Are The Best Times In Foxboro In The Rear View Mirror? plus an Interview with Jay Miller.
Posted by tonybiscaia on February 14, 2012
A VIEW FROM THE FORT: By Jim Dow
Tim Thomas may be a an object lesson for all of us to not mix sport and politics but it seems to me that Robert Kraft, at least in the eyes of the Revolution’s most ardent supporters, had what might be called a Mitt Romney moment when he recently told Marcus Kwesi O’Mard of NESN that he preferred operating a team in a league where costs are strictly controlled.
“If we were to compete, I’d rather be competing against somebody working with similar budgets, then it’s how well we manage,” said the Pats/Revs owner, an observation that when taken in the context of not buying into the daft financial circus that is the Premier League makes perfect sense but when read by Revolution supporters seems roughly akin to the Republican hopeful seeming to say that he doesn’t care about the poor.
Right now, in some circles, it is said that the Revolution aren’t even managing to say nothing of competing. And while it is impossible to imagine Robert Kraft as being in the same straits as Billy Sullivan, by all appearances his soccer team faces the same, albeit self-imposed, constraints in the new MLS that the Pats did in the old AFL.
Of course Kraft was referring to the NFL where multiple millions are involved, not MLS where, interestingly enough, it is increasingly the case that the best teams are those that do spend “extra” money on such things as multiple academy teams, numerous coaches, DP buyouts and signings, support staff for players – often multilingual, site development and scouting; all funded from the ownership’s own pockets and well beyond the basic bottom line. Think Dallas, Portland, Salt Lake and Seattle just to name four examples.
I still remember driving away from RFK Stadium on a balmy November afternoon in 2007 after Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston, Shalrie Joseph & Co. had, once again, lost a game they should/could have won through no fault of their own; they were undermanned and undersupported. For the fourth time, fourteen players could only do so much, particularly as the toll of another long, hard slog came due.
The sense in the car that day on I-95 was that this was the end, players had moved on, or were about to do so, the old guard was growing older and the youngsters weren’t good enough, at least at that point.
Perhaps Bob Kraft and family felt the same way leaving Indianapolis last Sunday. Certainly the Patriots gave it all they had but injuries to key personnel, slight atrophy of what had heretofore been thought of as skills set in stone and an opponent who was able to take advantage of all those cracks, be they ever so slight made losing centimeter-close but inevitable. Again, it is likely that an era is ending, despite the estimable and youthful Chung, Gronk and Hernandez.
With the 2007 Revs you might have pointed out Andy Dorman, Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst as being young and on the uptick but within a couple of years all of them were gone through ambition, misjudgment and, possibly, penury. Dempsey had already left, Twellman would be injured the next year and Ralston soon thereafter; the guard was changing, replaced by lesser, cheaper talent.
The recent Patriots Super Bowl record is starting to resemble that of their fellow Foxborough dweller and even brings up thoughts of the late, great Buffalo Bills. All close but no cigar.
Just to lay out the facts: Pats, L – 2012, L – 2008, W – 2005, W – 2004, W – 2002, L – 1997, L – 1986. Bills – L -1991, 92, 93, 94. Revs, MLS Cup L – 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007.
As far as the Revs are concerned, however, that was then and this is now, Superliga aside, they haven’t won anything much in the way of games since they trudged off the turf at RFK, deeply depressed. What is most important is tracking the diminution and decline of talent since then, as well as the ineffective moves to address the situation.
While neither Poppa K nor the Mittster were aware of how their observations might be taken by some, the point really is that there is no doubt that any Patriot shortcomings will be quickly addressed while those of the Revolution are in a limbo that, at present, gallingly grinds on and on in the eyes of their most dedicated fans.
When Soccer America published their MLS player ratings last month the lack of top- level players on the Revs squad jumped off the page. The magazine assigns ten positions; goalkeeper, right back, left back, center backs (doubling up here), left and right midfielders, central midfielder, attacking midfielder, forward and striker. They then list what they feel are the top ten players at each position, allowing for more at center back.
Of roughly 120 players listed as being in the top half of the league at their respective positions the Revs had but four: Benny Feilhaber, the 9th best Attacking Midfielder, Shalrie Joseph, the 3rd best Central Midfielder, A.J. Soares, the 10th best Center Back and Kevin Alston, the 9th best Right Back. With 18 teams in the league in 2011, it would be fair to say that New England took the field in 2011 with mostly mediocre to lesser MLS-level players in the first eleven.
While these ratings may be arbitrary, they are likely as fair as any and, most importantly, offer an almost frightening graphic of where the current squad is in terms of the rest of MLS, at least before a ball is kicked in 2012. To reach the comparison below, I did the following. Each rated player was assigned the number of their ranking, if a team did not have a rated player they were assigned the number “11.” If a team had multiple players at a given position the number assigned was one lower than the total.
Thus the team with the “best” players had the lowest numerical total, in this case the Galaxy with 55 points. These figures are aligned with the points total in the final league-wide table; again the best was LA with 67 total.
