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Two Sets of Thoughts On Two Manager’s Minds On Two Flights: Whither the Nats and The Revs?

Posted by tonybiscaia on July 9, 2010

A VIEW FROM THE FORT By Jim Dow

A lot of football managers are on airplanes at the moment. Some are scouting (yes, managers do scout albeit after an actual scout has located the object of desire), some are going to the sun to chill and others have been recently flying home from heart-wrenching defeats.

In the latter category both Bob Bradley settling into his first class seat (hopefully, Sunil?) and Stevie Nicol being squashed into a chicken class coop could be forgiven for being lost in private thoughts as to what might have been and what might be.

Each manager took long flights home recently with plenty of time to brood, one back to the States after a gut wrenching loss to a team that should have been beaten. The other back to Beantown after yet another shellacking in Salt Lake in what is turning out to be a season of weekly embarrassments, some of which, like his counterpart, are not entirely of his own making.

For Bradley it is painfully clear that he sits atop a system that is more concerned with Chad and Muffy getting into college than it is with developing the top talent in the land. Jurgen Klinsmann said it best on ESPN when he formed his hands into an inverted isosceles triangle and exposed US youth development for what it is, a pay to play scam that pads the resume for acceptance at the higher educational institution of choice but does sweet FA to prepare people for a chance at a professional career. As a side note, such triangles are often used to illustrate Ponzi schemes and US Soccer is that it is often just that.

For the future the pressure is really on MLS, in fact the youth setup that is evolving there is the only hope that play by merit can succeed in the United States. The club system is too invested in making a profit to be able to reboot into a genuine development system, attracting the best of the best, regardless of income. If the MLS youth teams could pattern themselves after the old NHL system of junior hockey where teenaged prospects relocated to a team sponsored by the club that recruited them and trained full time plus played in an elite professional development league like the CHL, OHA or WHA while attending high school. If the MLS academy teams could function in this way the triple death grip of horrid interscholastic atrophy, posh pay- to-play private clubs and crappy college competition could be bypassed forever. This is the only way to do it if the potentially wonderful youthful talent available in this country is to have a chance on the world stage.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule that the best players come from difficult, disadvantaged backgrounds. Dennis Bergkamp, Kaka, Eric Cantona, Slaven Bilic, Diego Forlan and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, to name a few, all come from educated and/or well-off backgrounds and yet they have proven themselves to be among the best of the best. It is said that Schelotto used to wind up his opponents with an Argentine version of the old cow-college taunt, “your mother cleans my mother’s toilets.”

The question is would Bob Bradley, a fine coach but a product of that very navel-gazing structure, be able to tell US Soccer, the NCAA and the private clubs to stuff it? Klinsmann could and did in the past and if the US National team is to move forward, he, or his equivalent, needs to do it again, with Gulati’s full backing.

For Nicol the problem is equally complex. Both coaches work for organizations that profess to not have the resources to go whole hog into the big, bad world of international football. In the Revos case it may be a lack of ambition or even an understanding of what to be ambitious about, with the Nats it certainly is a lack of sophistication, with too many folks already secure with cushy jobs and a dead set way of doing things. The difficulties at Route One, Foxboro and Prairie Avenue, Chicago are strikingly similar.

What makes the World Cup and all other national team tournaments fascinating is that each coach has to “dance with the ones that brung him,” that is, other than some sneaky naturalization schemes, he is stuck with the players that are citizens of the country. Capello, for example, would certainly sell either Gerrard or Lampard in a heartbeat to obtain a proper partner for Rooney. In the case of the US once Davies went down, imagine if Bradley had asked Sunil to get up a special fund to go buy a striker from one of the countries not going to South Africa?

Of course at club level across the world this is possible if the team in question has enough money and ambition. Players move all the time, up to bigger teams when they are on the rise and in their prime, down to lesser sides when the clock starts to run out. But, of course, a slightly past it Premiership star can invigorate a promotion run or relegation struggle for a lower level team just as much as bringing David Villa to Barcelona can purchase fresh firepower for the best team in the world. It can cut both ways.

As of 15 July all sorts of players will be on the move, some up, like Clint Dempsey possibly to Liverpool or Landon Donovan to Man City. Some may move down like Thierry Henry from Barca to Red Bull NY or David Trezuget from Juve to LA. The question with the current Revolution do they have the money, the will, the ambition or even the understanding to participate and compete in what is now becoming the normal worldwide transfer scramble that includes MLS teams? To be blunt, bringing in trialists is fine but how about spilling for players who do not have to try out?

