The Revolution Have The Resources But Do They Have The Resolve to Reach A Resolution In The New Year? Plus An Interview With Chris Tierney
Posted by tonybiscaia on December 28, 2010
A VIEW FROM THE FORT
by Jim Dow
In a recent interview on NPR’s On Point, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman used some telling examples to illustrate the woeful state of the United States compared to the rest of the world as regards the development and maintenance of infrastructure. He described the difference in departing from an airport in Europe or Asia and arriving at, say Kennedy or LAX as leaving the 21st Century and entering the time of the Flintstones. He then offered an equally damning comparison of the six months that it recently took to build an enormous international conference center in the Chinese city of Tianjin and the fact that it took the same amount of time for D.C. Metro workers to fix a 21-step escalator at his local subway station in the nation’s capital.
Somehow, Charles De Gaulle and Heathrow aside, there is a metaphor regarding the Revolution waiting to emerge; too bad Friedman isn’t a football writer but perhaps measuring nine steps, umm, times are a place to start either in building a team or a stadium, or both.
After a terrible 2010 campaign the team’s management has cleared out nearly 40% of its’ player salary obligations between cuts and retirements, sent the coaches off to places as far removed as Norway, Nigeria and Argentina and made generalized noises about bringing in new blood. At the same time, with the transfer window only days from being open there has yet to be a concrete rumor, just Turkish toffee in the form of Alex plus dreaming about the likes of Robbie Keane in addition to the addition of a prospect in the 15 year-old Fagundez, a fine backup in Ryan Cochrane and the re-signing of the redoubtable Matt Reis.
As opposed to the past the stage is unquestionably set for either success, mid-pack mediocrity or failure and there can be no excuses made, as everyone from coaches to ownership admits that the side needs replenishment at the back, in the middle and up front. If this doesn’t happen the downward slide that has taken the Revolution to what should be the relegation zone will continue, perhaps to extinction as a competitive entity. While all teams in all sports regularly undergo retirements (Heaps and Ralston), career-ending injuries (Twellman), departures (Larentowicz), misjudgments (Jankauskas and Niouky) and plain bad luck (Twellman again) in a given year, New England seems to be stuck in a period of decline that while not totally of its own making in any club outside MLS as well as many in their own league would have lead to firings, shake-ups, media questions being asked, fan fingers being pointed and serious scrutiny by the folks who cut the checks as well as those who supply the cash.
In this case, the latter may be hesitant to criticize the former, as solutions likely would require a higher level of investment.
Looking back to the final matches of the 2010 and 2007 seasons provides a clear measuring stick of the agonizing transition of the team. Of course the stakes involved in the two contests stand in stark contrast, a meaningless, end-of-season loss away from home as opposed to the last of three straight MLS Cup Finals as well as the beginning of the end for what had been a relatively dominant team over the previous four seasons.
In 2010 Coach Nicol started Bobby Shuttlesworth in goal in place of the injured Matt Reis who had been sent off for surgery. Reis was also the backstop of choice in 2007, coming off a stellar year between the sticks.
His backline this past October was a flat back four of Cory Gibbs, Emmanuel Osei, Darrius Barnes and Chris Tierney. Kevin Alston did not dress, out with yet another hammy. At RFK vs. the Dynamo in ‘07 there were three defenders, Avery John, Michael Parkhurst the junior Kaiser, and Jay Heaps.
Playing out the string in 2010 in a four-man midfield formation against the playoff-bound Bulls were Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi on the flanks with Shalrie Joseph and Jason Griffiths patrolling the middle of the park. Contesting for the championship three years before, five players were strung across the DC turf, Khano Smith and Wells Thompson outside, Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz holding and destroying and Steve Ralston pulling the strings including a gorgeous cross for a Twellman snap header for the first score of the game.
The front line at Red Bull Arena in October consisted of the skilful Serbians, Marko Perovic and Ilija Stolica while the now retired TnT and Pat Noonan led the line in the November final.
Andy Dorman came on as a reserve to add punch when the Revos were chasing a one-goal deficit in 2007 and Pat Phelan and Zach Schilawski did the same in 2010 when the team was down by a brace in a game where New England was outclassed but not outfought, a not untypical situation this past season.
Dressed but not called upon in 2010 were Tim Murray, Kheli Dube, Khano Smith, Nico Colaluca and Seth Sinovic. Sitting on the sideline in the Cup Final were Adam Cristman, Marshall Leonard, Kenny Mansally, Sainey Nyassi, James Reily and Doug Warren.
Of the players dressed in 2007 Dorman and Parkhurst are now doing well in Europe. Heaps, Leonard, John, Ralston, Twellman and Warren are retired and Cristman, Larentowicz, Noonan, Reily and Thompson are with other MLS clubs and Khano Smith is somewhere between here and Pluto.