Player Points 2011 Final Standings 2011
55 – LA 67 – LA
57 – Seattle 63 – Seattle
59 – Salt Lake 53 – Salt Lake
67 – Dallas 52 – Dallas
79 – Philadelphia 51 – Kansas City
82 – Houston 49 – Houston
84 – DC 49 – Colorado
88 – NY/NJ 48 – Philadelphia
89 – Kansas City 47 – Columbus
92 – Colorado 46 – NY/NJ
94 – Chicago 43 – Chicago
96 – San Jose 42 – Portland
98 – Chivas USA 39 – DC
104 – Columbus 38 – San Jose
106 – Toronto 36 – Chivas USA
106 – Vancouver 33 – Toronto
108 – New England 28 – Vancouver
109 – Portland 28 – New England
What was fascinating about the exercise was how the top four teams in total talent were the top four teams in the standings. Then came a muddle in the middle, which could be attributed to differences in coaching quality, schedule difficulty, injuries and (gulp) team chemistry.
So, for example, Columbus was short on talent, not far from the Revs but finished exactly mid-table, 20 points from the top, 19 from the bottom. Better coaching? Easier schedule? Team chemistry?
Portland, on the other hand, was last in talent according to Soccer America, or at least last in top half players, yet they finished a good 14 points ahead of New England, despite playing in the stronger half of the league. Great crowds, super atmosphere, maybe kudos for John Spencer who, along with Dominic Kinnear and Steve Nicol gave MLS a distinctly Scots flavor.
At the bottom, the Timbers aside, things were abundantly clear; teams low in talent finish in or near the cellar, as did the Revs.
Of course the transfusion and potential of new arrivals Milton Caraglio, Diego Fagundez, Benny Feilhaber, Rajko Lekic, Monsef Zerka, plus a fully healthy A.J. Soares and a revitalized Shalrie Joseph offered encouraging prospects for 2012 until three of the above failed to re-sign, leaving the prospects for improvement to what are, at the moment, only prospects which many feel are dim, at best.
By the end of the 2011 season Steve Nicol was sending out a lineup that looked like this: Matt Reis; Kevin Alston, Ryan Cochrane, A.J. Soares, Darrius Barnes; Monsef Zerka, Benny Feilhaber, Shalrie Joseph, Chris Tierney; Rajko Lekic, Milton Caraglio.
The bench would have Diego Fagundez, Kenny Mansally, France Coria, Pat Phelan, Ryan Guy, Sainey Nyassi, Bobby Shuttlesworth.
Other squad players were Zak Boggs, Stephen McCarthy, Zach Schilawski, Alan Koger, Ryan Kinne, Tyler Polak.
As of this writing Cochrane, Zerka, Lekic, Caraglio, Coria, Phelan and Koger have departed, to be replaced by John Lazano, Fernando Cardenas, Kelyn Rowe and Clyde Sims.
If there are no new significant signings by Opening Day on 10 March, the lineup might look like: GOAL: Matt Reis, LB: Darrius Barnes, CB’s: A.J. Soares, John Lozano, RB: Kevin Alston, LM: Fernando Cardenas, CM’s: Benny Feilhaber, Shalrie Joseph, RM: Kelyn Rowe, F: Zach Schilawski. And ???? since the “new #9” has gone walkabout.
The bench would be Diego Fagundez, Ryan Guy, Clyde Sims, Stephen McCarthy, Chris Tierney, Bobby Shuttlesworth.
At this point the squad players might be Zak Boggs, Ryan Kinne, Kenny Mansally, Sainey Nyassi and Tyler Polak, plus a possible current trialist or two.
The question is, going forward, does this group constitute an upgrade of serious proportions relative to the group that finished the 2011 campaign in last place point wise and one point off the bottom in talent? And, if the answer is no, can the current administration make the moves to bring about improvement?
If sheer loquaciousness could be construed as a gauge for future success, the two Jays, Heaps and Miller, will certainly lead the 2012 Revolution right back to the top of MLS. Both coaches are a delight to talk to and totally engaging as personalities. They look you in the eye, smile readily and offer clear answers to questions with generosity, albeit taking care to exercise tact when required.
I caught up with Coach Miller after training last week.
JIM: To start out, you have a long and distinguished career in player development as well as observing player development in other countries. One of the common thoughts in this country is that the whole youth system is geared towards college as opposed to the pros. Times are changing, there are respectable careers to be had as a professional footballer in the States, what do you think needs to change overall to facilitate this?
JAY: Player development happens fastest when you get the best players playing with and against each other as often as possible. Sprinkle in a little bit of good coaching and guidance and that’s it. So I mean the best thing that can happen is interaction between older, senior players and younger, budding… professionals.
JIM: To interrupt, are you saying that development is more a matter of nature than culture?
JAY: Well, it’s everything. I mean, you look at the successful countries around the world, they have the culture, they have the nurturing, they have the genetics, so to speak, that the best athletes are choosing the sport, so we are in a constant battle, (maybe) not battle, we are in a constant quest for speed of play. That is the difference between international, professional, and amateur and on down the line, who can do it faster.
And that encompasses the four pillars of soccer, which (are) physical speed, technical speed, tactical speed and even psychologically in saying, “I feel quick today.”
