Will The Resurgent Revs Gain Respect and Relevance? Plus an Interview with David Vaudreuil
Posted by tonybiscaia on June 13, 2012
A VIEW FROM THE FORT By Jim Dow
Although the “official” attendance read well in excess of 12,000 it is hard to believe there were half that many hardy folks sitting and standing in last Saturday’s sodden conditions when the Revolution and the goal posts held the Fire’s feet to the fire for a deserved 2-0 victory. And while this display may have helped to some degree to erase the ignominy of giving up three goals in twelve minutes to a third division side at mid-week one has to wonder if both the positive or negative exploits of New England’s soccer team are like a solitary tree falling in the forest or one hand clapping? Besides the devoted and quite marvelous few that show up rain or shine, win, lose or draw to Gillette Stadium, the Banshee Pub and post on Big Soccer, does anyone in metro Boston and beyond really care about this club?
I write this having just returned from a visit to two countries where people really do care about football: Argentina and Uruguay. In fact, it might be said that some care far too much as the game in Argentina is under threat of being taken over by a particularly noxious brew of organized crime and politics that is frighteningly reminiscent of the unique brand of fascism perfected in the past by the two Perons; Juan Domingo and Evita. In that country the barra brava are no joke, often moonlighting by conducting scary street demonstrations, in pure Brownshirt fashion, on behalf of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her political allies.
People in Argentina often identify themselves through some variation of, “my team is Boca, my family came from Genoa, I live in Barracas, I support Cristina, and, oh yeah, I’m Argentine,” or, to put it another way; football club first, then family, followed by neighborhood, then politics and, finally, nationality. In Uruguay it is generally less specifically hierarchical but tell that to a fan of Nacional or Penarol on derby day in the Centenario Stadium and you may hear a different story.
So clearly there are extremes of interest and support but New England appears to have developed its own toxic mixture of indifference and malaise when it comes to the Revos having any significant presence in the local sporting landscape at present, at least as far as the media goes. And this is a downright shame, considering that the organization seems to have finally, perhaps begrudgingly, certainly glacially, righted the ship in coming to understand that what folks really want to see is football played with a degree of style and skill in an adult atmosphere without too much emphasis on dumbing it down for casual fans and kiddos to scream “deeeefense!” in robotic hysteria at the pleasure of the Jumbotron.
The new players; Nyugen, Sene, Simms, Cardenas, Rowe, etc, plus Alston, Reis, Soares, Tierney, Joseph and Feilhaber, etc, are a lot of fun to watch on a good day and Jay Heaps & Co. are molding an interesting team, electing to foster a style of play quite contrary to the head coaches’ pedigree as a no-nonsense defender.
So why, when the Red Sox are mired in mediocrity, the Bruins long gone and the aging Celtics heroically but inevitably terminally playing out the string don’t the Revolution get the kind of attention that one might expect in an area with a rich soccer tradition? That latter part of the sentence might contain the answer to the question for it seems that with a few notable exceptions the varied segments of the local and regional soccer communities sport intentional blinders when it comes to MLS generally and the Revolution in particular.
Metro Boston is home to ownership groups of professional soccer clubs like Liverpool, Millwall and Roma, plus of course a huge number of paying socios for Benfica and Sporting Lisbon. Then there are the large legions of fans who regularly go to pubs to watch Premiership matches, or gather in social clubs and private homes to see games from Italy, Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Brazil, El Salvador, Colombia and, yes, Argentina. Add to that the thousands of parents and kids who participate in school, town, club and academy soccer, often traveling miles and miles to see or play in a match, for the most part far greater distances than driving to Gillette Stadium for a Revos game.
Tot up the total of all those folks and you have thousands and thousands of people living within driving distance of Foxborough who have some degree of passion for proper football, but are not likely to burn cars, attack players, kidnap journalists, assault referees and coaches nor, unfortunately, attend Revolution games.
And that is the rub. How possibly, in the future, can the Revolution attract fans from these various constituencies who have either tuned the team out, or never acknowledged their existence to begin with?
Well, for one thing, consider the enormous number of tickets available to Big Four regular season sporting events. Both the Celtics and Bruins play some 40 games in an arena that holds 19,600 for a total of 1,568,000 available seats between the two winter teams. The Red Sox play 81 games in a ball yard that holds 37,400, thus offering 3,029,400 tickets for sale. The Patriots play 8 games in the 68,756 capacity Morgue, thus putting some 550,048 ducats on the market.
