From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Meet The New Revs, Same As The Old Revs, Thirteen Points, Or Are They? Plus An Interview With Lee Nguyen

Posted by tonybiscaia on May 27, 2012

A View From The Fort By Jim Dow

Eleven matches into the Jay Heaps era and the New England Revolution lie fifth out of ten in the Eastern Conference of MLS and overall are tenth out of nineteen teams with a record of four wins and six losses and a draw for 13 points.

Last season, 2011, according to all concerned a disaster, after eleven games played they lay fourteenth overall with three wins, four losses and four draws for 13 points. By season’s end they had managed to win only two more matches and tie eight, for a total of five wins and twelve draws at 27 points, next to last in the league. Thus they had gained almost half their points before the campaign was one-third done and then, blotto, whooooosh and flusssssh, the season went down the toilet.

So, in comparison with the 2011 train wreck that led to the parting of the ways with Coach Steve Nicol, is the 2012 iteration of the Revolution, with Jay Heaps at the helm significantly better at this juncture? And, looking ahead, are there reasons to expect that the second and third trimesters of the current campaign will turn out to be more positive than the sad events of the previous one?

By this time last year two of the four major acquisitions, Feilhaber and Lekic, had joined the team; Caraglio and Zerka came later. This season only Benny is left from that round of purchases and loans, the others having been replaced by Clyde Simms, Saer Sene, Lee Nguyen and the two Colombian Joses, Cardenas and Moreno, to name five. There are, of course, a number of others.

After an impressive 4-1 win over a plucky but tired Vancouver who, by some lights, openly dissed their opposition by not including three starters, the Revs took on a battle-hardened, some might say dirty Dynamo who wore them down with an impressive, professional combination of possession and assault to gain a 2-2 draw in a potential six point game.

With a run of home matches ahead, as well as being in a relatively weak Eastern Conference, the Revs must make hay while the sun shines if, indeed, all these offseason changes are to be seen as positive.

Part of it might be simply sartorial. Not to be unkind, but if nothing else Coach Heaps’ tailoring offers a significant upgrade to Stevie Nicol’s tea-stained Adidas sweats. These days, with the exception of the other Foxborough trainer, he of the hoodie, a jacket and tie plus a Newbury Street trim indicate dedication, professionalism and forward thinking and leave the old “track suit manager” in the dust. Think, for example, of The Special One in a tailored suit prowling the trendy touchlines of London, Madrid and Milan compared to Ray Hudson, late of Miami, clad in a baggy jumper looking as if he was waiting for a local bus in Huddersfield. If anyone in the Boston coaching fraternity seems “dressed for success” it is the Revs fledgling supremo, perhaps twin fallout from being a former financier and a Duke history major. Unfair perhaps, but Heaps clearly has an image for TV, if not radio as well and he certainly is the best-looking and fittest major league coach currently employed in Beantown. Well, maybe Bobby Valentine is an older, graying version of Longmeadow High School’s favorite son but he is in charge of the least likable edition of the Red Sox in recent memory and may be sacrificed on the alter of mediocrity soon enough while the future seems to be looking considerably brighter for the new Revos gaffer.

I was down at Duke in the immediate aftermath of the Blue Devils untimely exit in the second round of the NCAA and everyone I spoke with who was sportingly savvy sang Jay Heaps’ praises and speculated that, indeed, Coach K, he of the fanciest, highest corner office on campus, told the occupant of the Foxborough equivalent that his one-time walk-on hoopster was, emphatically, as good as could be found competitively and intellectually and up to the challenge of managing a top level team in every way.

Whatever the run-up to his hiring, what is particularly interesting to consider is that a product of US high school, club and college soccer who made a career of jumping, playing and punching above his height and weight seems to have a proclivity for coaching the best sort of jogo bonito; imaginative, offensive and up tempo and while not yet on a par with the 2005 team of Dempsey, Joseph, Noonan, Ralston and Twellman in results, who knows what his ambitions are for his charges for going forward going forward.

It is worth noting that Steve Nicol, who played some seriously silky football while at Liverpool, was and is a complete pragmatist when it comes to strategic evaluations and demands on his players. He never asked anyone to operate beyond what he saw as their skill set, which made for some pretty lumpen football in Foxborough once the aforementioned stars departed and the pipeline was allowed to dry up.

Now comes Coach Heaps, who as a player embodied his own coaches’ thump and hoof expediency but as the new gaffer on the block has his charges pushing, pressing, passing and attacking in style. They may not win all the time, they may make stupid mistakes, they may get outfoxed as they did against the Dynamo but with all that Heaps refuses to bunker in and makes substitutions to try possess and score.