JIM: Of course you know the saying that the ball always moves faster than the players except in MLS where the players try to run faster than the ball.
JAY: Well, and that is the answer, I mean the ball never gets tired. It never gets tired; so let it do the running for you. Turning and running with the ball, you can pass it thirty yards faster than anyone on this planet can run but you need the thought process between everyone. So this is our focus as I see it here at the Revolution, get that speed of play, it’s anticipation, it’s a community effort to keep the ball moving.
JIM: That segues nicely into the second line of questioning. This is a team that historically, if 16 years can be said to be a historical period, has developed primarily from the college draft. And when you do that you are bringing in players at 22, 23 years of age with established habits. So, I would presume that part of your job is to break some of those habits.
JAY: It is, it’s a journey for every player, I mean a player at age 29 or 30 is honing his game, and he even has to alter his game as his career matures.
JIM: Certainly, Steve Ralston was an excellent example of that process.
JAY: Steve Ralston is a perfect example. (Rio) Ferdinand of Manchester United where Fergie says, “he needs to change his game if he wants to continue to play, he relied on his athleticism and it is the same thing here, where it is a constant truthful assessment of where you are as a player at this moment in time and what this team is. That’s the fun part of this whole thing.
JIM: But how do you get players, for instance, whose culture was to bang and run in college, who may be very gifted physically, how do you get them to make that shift to the speed of thought, etc?
JAY: We set the bars and the demands of how this team is going to play, you fit in or you don’t. We’ve got 28 players here fighting for 11 slots, and this is (that) we take (what we feel are) the strengths of most of our senior players and then the other ones, how do you fit into that? And then you throw in what is needed to play that (specific) opponent the next time; you see then it is different horses for different courses. So the competition (and competitiveness) is what we feel brings out that development, the individual development, the small group development and (ultimately) the team development.
JIM: Thinking about that, during the salad days of the Revolution, say from 2002 to 2007, most of the players, in fact Coach Heaps himself, got better. Now how much of that came from a culture where they were playing with a better level of player and how much of that was teaching? Because certainly in the last two or three years I think you could make the argument that many of the potentially quite good players didn’t get better. And I’m not asking you to criticize the former administration.
JAY: It’s a little bit of both but let me tell you that the better the players are, the better the coach looks… Give me he best players and I’ll look like a great coach, so the point is that the established players that are here now and the young ones coming in, they’re on this journey together and they have to make each (other) better. If you are Shalrie, your responsibility is not only to be a leader on the team, you have to make the players around you better and show them how that is. And the young kids need to be sponges and need to jump into that task.
JIM: With that in mind, what are your expectations? You are training an hour and a half, two hours a day. What are your expectations of the players beyond that, in terms of personal development? I don’t mean taking art courses, but doing stuff like weight training, etc, etc.
JAY: Well, it is a full day, we have a full time fitness trainer with Nick Downing, and they treat themselves as athletes first of all and then soccer players, second. Pele said about his coach, he taught (him) three things in the order of importance. Number one, how to be a man, second of all, how to be an athlete, what it takes to be an athlete and the third, what it takes to be a soccer player.
As far as developing to be a man, that’s an ongoing process with us about how do you act as a professional. But what you’re talking about in training, right here, now it is how to be an athlete and how to be a soccer player.
JIM: Again, as the league is shifting, where it seems you have two models; one being say, Los Angeles or New York, where they go out and spend a lot of money on DP salaries, etc, they spend money on the players themselves. Then there is the model of, say, Salt Lake, where significant money is spent on support in coaching, scouting, etc, and then players are found at less cost in salaries. But in either case, money is being spent well beyond the minimum expenses.
What do you see as the support that you guys need for team development moving forward?
JAY: Well, I’m new here…
JIM: And that is part of why I’m asking, because the new person always has an interesting view when they come into an established situation.
JAY: …Well, I think it is clear at this point in time that we know who the big spenders are in the league. The Torontos, the New Yorks and Los Angeles. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t beat them. If there is more money available, we’ll always spend it. And I think there has been, certainly, an enthusiasm on (the part of) the ownership here to say, “let’s go a different level here,” They’ve tried o improve the training area, the whole environment (for) the players here and we have made some good signings that I like and we have a few others that are still pending and I may be naïve, but I’m an old naïve person here, I tell you, I really like the attitude around this team, they are training, they are working hard, in fact in the last two days I’ve seen excellent, excellent progress and that’s an honest statement.
JIM: Did you read the wonderful interview with Sir Alex a couple of weeks ago where he said that retirement is for younger people because as you get older there is only one thing you want to do and it seems to me like you have a real mission here.
JAY: I’ve been blessed with the opportunity that is (like being) a kid in a candy store for me, to be around the young kids where their careers are in front of them, and some of the senior professionals that are finishing up in three or four or five years. It’s been a great journey, it’s a great journey for all of them to see (us) go through it and it is a journey of the actual league itself and for this franchise (which) is somewhat reinventing itself.
JIM: In relation to that, as you have more players, ex-players in this league coming forward as coaches, Jason Kreis being the obvious model, Jay Heaps here and so on. How important are senior advisors, I would think tremendously so.
JAY: (laughing) Me too!