So, in a metropolitan area with a population of 4,522,858 (as of 2008) it means that the 5,147,448 tickets available annually could give one seat to every man, woman a child to a Bruins, Celtics, Patriots or Red Sox game with enough left over for freebies for every glitterati and pol on the take; 624,590 to be exact.
What, you say? These teams all have huge season ticket bases that gobble up nearly every seat for every match, every season. If this were the case, the high-end sporting constituency would be about 150,000 fat cats sucking on sushi at every game. But of course that isn’t so; the vast majority of season ticket packages are financed by a large amount of resale and despite the fact that the Big Four all perform in front of packed houses, you can always get tickets to any but the most attractive matchups at near face value, sometimes less. No matter how you massage the statistics, in a difficult economy it is likely that there is presently serious sporting ticket saturation in this area for most casual fans.
And perhaps an even more deadly competition comes from TV; a decent soccer cable package (Fox Soccer, Fox Soccer Extra, Gol TV, ESPN Deportes, plus Galavision, etc. runs a pretty, pretty penny, far more than a spot in the Fort and for those who might have to choose, well…
Or consider the cost of securing a spot on a good club team for little Joey, Jose or Jane; not cheap, plus gas and time commitments, precluding free Saturdays for Revolution games.
In other words, all the options, both within the soccer world and without, conspire to make a trip to Foxborough to watch the Revvies between low to zero on the list for a great many people who have an interest in soccer.
Likely, if you study other urban areas with MLS teams the numbers will run in much the same way but if you add the increasingly usurious prices that the cable and dish networks charge to get NESN and other sports channels then following MLB, NBA and NHL teams on TV is as pricey as watching Fulham on Fox Soccer Channel or Barca on GolTV; In other words, the NFL aside, every sporting decision in this country, live, televised or participatory represents a healthy bite out of any lower, middle or upper middle class family’s budget. The only folks who don’t feel the squeeze are those who sit in the corporate suites and they don’t give a fig about much save the quality of the sushi and the softness of the cushions in the limo.
How then can the Revolution turn all of this around? It is a multi-million dollar question, considering the current value of MLS clubs with the end of expansion in sight. If the season ticket base reflects the hard core of actual fan support, then there are somewhere around 5,000 people in a metro area of 5 million that choose to plunk down the equivalent of a cable package (+/-) or some other optional entertainment to trek out to Foxborough to watch live soccer. Add another 5K who attend fairly regularly, plus a final five to ten thousand who make a few matches each season and you have the base that provides the roughly 13,000 per season per game average for the last few years.
From everything I’ve been able to gather this core group is fascinatingly diverse in interests, background and reasons for supporting the team. I wonder what the common factors that bind them together might be besides an interest in seeing actual live football. It might be fascinating to find out.
If 10% of the five million people who live within seventy-five miles of Foxborough follow some type of soccer with some degree of interest, there actually might be a community of perhaps 500,000 to be tapped. Somehow, in some way(s) the folks who market the Revolution need to focus on every single possible aspect of this thus far untapped information base, from the kind of players that might pull them in down to the style of goalposts sunk in the ground that they would like to see. A great new foreigner or two and permanent goalposts would indicate seriousness about the sport that KWIKgoals and cut price imports don’t. No reflection on the new players already in the fold but the current interesting base needs to be built upon and doing so would certainly highlight the on field product as well as making it clear that the organization is as ambitious as the new coaching staff.
None of these efforts come easily; the front office people employed by the team labor hard and are constantly coming up with new ideas to spread the word. They face daunting statistics that state when the Revolution were at their competitive best from 2004-7 their average attendance was 13,331. During the precipitous decline from 2009 to 2011 the average figure was 13,314, representing a difference of only 17 fans. However, in 2008, before it became clear that the wheels were coming off the wagon, the team pulled in 17,580 per game, vaulting them into the upper part of the attendance table even as they began to slide on the pitch; it had to be something besides Beckham, although that clearly was a factor, what else might have caused that blip.
It may well be that time is the real ingredient; time to develop a tradition, time to win something, time to build a stadium in the city, time to… well, who knows? The Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox have all been around for at least four decades; the Revs are only 16 years into it. Had they won any of those four finals, who knows what might have happened but while patience may be a virtue, in 2012 it is a hard one to come by.