In 2007 Dorman, Joseph, Noonan, Parkhurst, Reis, Ralston and Twellman were considered among the very best players at their positions in the league. Even Khano Smith was given a good rating by Soccer America, which may put the accuracy of this whole exercise in some doubt. Avery John and Heaps were seen as solid pros, Larentowicz a work in progress with a huge upside particularly in tandem with Shalrie and Wells Thompson was a rookie with promise.
In 2010, with sixteen teams in the league Soccer America rated only Kevin Alston (6), Chris Tierney (10), Sainey Nyassi (10), Shalrie Joseph (6) and Marko Perovic (6) as being among the top 10 at their positions and none of them were considered dominant, although the rating is inaccurate when it comes to the great Grenadian. Former Revs James Reily (8), Andy Williams (4) were both well ranked and Larentowicz (1) and Daniel Hernandez (2) were classified as the best holding midfielders of 2010.
Now imagine the following scenario, had the Revs been able to hold onto Dorman in 07, Parkhurst in 08 and Larentowicz in 09 and trotted out this lineup during 2010; Reis in goal, a three person back line of Alston, Parkhurst and Tierney; a five man midfield with Nyassi and Mansally outside, Larentowicz holding, Joseph distributing and Dorman ghosting in the middle and Perovic and Stolica up front. Subs would be Shuttlesworth, Barnes, Osei, Sinovic, Phelan, Griffiths, Boggs, Shilawski and Dube, plus a couple of others, not a bad team and with some effort, imagination and will on the part of the front office, at least plausible if not possible.
How might this have come to pass? Of course this can only be speculation, since nothing emerges from the bunker other than snippets but those can be helpful. First, as the playoffs approached the brain trust knew that the 2007 team was already in decline and needed bolstering. Ownership did travel to the Final and paid for busloads of fans to do so as well but did not pony up for a player that might have made a difference that year, such as Guillermo Barros Schelloto, to nail down a championship fourth time trying. This starting some behind the scenes grumbling that has formed a sometime but insistent Greek chorus ever since. It has slipped out in videos, interviews and statements that can no longer be ignored as one-offs and have established a negative reputation around the league. But how could that have been afforded? Perhaps by signing the then invaluable duo of Joseph and Twellman as DP’s, freeing up some significant money to bring in a significant player like the ex-Boca star to bolster an excellent but thin, worn down cast.
Then, after winning their first MLS Cup management could have done some Patriots-level capology, allowing Dorman to stay, Parkhurst to be courted over the next months, Joseph and Twellman given the choice to be long-term DP’s or be sold on to Europe and Larentowicz locked in to a long-term, escalating pay packet dependent on performance. None of this would have been easy, some of it might have proven impossible but the vibration that the Revolution doesn’t go the extra mile for their players would have been put to rest for good.
On the other hand, it would it have been easier to operate during Twellman’s long and courageous attempt to come back, since there would have been a goodly amount of his as well as Joseph’s salary taken up by the DP designation.
Finally, the off the pitch support for the team could have been improved through added staff for scouting and training, perhaps even raising Nicol and Mariner’s salaries commensurate with their achievements in the middle of the decade. While none of this would have helped the bottom line short term the good will both within the team and around it would likely have been priceless and might well have been reflected at the gate. By keeping midfielders and others happy, or at least feeling wanted there might well have been more “Midfielders Wanting” to come watch in 2011.
There is no question that the team went looking to keep apace when they brought in Gabriel Badilla, Mauricio Castro and Edgaras Jankauskas. While it turned out that none of these moves panned out, how often do they across the league? Marko Perovic may turn out to have the longevity of Marco Etcheverry but any and all foreign players are a gamble coming to MLS. By the same token, depending on the draft for re-stocking seems to be increasingly decreasing as a useful option. To succeed in the present day league requires a judicious balance between all the potential sources of supply, including a strong development program organized, funded and perpetually pursued by personnel dedicated to the task. There is never a guarantee that you can consistently replace like with like as teams evolve and change but there are multiple ways to attempt to do so.
Some of the best success stories during the Nicol era have been draftees who have been brought along through slow but steady maturation and improvement, Jeff Larentowicz being the prime example. Often players moving from college to the pros are unable to cope with no longer being physically dominant and lack the ability to analyze their weaknesses and strengths and adapt. However, individuals like the ginger-haired Brown graduate, who combine soccer intelligence, will and particularized talents can mature into significant professionals through application and good coaching. Chris Tierney, for example, came into MLS three years ago being slow of foot, quick of mind, and excellent striker of the ball from the left side plus willing to learn. Since that time he has proven himself to be a dependable utility player, developed into a consistent starter on the 2010 team and can now slot in effectively on either the back line or at midfield.
