Pauli when I was in Germany in the Bundesliga and it was a harder fight for us because we were one of the lower level teams but the pressure is enormous, they are paying us significant salary ranges and this makes a difference on the players.
JIM: And they are paying bonuses as well.
CORY: Exactly, there is a bonus structure and players take it upon themselves and are emotionally hurt by (losing) because there is more of an incentive and I think that’s where the pressure comes from. Not only that, in terms of relegation, there’s so much other pressure, pressure from the fans because all our games were sold out, the intensity of pressure is much different, there is a big disparity in that just because of all the other aspects of it. And then, the biggest of all of them, I think, is the pressure from the coach because his job is (under pressure), he could be gone the next day and that pressure translates inside the team…
So there is a big level of difference, like I said MLS is structured differently, and we don’t have to deal with this type of situation but when these losses come about we take it to heart…
JIM: You are dealing with an awful lot of competitive people…
CORY: Exactly, a lot of competitive people and like you saw in Seattle where we were being embarrassed in front of 36,000 people, so you know we take that to heart and we do, that loss really hurt and it still bites us and so it is uphill from here.