Perhaps the problem could be analyzed by what has to be one of the most academically accomplished coaching staffs in MLS. With a Master’s Degree in Education from East Stroudsburg State (Jay Miller), a BS in Science and Physical Education from the University of Mobile (Remi Roy), a BA in History from Duke (Jay Heaps) and a BA in East Asian History from Princeton (David Vaudreuil) the meeting of the minds in the Revos boot room could well involve subtleties beyond the offside trap.
David Vaudreuil played on what might still be the best team ever in MLS, the 1996/97 D.C. United. I remember watching them and marveling at the compelling combination of grit and style that Bruce Arena’s charges brought to every game. Vaudreuil and Jeff Agoos were twin pony-tailed terminators on the backline in a lineup that featured Scott Garlick, Eddie Pope, Carlos Llamosa, Richie Williams, Tony Sanneh, John Harkes, Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce.
I caught up with the newest New England coach after he had topped off training by doing sprints against Sainey Nyassi.
We joked that he was putting himself up against perhaps the fastest player on the squad but he parried, with a wink, that his opponent was still on the injured list.
JIM: I’m really interested in talking with you about youth development, something you have been involved with for a number of years but I’d like to start by saying that you played for what still would be seen as one of the best teams ever to play in MLS, let’s say that group was playing now, in 2012, how do you think you would do and what would be the pros and cons?
DAVID: I think that we would do well because back in that era I think that team defense was (generally) a little bit more lax, (but) our team defense was ahead of the game. We defended with seven, we let Marco (Etcheverry) and the two forwards go but our back four, well we were together for two years, I mean I missed maybe five or six games the first year and played every game the second year and we basically had the same back four every day which is something you don’t see (normally).
Obviously, here, it is a work in progress, they are starting to get continuity which is good, I think we (D.C.) would have done fine (today) because we had so much talent and we were deep, not just the starting eleven, we had eighteen, nineteen guys who worked very, very hard in practice every day, who were doing everything they could to say, hey, I need to be on the field, so when Harkes, Etcheverry or Moreno and Diaz Arce left for qualifying we never missed a beat, we didn’t drop any points, we were still winning games 3-1, 4-2 so I think we would do very well.
Some of the teams in that era were not up to the level of today because they weren’t very strong on defense, they didn’t have that six, seven, eight, nine guys behind the ball and very organized and keeping (their concentration), if we gave up no goals or one goal, we were going to win.
JIM: I remember, watching from the very beginning in 1996, that team, of course, stood out and then sadly got broken up, I presume because of salary cap limitations, but how intentional was the gathering together of that group of players, and how much of it was good fortune?
DAVID: You have to give Bruce (Arena) and the rest of the staff a great deal of credit because they didn’t have that team to start with and after the fifth or sixth game they realized that there were guys on the team who weren’t good enough and they made changes. Tony Sanneh was the first big one and then myself, then Maessner and a couple of other guys came in. Very quickly we turned into a very deep team, as opposed to at the beginning when they were losing games, to their credit they changed the team as soon as possible and made it so that it was a much deeper team.
JIM: So do you think that the major progress in this league has been in the defensive aspects of the game?
DAVID: Actually, I think that is a fair point because you don’t see as many of the technically (gifted), superstar number tens and you don’t even see the goal scorers (now), I… think the goal scoring was a factor of overall team defense at the back wasn’t as tight as it is now, but still, guys today talk about a leading goal scorer in the league scoring twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen goals, there were guys who I wouldn’t say were flukes, that Diaz Arce got 23, 24 goals, Roy Lassiter, I think he had one good year and scored a ton of goals and the rest of the time he kind of faded into the background.
I look at it as Steve Nicol kind of changed that era, he went from having a number ten, getting rid of that and saying we are going to have two very solid, tactically smart, defensively strong, defensive central midfielders. I think that is where the big change is, even in Chicago, where I played in 2001…
JIM: Which was a very good team…
DAVID: Yes, we had Peter Nowak, we had Stoichkov, Ante Razov, DeMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, a lot of very strong players, the only problem was that whenever Nowak got hurt we couldn’t score but as far as tough team, that was a great team and you don’t see that depth of foreign players on teams now like you did then.
JIM: Do you think that is partially financial or just circumstantial, no way to figure out why?