Under ideal conditions more of the younger, U.S. bred players can be worked into the system slowly but when they have to carry the load, without a large number of top level senior professionals to learn from and play with, it becomes a much more Darwinian selection process. Even blue-chip prospects like Kevin Alston suffer in such circumstances but imagine him with say, Parkhurst, on his left to cover for mistakes?
The next couple of months will put proof to whether the New England Revolution are prepared and committed to creatively spend their nearly million-dollar salary cap windfall to build a competitive team for 2011.
I spoke with Chris Tierney himself after a training session in the last week of the season just over two months ago…
JIM: So you are now a grizzled veteran, or at least an unshaven one at the end of your third year, you are the Player Representative for the team and I’d like to get your thoughts on how players coming out of college and into the professional game have a learning curve to negotiate in ways that I’m certain you are more aware of than I am.
I’d like to get your perspective on that because from watching the team play it seems that your game has developed considerably. What have been some of the greatest adjustments and changes for you?
CHRIS: There’s an adjustment period, definitely coming out of college. (The) play is a lot faster, they are a lot more physical in MLS, you get closed down a lot quicker, so the mental side is something that becomes much more important, whereas I feel in college the physical aspects kind of separate the good players from the great players but at this level, aside from the physical aspects you have to be in the right place mentally (and) that is something that takes time. Coming out of college, coming into the pros you know it’s very demanding psychologically to play week in and week out and compete at this level. It is just something that…experience improves (your ability to deal with) it obviously and it takes time and it takes learning from guys that are older and have been here for a while.
I feel that (now) in my third year I’ve started to master the psychological side a little bit more so than I did in my first two years…
JIM: The psychological side being internal, that is to say dealing with all the stuff that goes on around being a professional, or also dealing with all the stuff that is thrown at you on the field?
CHRIS: Both, definitely, recognizing situations in games, approaching training with the right attitude and realizing that how you train and how you prepare yourself psychologically out here has a significant effect on your performance on the weekends.
JIM: It seems that while you are quite a different sort of player that you are on something of a similar arc as Larentowicz in that after a couple of adjustment years you have really found a role although on this particular team because it is in transition your role is as well as opposed o his case where he was breaking into a team that was fairly established. How has hat been in figuring it out, I mean you are able to play, how many different positions?
CHRIS: Yes, you know it is something that every player has to do at some point in there career, I think the best players are those that are self-aware and realize where they fit within a team and I realized that I’m a guy who is going to be in to fill holes and to be responsible and be someone who can be counted on in a variety of different positions. I’m not a guy who is going to go out there and wow you with crazy skills or tricks or anything like that. I’m not a flying winger but I pride myself on being a guy who you know what you are going to get when he’s out there.
JIM: Yet on the other hand you are using the ball creatively a lot more than when you first came up, you are taking people on and you are…not just moving the ball on but moving it on in a positive way and that seems to be a significant difference.
CHRIS: Yes, you know that just comes with training and with playing with good players and learning from Stevie and just being positive and confident, I think confidence is so important in this game and that is something that has progressively gotten bigger for me as I’ve gotten more time to play.
JIM: So if you woke up in the morning and the tooth fairy appeared and said you can play wherever you want, every day, what would be the position that you would choose?
CHRIS: That’s a good question, that is really hard to answer, I think ideally I’d like to play in the left midfield role in a 4-4-2 where I can play on both sides of the ball, I do like to defend and I like the work that left mid requires in that formation, I like playing on both sides of the ball and defending as much as I do like going forward.
JIM: Switching subjects, the team is obviously in transition and from everything that has been put out publically there are going to be a lot of changes over the next year. Wearing your player representative hat now, how do you feel about the salary disparity in this league? It is huge, probably if we figured the percentage differences between the top and bottom it would be greater than in any other league in the world, quite possibly in any sport. How do you feel as a player representative having players come in who are making four, five, ten times the amount the average MLS player is making?
CHRIS: At this point in the league I think it is necessary because I think that bringing in these players with recognizable names with the quality of the Henrys, Angels and Beckhams that are coming over and playing in the league now, it is important just in terms of exposure for the league. You know as a guy on the lower end of the salary grade it is tough at times to see a guy who is making five, ten times what I make not performing up to those levels but at the same time, it is a business and that’s the way it works. I think guys at the lower end of the pay grade realize that this league is still relatively young and needs to establish itself financially and that the disparity is a result of that.
JIM: But, on the other hand, for people in your position, thinking about a long term career, the financial rewards for a long term career don’t set you up for life whereas playing a similar role for a team in other leagues in other countries might, at least to a degree, make for some degree of security.
I’m not even thinking of this as a personal question but how does that effect players across the league, do you think?
CHRIS: You know it is still definitely in the back of everyone’s minds, I think as a guy who finished school and am lucky enough to be in a place financially where I can do this for a couple of years and play and be alright it is something that needs to be addressed I think. You’re right, I see guys who have played their whole careers in MLS and have families now and are still struggling to make things work.