More to the point, in the words of one fan, a poor outing for the 2012 Revolution is far, far easier on the eyes than a win for the 2011 edition and whether this stylistic uptick can be maintained in the face of multiple late losses, heat, travel, injuries, suspensions and all the other pressures that make up the nine month slog of an MLS season remains to be seen.

Maybe the real issue is a comparative one, best illustrated by a positional rundown of the two lineups that were trotted out for the Game Eleven encounters this season and last.

On May 21, 2011, Steve Nicol’s Revolution journeyed to San Jose to face the Earthquakes in tiny Buck Shaw Stadium where a full house of about 9,000 cheered for a
2 – 1 win for the home side. Matt Reis started in goal, behind a back four of Kevin Alston, Ryan Cochrane, A.J. Soares and Darrius Barnes. The midfield consisted of Benny Feilhaber, Shalrie Joseph, Stephen McCarthy and Chris Tierney; Up front were Zak Boggs and Rajko Lekic.

Chasing the win Stevie sent on Sainey Nyassi for Boggs in the 66th minute and Zack Schilawski for Cochrane in the 83rd. He left Franco Coria, Kheli Dube, Kenny Mansally, Pat Phelan and Bobby Shuttleworth on the bench.

A year later, on May 19, with the sun shining and temperatures in the upper 70’s an announced Gillette Stadium crowd of over 16,000 (it looked like the were a lot more in the stands, although 3,500+ tickets were given away) watch the hometown team suffer, well maybe allow a late rally from the dreaded Dynamo and draw 2-2.

Coach Heaps selected Matt Reis between the sticks with Chris Tierney, A.J. Soares, Stephen McCarthy and Kevin Alston as the back four. Lee Nguyen, Ryan Guy, Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber patrolled the center of the park, while Clyde Simms sat out with an injury. The forward partnership consisted of Saer Sene and Blake Brettschneider.

With a quarter of an hour to go Heaps withdrew Sene and Feilhaber and brought on he greyhounds, Fagundez (74th minute) and Cardenas (77th) to nip at the heels of the bigger orange-clad cloggers. It didn’t work and Houston got a tying goal in the 86th minute, likely due to the absence of the redoubtable Simms who has exceeded expectations and proven himself indispensable.

Bobby Shuttleworth, Darrius Barnes, John Lozano, Jose Moreno and Kelyn Rowe also suited up but were not used on the day.

Looking comparatively at the two squads one might say that the 2012 Alston is a huge improvement over himself a year ago. He man marks like glue, his speed is impressive and he seems better on the ball with his new mates and the myriad injuries that have often dogged him appear to be absent. To use an oft-borrowed term, he is a “warrior,” kind of a defensive back that takes on the other team’s best receiver.

Soares is also injury free and looking more dominant, the question is who will be his best partner, Stephen McCarthy learning on the job or the Colombian import Jon Lozano learning the culture and the league. Either way, the combinations seem to be an improvement over the combination of Cochrane and last year’s injured AJ.

On the left, it is hard to say. Tierney also seems to be growing on the job but Barnes did rather well in 2011 under equally difficult circumstances. Perhaps the final judgment will be whether Tierney’s ball skills outweigh Barnes’s defensive mobility. Both of them are playing out of position but that happens all the time in football and individuals can and must learn new positions to stay employed.

It may be that the proof of the pudding is in midfield depth, as witness the 2011 lineup of Chris Tierney, Benny Feilhaber, Shalrie Joseph and Stephen McCarthy with the new group adding Lee Nguyen and Clyde Simms and moving McCarthy and Tierney to the backline. When you add Ryan Guy and Kelyn Rowe in place of Kenny Mansally and Marko Perovic the question becomes a closer call, but Saint Marko was carrying an undisclosed injury that made him surplus to requirements and while these are early days yet, Perovic and Nguyen could be seen as at least a wash.

Up front, despite losing Lekic and Caraglio the emergence of Saer Sene seems to be the brightest news since the unfortunate departure of TnT. It isn’t clear that Brettschneider, Cardenas, Moreno and Runstrom will ultimately be better than Ilija Stolica, Kheli Dube and Sainey Nyassi but the tall Frenchman who, by his own admission, is in the process of adjusting to an MLS that is more physical than the lower reaches of the Bundesliga, just seems to be getting better and better. And now, in any number of different articles, blogs and posts the phrase “the real deal” keeps getting used. Perhaps the key to the 2012 season is, will he be just that?