DAVID: I think it is a bit of both, I think it is possible salary cap problems and I think it is management, (they) have to go out there and whether it is for a ton of money or a bargain, they have to go out and find better foreigners, I think the quality of the foreign players, after the first two or so really drops off and we need to (address that across the league). Soccer as a culture and soccer as a business, we have to get better at that.
JIM: Again, with your background, that puts an interesting perspective on all of this. I mean, you are bilingual, fluent in Spanish; you played for what was basically an international team at DC and then when you went to Chicago. What is the most difficult thing about this integration between what I might call the gringo aspect of soccer in this country and the culture that comes from Latin America and other parts of the world?
DAVID: The first thing is the level of soccer; in the end the level of soccer dictates everyone’s attitude, the respect, and their desire. You can’t recreate the desire that Peter Nowak had, yes, he was playmaker of the year in Germany a couple of years, an unbelievable talent, but he also had the tenacity and desire to be not just the best player on the field but the hardest working player on the field and you can’t (teach) that. That makes it easier for everyone to rally around, when the soccer is at a high level. For me, I was always happy when the big superstar players out there, after the first two practices or so, you could tell (it was) “OK, I accept you, you’re good, you are going to hold onto your part of the bargain, I can give you the ball and I’ll get it back and you are going to take care of your job.”
That is the beauty of soccer, you get respect by the way you perform on the field, at practice every day and in the games but also you have to have the personality to go out there and help your team integrate. It doesn’t matter where you come from, your job out there is to be a good teammate and to do everything you can to help the team win. It also is a personality thing, how you respect our teammates, how you train, the attitude you bring with you every day, those superstar players, if they come with a great attitude, a professional attitude and they come out and set an example and show people how to win, people follow, people join in. Part of the beauty at DC was we weren’t just eleven, twelve guys; we had eighteen, nineteen guys who were committed every day on and off the field to winning games.
JIM: Do you think from a professional point of view, it is about not having options in life? I just came back from Argentina and Uruguay; I’ve been there many, many times and the players there…
DAVID: It is a factory…
JIM: Yes, it is a factory but that is the ticket out, if you don’t get that ticket as a player you end up selling mate or phone cards on the street corner. Here, at least with the college players, you have options…
JIM: Is that cultural, social difference really that important?
DAVID: I think that is the number one thing holding us back, there isn’t a long development of a (soccer) history and culture that says, “hey, this is your life, this is your career.” We see it very day; kids come out of college, prestigious colleges from a good upper middle or middle class, affluent background and you get the impression that (they are thinking) “I’m going to try this professional thing for a year or two and if not, I’ll go home and work for dad, or I’ll use my degree and go to Wall Street,” and all that stuff.
For sure there is a difference in the attitudes or the teams and you see the difference between an American kid who has just come out of college and someone else who… My favorite story is an indoor player from England, who said “Vaud, you know why I work so hard, and do everything like a fight and stuff because if I wasn’t here, put the expletive in, I’d be tied to a factory making tin cans for the rest of my life.” That’s it, it is my way out and it is true in every country in the world, (soccer) is their ticket out and they are totally committed, it is my only chance, my only career, not just this is my career, it is my only career, my only way out of the neighborhood, out of the present lifestyle into a nicer lifestyle.
JIM: And yet, on the other hand, I recall that one of the toughest footballers I have ever watched and interviewed, Jeff Laurentowicz who was a history major at Brown and who I asked, point blank, if he had a Plan B and his response was, “absolutely,” yet he would just as soon kill you on the field. So there are exceptions.
DAVID: Yes, it is hard, it isn’t something you can teach, you know, both he and I, we both come from a good school, we have options but in the end, I don’t care that I’m playing for $120 a game in the old APSL for the Washington Stars at Fairfax-Woodson High School in front of 120 kids, it is, like, this is what I want to do, I’ve got my degree, I can work the rest of my life and I waited eight years for MLS to come around to make it all work out. A lot of the guys dropped out, I was one of the few foolish guys who stuck around, playing indoors and out, for very little money, basically a semi-pro existence, and I was fortunate enough and healthy enough to enjoy seven years of MLS, so it was worth it.
JIM: After playing you were in youth development for a long time, with a number of very high end club teams, and now you are in a professional development situation with the Revolution, is there any way to teach that hunger we are speaking about and does it become a significant part of the way that you evaluate a player?