JIM: Right, and you have no guarantee of going on to a great coaching job or administrative position in the game…
CHRIS: And the problem is that guys are coming out younger and younger from college, you see these kids going to one, two years of school and then they play five, six, nine, ten years in the league and then they are an unskilled worker when they come out of MLS, other than being able to go into coaching or something like that. You are in a degree-less, entry level position at that point.
JIM: That is a very good way to analyze it. So in your case, at what point in your development did you start to think of playing professionally?
CHRIS: Probably sophomore year in college, about halfway through my college career but I recognized very early on that getting my degree was going to be my number one priority, just because…of the fact that, like you said, it’s not at a point where this can be a career and set you up financially long-term.
JIM: Yet, on the other hand, the big hope for soccer in this country in general is that you guys, when you retire, having professional-level playing ability, professional careers, professional-level understanding of the game are going to take over something that has been, with all due respect, an amateur operation for years.
CHRIS: Yes, definitely, I think guys in my position realize that you do acquire skills here that can be translated into anything that you want to do off the soccer field. I think that when it comes time, whether my career continues in soccer or not, I think I’ve gained skills and experience here that will help me in whatever I do and I think that is the same for anyone else who has played in the league.
JIM: It was interesting talking to Jay Heaps before the season and he was saying actually that the competitiveness, the ultra-competitiveness that he had on the field, when he got into the business world there were things that actually held him back, that the Type A personality that you think of as suited for Wall Street didn’t really work for him given his analytical bent as a former history major at Duke.
CHRIS: It is always on a case-by-case basis (laughing), Jay’s on the extreme end of the scale too. So you have to take that with a grain of salt.
JIM: Finally, looking at this season, certain players, you being one of them have actually progressed as individuals even though the team itself has not. How do you, as a player, analyze that, personal progression versus team progression, because this is such a team sport, unlike baseball or basketball, where stats can be so important, it is a total team sport.
CHRIS: Yes, it is tough to do that, you know it is tough to look at individuals in a season where things haven’t really gone our way but I think there are some positive personal performances to take from this year, we’re still a young team if you look at us overall and so I think there are promising signs for the future, there are guys who have stepped into roles and have proven that they can play at this level and as players continue to progress I think we’re going to be able to keep a good core of guys that are going to grow up together and turn into a significant force in this league.
JIM: Thinking about the last five or six games of this past season, the quality of the football, regardless of winning or losing, changed significantly. There was a lot of playing on the ground, a lot of nice passing; the game was easy on the eye, whereas in the middle of the summer, even when you were winning, none of that was the case. What has changed because, Stolijca aside, it is the same bunch of players, or is it?
CHRIS: That’s a good question, soccer is such a momentum sport, I think right now (i.e. in the final games of 2010) we’re playing some decent stuff, we’ve been training well, we finally had almost a full squad to choose from so players are playing in positions where they are comfortable…
JIM: As opposed to having to play out of position to make the numbers…
CHRIS: Yes, in the middle of the season we were getting (some) results but it was a patchwork job, I was playing in the center midfield, it just kills the flow of the game, you’re not playing next to guys you are used to playing next to, you aren’t used to the positions and the passing angles from guys being in spots they aren’t used to. Now that we have more guys fit, the soccer has improved and it is just a result from us training together and being able to have some continuity from game to game.
JIM: The last question, because there are so many arguments about this, as a player how is playing on Field Turf as opposed to training on grass, specifically for your game, which is a passing game.
CHRIS: To be honest, it is a nightmare playing on the turf, it really is. (Even) high quality turf, it just doesn’t compare. Specifically for me, I’m a passing player and the turf just puts a spin on the ball that’s not natural for the game of soccer. If you watch across the world it is usually low cut grass and a little slick, so that the ball when you pass it has a little bit of backspin on it. The turf (on the other hand) immediately grips the surface of the ball and makes it spin forward and (therefore) the touch is different and the weight of the passes is different. I think people really underestimate how difficult it is and how much of an effect the turf has on soccer.
JIM: So literally, given forward spin versus backspin, 180-degree difference in ball movement?
CHRIS: Absolutely, the spin on the ball is completely different. I wear different boots on the grass than I do on the turf; it is a nightmare, to be honest.
JIM: So, the equivalent might be trying to play 18 holes of golf without backspin for control?
CHRIS: Yes, it is similar; it is a whole different game. And the thing is, we train on grass and then we go play on turf at the weekend, so it is difficult.
JIM But if you trained on turf…
CHRIS: Exactly, which brings it back around to the point that turf’s just… grass is the surface that soccer is meant to be played on.
JIM: I can say it, turf sucks.
CHRIS: It sucks, yeah.
JIM: Thanks so much!