It may be that the unforgivable sin was losing Caraglio, can you imagine him getting his rather porcine frame on crosses and setups from Nguyen, Feilhaber and Sene? On the other hand it may be that those extra pounds and slow feet made the asking price from Rosario just too much, we’ll never know unless someone in the Kremlin squeals.

But on the subject of added weight there is Diego, champing at the bit and looking all the better a few pounds heavier and quite a bit more cut.

Looking at the two benches, not counting Diego and waiting for the healing Gambian, 2011 and 12 featured Bobby Shuttleworth as the heir apparent, but compare Franco Coria, Kheli Dube, Kenny Mansally, Pat Phelan to Darrius Barnes, John Lozano, Jose Moreno and Kelyn Rowe. I would say a batter group.

There is no indication that the current squad is complete and one has the feeling that every job is up for grabs but certainly in late May, eleven weeks into the 2012 season, the feeling is that after all the negative critique of everyone from Michael Burns to the tea ladies (if such exist at Kraft F.C.) the additions have been upgrades, albeit short term. Jay Heaps has even hinted of a high-level summer signing in his sights and if that were to happen and the team improvement continue…?

Looking ahead, Coach Heaps has some difficult decisions to make, the toughest of which is what to do with his captain and DP, Shalrie Joseph. It is clear that the great Grenadian can no longer dominate the back half of the central midfield, where he used to roam, forage and distribute with the best of them. In his pomp number 21 could dispossess the likes of Paul Scholes, Thomas Gravesen and Steed Malbranque <> to the point where Glasgow Celtic offered over a million squid for him to join the Hoops.

However that was then and now Clyde Simms, after seven years at DC United, appears to be more able to cover large amounts of turf, so with a glut of creative midfielders to go with Simms’ energy and graft where, exactly, is the best spot for Shalrie? Further, as the season progresses and a possible playoff spot looms, will the Revs continue to attack or will Coach Heaps revert to his mentor’s grey style to save precious points while wearing his elegant gray suit?

In a recent post-practice Q&A Jay Heaps observed that in his opinion the current Revs squad has more talent than any team he has been involved with but what needs to be engrained across the board is what he termed a “Dempsey level of bite.” This combination of skill and edge has taken the talented Texan to the verge of being on a big club’s books, with Arsenal, Liverpool and even ManU being rumored to be willing to open their wallets for the former Revolution midfielder.

Heart and technical ability are both talents, and not every player has equal degrees of both qualities. For some observers Lee Nguyen calls up memories of a Pepe Cancela who can play defense. Imagine the cultured Uruguayan heading the ball off the line as the Vietnamese Texan managed to do against DC, while suffering from a plus 100-degree temperature. On the other hand, could Cancela pop a curling 25-yarder to the upper corner? In training yes, pretty much every time but under the pressure of a game…

But more to the point are Nguyen’s refreshing combination of ball skills, close control in close quarters and pattern passing, plus the willingness and ability to draw the hard foul, all of which are reminders of Cancela at his best. After 2004 the affable man from Santa Lucia, Uruguay was decreasingly trusted defensively by Coach Nicol and eventually was waived in 2006. He currently plays for Herediano in Costa Rica.

While it is currently too early to hail the newcomer Nguyen as the second coming of either Pepe or the Duce, there are elements of each in his play and that, combined with his apparent willingness to gut it out may represent exactly the nasty edge Coach Heaps is looking for. In fact, a few heretics have actually brought up Steve Ralston, in the way that the new man picks out pockets to penetrate and keep possession. Time will tell on that one.

But regardless, it is somewhere between a credit and sheer blind luck that the Revolution were willing and able to add Nguyen after Vancouver inexplicably waived him in late March. With every start Martin Rennie’s decision to let him go seems all the more baffling. I spoke with the new midfielder after training…

JIM: I’m writing a column comparing your ball skills to a former Revolution player, Pepe Cancela. I don’t know if you have heard of him…

LEE: No, I haven’t.

JIM: Well, you are the first player on this team since him and Clint Dempsey to consistently do the audacious and make it a virtue. I’m really curious with your background, growing up in Texas and all, where did you develop that because that is something you don’t see most US-bred players doing?

LEE: well, I guess it was growing up working with my dad and watching videos and tapes of players that I admired growing up…

JIM: Such as?

LEE: Such as Maradona, Figo and Zidane, so those players I would look to when I was growing up and I would try to rip off some of their styles.