The most painful aspect of watching the match against Salt Lake was the realization that the winner’s roster has a pay packet of around $2,350,500, Generation Adidas players aside. That means that RSL has at least $150,000 in cap space to fool with come the transfer window. If my arithmetic is correct the New England Revolution, one of the worst teams in the league as of this writing, is completely maxed out at $2,500,000. There is no wiggle room because as of last week all contracts are guaranteed.

Thinking about the way in which the roster has degenerated, look at the lineup for MLS Cup 2007; Matt Reis, Avery John, Jay Heaps, Jeff Larentowicz. Michael Parkhurst, Steve Ralston, Khano Smith, Shalrie Joseph, Wells Thompson, Pat Noonan, Taylor Twellman, plus Andy Dorman as the substitute.

Now look at the side that trotted out to be handed their collective heads vs. Real Salt Lake and likely soon by the Galaxy, then Pumas and finally Morelia. To wit; Matt Reis, Kevin Alston, Cory Gibbs, Emmanuel Osei, Seth Sinovic, Sainey Nyassi, Shalrie Joseph, Jason Griffiths, Chris Tierney and Zack Schilawski with Kehli Dube, Joseph Niouky and Kenny Mansally coming on as substitutes. Taking into account aging, injuries and transfers, there is no comparison. In 2007 John, Smith and Thompson were the weak links, quite likely below MLS standard. In 2010, respect to the potential of the kids aside, perhaps Reis, Alston, Gibbs, Osei, Perovic and Joseph are of like quality and are any of these players on the uptick of their careers besides Alston? In other words, the level of the overall Revolution roster has plummeted and that is the fault of the folks who get the groceries and approve the checks.

People grumble that the Revolution have no DP when in fiscal terms they have two, Shalrie Joseph and Taylor Twellman. Yet watching Salt Lake ping the ball around Rio Tinto made it painfully obvious that a side that strikes an effective balance between college products and folks who have come up through the professional ranks makes for far, far better football than a couple of highly paid players and a welter of minimum and near-minimum salary postgraduate projects. With no disrespect to the Revolution rookies, they are in over their head for the time being and their mistakes are compounded by the inability of the veterans to provide cohesion.

It is entirely possible that ownership just doesn’t understand this, operating as they do primarily in the NFL where the NCAA setup provides a totally free farm system to train the porkers for the big time wallow. But this doesn’t work in proper football, the competition is nowhere near as good at the college level and the game is completely different, rewarding robotic repetition and not individual initiative. Real footballers have to operate on their own, without stopping every five seconds for re-programming and that requires years on the field against top quality, professional competition, something the college game can never provide.

I am certain that Stevie Nicol does get it. Looking at the way Real Salt Lake play football and checking their website for the quality of their staff, it is clear that they spend significant support money outside the cap itself on people that help to find, sign, develop and retain good players. This week, when the Galaxy come to town, we’ll see a side that represents an even greater investment (plus some say favoritism) something that the current management and ownership needs to contemplate if there is any hope for the future of their franchise in what is now called MLS 2.0.

From the serious supporters point of view there need to be clear signs that this is all seeping in. Coach Nicol could not have been more forthcoming in his post-match remarks. Will he now back it up by telling the powers that be, “my way or the highway?” At this point the vote of confidence needs to be on those above him and if they don’t respond, the coach and everyone else who cares about the Revs have to call them on it far more openly than has been the case.

While the team got skunked 5-0 at the weekend, it should be noted that this was their fourth multi-goal loss to MLS sides, plus two more poundings in friendlies. At some point these humiliations have to eat at the confidence and cohesion of the players, both youthful and veteran alike. You can already see it on the pitch where players seem to be operating on solo mode, without any of the interconnectivity that is the basis of the contemporary game from the World Cup on down to MLS. Watching Real Salt Lake, Columbus and the Galaxy in recent days has shown that attractive, attacking football does get played on these shores. Those sides are easy on the eyes and it used to be the case in Foxborough. At present the balance between capable, skilled professionals and callow, overwhelmed youngsters has been tipped and until it is put back into some semblance of equilibrium the future looks dreary.

Thus far in 2010 the supporters have been given few reasons to have any pride in the team and they are increasingly convinced that the management/ownership have no passion. The public pronouncements offered by management have all the forthcoming quality of the famous Pentagon PowerPoint presentation on Afghanistan. This may work for the famous hoodie in the bunker porkerball team and its sycophant fans; it doesn’t for a team trying to endear itself to a rapidly contracting base of support.

One Response to “Two Sets of Thoughts On Two Manager’s Minds On Two Flights: Whither the Nats and The Revs?”

  1. JMH said

    Great article.

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