By Kevin Koczwara
The flu is running wild through New England, but that doesn’t mean the New England Revolution are sitting at home, resting in bed with the thermometer sticking out between their lips. There is work to be done. This is a team that has finished close to the bottom in Major League Soccer’s in each of the past two seasons. It’s a team looking to return to the glory days of the mid-2000s. It’s a team still trying work out the kinks and build a new foundation because the previous one has crumbled under the weight of an ever-expanding and rapidly improving MLS.
One year ago, New England had just hired its first new coach in 10 seasons after letting Steve Nicol go. Former defender Jay Heaps stepped into the role. The team also re-worked its front office to meet the changing times in MLS, with Michael Burns and Brian Bilello accepting new positions, something that desperately needed to be done. Luckily for the new regime, Kelyn Rowe was clearly the third best player in the MLS SuperDraft in 2012 because Heaps and his new staff, which was him and Jay Miller, had little time to prepare for the draft.
This year is different, though. Heaps and Burns have been given more time to scout the talent at the collegiate level, as well as build the backbone of its roster before the draft even kicks off on Jan. 17 in Indianapolis.
“In terms of preparation, we feel we’re very well prepared, more so than last year,” said Heaps in a conference call with the media on Wednesday. “As you know, last year I took over as coach about a month ago so there’s been a lot more preparation because we’ve had a lot more time.”
One thing New England won’t be doing this year is revamping the roster. Last year, the team needed a complete overhaul and was renovations were ongoing when the SuperDraft came around. Going into the draft this year, the Revolution have 22 of the allotted 30 roster spots filled. Three new players with European experience have been added in recent weeks. Andy Dorman returned to the Revolution after spells with St. Mirren, Crystal Palace and Bristol Rovers, and the team signed midfielder/defender Kalifa Cisse from England’s lower leagues as well. The team then announced the signing of Portuguese defender Jose Goncalves last week, a few days after Scott Caldwell put pen to paper and became the team’s second Homegrown Player signing. But the legwork isn’t done yet, admits Burns. This is still a team looking to make a major leap in an ever improving league.
“I think one of the biggest differences from last off-season to this off-season is we’re much more specific in our search for players. Heading into this off-season, going from ‘11 to ’12 with the turnover rate as high as it was, we were looking for players all over the field. We made a conscious effort to really shrink that to a few specific positions this year,” said Burns. “And I think you saw that with both (Kalifa) Cisse and (Jose) Goncalves. Having said that, and Jay alluded to it earlier, we’d still like to add an attacking player and we’d still like another player or two to the defense….
“If you look at our current roster right now, having 22 players under contract, we’re probably further along now than we were last year at this time.
“And having said that, and Jay said it as well, and not just in terms of strength but certainly in quantity, we probably have quite a few midfielders that are going to be fighting for spots,” Burns continued. “Listen, while we feel okay with where we’re at right now, we’re still not done and we haven’t played a game yet.”
Games will be coming soon for the Revs, though. Training camp opens on Thursday, Jan. 17 — the same day as the SuperDraft- – and will include two trips to Tucson, Ariz. for a total of six preseason games.
Tyler Polak, future left back
Tyler Polak was the other acquisition in last year’s SuperDraft for the Revolution. Along with Kelyn Rowe, the Revs picked up a pair of promising prospects with high ceilings. But while Rowe featured regularly in 2012, Polak struggled to make the gameday roster, underscoring just how difficult the jump to pro soccer can be. The fledgling left back still had plenty of growing up to do before he could make an impact in one of the toughest, and most physically demanding positions in top-flight soccer.
“[Polak’s] 20 years old out of Creighton, so he’s still developing,” said Heaps. “He’s a player, obviously he played right away in our first game of the year and then as we’ve talked about with college players, it’s a difficult transition from college to the pros. I think that we even saw that Kelyn (Rowe), a little bit of a dip, in some of our rookie picks.
“It happens to every one of us that came from college to pros, there’s going to be a dip in the mental fatigue, a little bit of the physical fatigue.
“So, Tyler definitely is someone we see going forward as having an upside, but right now he’s still working to get better every week and every day.”
Polak, who’s playing under a Generation Adidas deal, shouldn’t worry about making an impact immediately. His contract doesn’t impact the salary cap, so cracking the starting XI on a regular basis shouldn’t be a pressing concern. Plus, it’s not uncommon for full backs to mature at a more gradual pace because of what the position demands from them.
Re-Entry picks remain unsigned
Last month, the Revolution selected Chad Barrett and Hunter Freeman in the second stage of the 2013 MLS Re-Entry Draft. Though neither player has signed with the team as of yet, Burns said that he hasn’t given hope on adding them to the roster.
“We’re still optimistic and hopeful that they’re going to be wearing a Revs jersey this year,” said Burns. “Offers were extended; offers have not been accepted to date. So we’re going to continue to work on those and we’re hopeful we can get something done. But there will come a point where if the players don’t want to accept the offers and join the Revs, (then) we will look in another direction.”
Barrett spent last season on loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy with Norwegian club Vålerenga. He played one season with the Galaxy after being acquired from Toronto FC, where he spent three seasons. The forward broke into the league with the Chicago Fire in 2005 and has over 50 career goals in MLS.
Freeman played for the Colorado Rapids last season, his second stint with the club. He has also played for the New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo and Toronto, and has spent two seasons with IK Start in Norway.
Burns comments on 2013 schedule
Major League Soccer announced the full 2013 regular season schedule on Wednesday, and Burns wasn’t all surprised after reviewing the team’s 34-game slate.
“We’ve looked at the schedule. It’s kind of what we thought it would be in the sense of we know in this market that we’re always going to start the season playing more away games than home. So, we’re used to that so to speak,” said Burns in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
“I think one of the positives for us when we look at our schedule is – and I’m not counting the Friday night (Aug. 30) game in Toronto – but we have three mid-week games. I think that’s a decrease from five last year to three. It’s certainly on the competitive side. Our preference is to have more weekend games than midweek.
“It’s never perfect – I actually give the folks at the league a lot of credit because this is a very difficult job to try to coordinate 19 different schedules. But we feel okay about the schedule,” he continued.