DAVID: It isn’t just the hunger, it is the willingness and the ability to learn and absorb what they are seeing around them and making their game batter, raising their game, it doesn’t matter what country you come from, there are some people that just don’t have that capability. Going out in an environment like this (here at the Revs) with a lot of experienced professionals who have proven every day, some guys don’t find the right mentality, some guys don’t learn how to be a tactically good player on the field and some kids don’t have the hunger and the drive. You have to be a student of the game, you have to be prepared, you have to study, to learn, you have to take advantage of playing with the Hristo Stoichkovs and the Marco Etcheverrys and the Richard Gough’s of the world who comes in as the ultimate leader. I’m friends with him now in LA, with Hollywood United, we played together but you watch him in Kansas City and he was born to lead and born to keep his team organized and get the defense playing hard like you are making a couple of million a year and every win you have a $5,000 bonus on the line.
You know, those types of things, every little bit of the puzzle helps to raise the professionalism, raise the culture. You see it with our first team, we were very naive in the first part of the season and gave away some points and gave away some goals (at the end of matches) and now we are starting to buckle down, we are starting to get a little tougher, we are managing games better. The teams and the players that learn that, go through that learning curve faster, they have success. Keep the continuity together and learn how to tactically deal with the game. We are still a very naive country as far as tactics, as we see every day, the Olympic team being a perfect example…
JIM: Or the MLS teams that go to CONCACAF Champions League away matches…
DAVID: Yes, how many teams have you seen go down to Mexico and get beaten 5-0, 3-1, 3-0…
JIM: When, truthfully, the talent gap is not that great…
DAVID: But they are just not used to playing in those high level international games where it is a one or two game tactical battle, it is not a 32 game season where you can afford to iron out the kinks over time, you have to learn, you cannot make any mistakes, you have to capitalize on their mistakes. We still don’t have that culture in this country, mostly because our fathers, well, my dad was a baseball and basketball coach, and when I said I want to be a soccer or hockey player he said, well, you are on your own, I’ll teach my grandson basketball and baseball. You know, all these countries have been doing this for 80, 90 years and we have been doing it, off and on for maybe 20, 25, 30 years, it is just starting to come.
JIM: But it is also a great pleasure to watch develop.
DAVID: Yes, in my opinion what happened yesterday in Montreal, when our reserves come in and we play against their first team, more or less, and we have four academy players who come in and play a big role in beating Montreal’s team. The academy system is great but even though the (baby Revs) are a little bit stronger and deeper the players are playing against all of the club players they grew up playing against. So are they going to get any better? No, you have to keep raising the level of competition, we had four academy guys playing against some of the best players in North America, first division players, that is the type of environment we have to build, you have to push up the level of competition, you have to search out the best players and the best teams to play against and if you are just going to stick around and keep playing club games over and over again and play in glorified new leagues against the same old American kids, they are not going to get better. The training is better, the curriculum and the program are better but really the soccer experience…
JIM: Well, you have to play games…
DAVID: Yes, you have to learn through playing against better players, more experienced players, smarter players and you have to adjust and the good players are going to adjust rapidly and they are going to improve their game.
JIM: Relative to that, do you think that a German style bonus system would be helpful in MLS?
DAVID: It isn’t an end all but it is a positive thing because whether you are motivated by money or not it is just another thing that impresses the seriousness and the weight, some of the Colombian guys here (on the Revs) were shocked that after one loss we weren’t more totally pissed off with everyone totally down and just determined to totally go out there and (kick butt). They said, listen, in Colombia we would be hiding from the fans, we would be sneaking out to the bus by the back door with armed security because it isn’t tolerated that you lose three or four games in a row when you were winning and had a chance to take points. The bonus system is just another thing, what is more to win a game 4-2 and get a $50 win bonus as opposed to over in Germany where you get four, five, six thousand dollars for every win and it isn’t so much the money factor, it is just that we are professionals, there is a lot at stake here. We are here to win every game and to win. We are not just here to finish in the middle of the pack and have a decent season and say, “oh guys, we did a decent job, we are going to get better next year.”
Every game has got to be that all or nothing attitude, we have to do everything that it takes to win; I don’t think the money itself would matter to everybody but it is just the mentality. There is a lot behind this game, don’t come into this game thinking that it is just another game. This is an important first division professional game and your career is on the line and you are being judged every day by how you perform.