JIM: And you were playing club soccer at that point, I really curious were your coaches yelling at you not to do that in the heat of games, to hoof it up and play safe?

LEE: I was fortunate, my coaches (always) let me play and encouraged me to express myself, so it was really good to have coaches like that who had the confidence to let me do that.

JIM: And subsequently, playing professionally, that penchant for audacity hasn’t gotten beaten out of you through situations and strategy, not physically but coaches telling you not to take chances and so forth?

LEE: No, not really, I mean going to Indiana and then going off to PSV Eindhoven where they play in a 4-3-3 (there), they encouraged me to go outside and play as a winger and play one on one and put pressure against the outside backs and that helped me a lot.

JIM: Was being at PSV a similar situation as being at Ajax and some of the other clubs in Dutch soccer where you would be training and playing with players who had been together since they were 10 or 12 years of age?

LEE: Yes, they had a great youth system and their (senior players) often worked their way up through the ranks to earn the right to play on the senior team.

JIM: And what was the big difference when you went to the Vietnamese league because that is a league that we know nothing about in this country.

LEE: Well, it is real technical over there, it isn’t as physical as this league but it is very technical with a lot of open soccer, there were a lot of players that were able to express themselves.

JIM: Are a lot of the players from outside the country?

LEE: The majority of them are local; there were three or four foreigners on each team, mostly from Africa or Brazil, so there was a little bit of a mixture there.

JIM: And do you speak the language, being from Texas and all?

LEE: When I was very young I did but then I kind of lost it along the way, going to school and all, my friends all spoke English.

JIM: Did you get it back, once you were in Vietnam?

LEE: Once I got over there, I got it back, I picked it up in a couple of months and I was fully fluent.

JIM: And where do you consider yourself to be from now, are you a Texan, with some Dutch, a lot of Vietnam, maybe even New England?

LEE: I’ll always be a Texan.

JIM: Texas Forever, as in Friday Night Lights?

LEE: Forever, yeah, I just got my own place there and it is where I call home.

JIM: In Dallas, or near there?

LEE: Yes, in Dallas.

JIM: And why is there such a strong tradition of soccer in Texas, everyone who follows the game knows there is just that but in “normal” U.S. thinking Texas is the epicenter of American football, how does that happen?

LEE: I think that football is still number one in Texas, but soccer is growing there, we are starting to see a lot more academies there now, places where people can train and play for free and there is a lot more coaching, there are a lot (of players) from diverse (backgrounds), just a lot more opportunities…

JIM: It seems when you look around so many players in this league come from Texas, or have Texas backgrounds, there are so many national champion club teams and (high level) developmental teams, is it just the weather, that you can go outside 365 days a year?

LEE: It is definitely one of the reasons.

JIM: Coming to the Revolution you have been playing mostly on the outside, even as a winger. Do you tend to cut inside from there, is that a large part of your game or do you stay outside for the most part, I’m just wondering what your natural inclinations would be left on your own?

LEE: It depends where I’m at on the field and where my teammates are at any given time. I try to connect and combine with them as much as I can and try to cause pressure on the defense but if I have my teammates around me I like to combine with them and try to get past the defense.

JIM: You have been a professional for at least five years and so for an experienced player what is it like to come to a team that is not established, that has many new players, a new coach. Almost two-thirds of the players on this team are new, what sort of specific problems does that set up?

LEE: It is all about having the players here like Shazz (Shalrie) and AJ and just those players who have already been here and they know what needs to be done and just helping the young players and the inexperienced players just to get their foot in the door and know what needs to be done and learn. So it is all about learning from them and just following them.

JIM: So in a certain way the identity of this team is being established by you guys, by the newer players, this is a very different style from what was played here before.

LEE: Credit a lot of that to Jay, a lot of those players are inspired by the same sort of football that the fans like, and as players we like to play that way as well, to play possession football, attacking football and I think that is the type of football that can cause trouble for a lot of teams in this league.

JIM: One of the things that almost every player who comes here from another country says how difficult it is to get used to the travel, it is crazy sometimes. You have played in Holland and you have played in Vietnam where the longest trip would be perhaps an hour and a half and you are about to go and play three games in two different time zones, all within a week. What do you do to prepare yourself for that?

LEE: That is probably the most different thing from all of the leagues I’ve played in but the most important thing is to keep yourself hydrated and just a lot of rest, just try to stay focused.

JIM: Are you going to tell these guys about the Dallas summers?

LEE: I think they know about that already

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