No one in the Revolution front office has received more piles of criticism than general manager Michael Burns since the club’s last playoff appearance in 2009. No one. It’s not even a contest.
From failed player negotiations to failed player signings to just plain failure, Burns is routinely taken to task (at times, justifiably) by the fan base, who’ve watched their club sink to depths unseen in over a decade.
However, after Monday’s announcement surrounding the Revolution-Rhinos affiliation deal, perhaps no one at One Patriot Place deserves more credit for the bold shift than Michael Burns himself.
The fact is that Burns is one of the biggest champions of player development in MLS. So it should come as no surprise that the Revolution were only one of four MLS clubs to sign on for a formal USL PRO affiliation agreement – one that has Burns’ signature all over it.
One need only look at Burns’ track record when it comes to development. Without the purse-strings to compete against the likes of the Galaxy and Red Bulls, the former Massachusetts High School Player of the Year (1987) has quietly built the club’s youth academy into one of the best in the country.
Speaking of the Revolution Youth Academy, its biggest success has been the transition of Diego Fagundez to the first team. While some general managers would be hesitant to sign a 15-year-old, Burns saw the talent and believed that Fagundez had the skills to contribute. He was right: Fagundez was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2011. But more than that, his two MLS seasons have already shown that he belongs.
While Fagundez proved himself on an MLS pitch, another homegrown talent was busy tearing it up at the college level. Scott Caldwell, who captained the Revs U-18s in their initial U.S. Soccer Development Academy campaign back in 2009, earned All-American honors in all four seasons at Akron. Last month, the Revolution signed Caldwell to the senior side.
Although Burns often spoke about development, and the need for it across the league, he adopted a lukewarm attitude about the MLS Reserve Division. The purpose of the Reserve League was development, albeit in an abridged form.
But what Burns saw was a deeply flawed forum with a 10-game schedule spread over an eight-month schedule. It was a token gesture for those – like Burns – who yearned for a place to cultivate young talent.
So when MLS and USL PRO sat down last year to discuss a model that included affiliations similar to those seen in minor league baseball and hockey, you have to think that Burns was all in. No more random reserve games (when they weren’t being postponed or outright cancelled), no more calling up guest players (Greg Lalas, anyone?), and most importantly, no more faking the belief that the league was the answer to fostering the development of MLS prospects.
More than that, Burns didn’t decide to shake hands with just any USL PRO president for an affiliation. He was judicious. So the Revolution went with Pat Ercoli and the Rochester Rhinos, one of the most successful USL clubs in league history.
With a promising partnership in place, it shouldn’t be long before the Revolution reap the rewards. Not only will players on the outside of the gameday 18 get valuable minutes, but some of those same players will inevitably provide head coach Jay Heaps with a stronger starting XI.
Of course, it’s an untested model. One that will probably have its fair share of kinks and knots in the alpha version. Between injuries, geography and the sheer newness of it all, there are bound to be times in which the Reserve League model might look like the best thing since the introduction of Rev Girls.
Then again, Burns has never been about taking the easy road. If he did, he wouldn’t have signed a high school freshman to a professional contact. He wouldn’t have brought back Caldwell for first team training every summer to ensure the club retained his rights. He wouldn’t have kept a constant pulse on the Academy, which has not only expanded into New York (Revolution Empire), but also will field a U-14 side in the Development Academy next season.
Say what you will about the first team’s performances over the last few season. Some would say its been an embarrassing fall. Indeed, it’s been a gloomy three seasons since the Revolution walked off the pitch at Toyota Park following a 2-0 second leg Eastern Conference semi-final loss to Chicago back on Nov. 7, 2009.
Nevertheless, Burns is intent on getting the Revolution back to when the postseason wasn’t a hope, but rather, an expectation.
He won’t do it through high-risk transfer deals, collecting designated players or marketing-friendly moves. Instead, he’ll see to it that the club climbs the conference under the firm footing of strong a player development program.
He could’ve followed the path that 15 of his peers took, and accepted a couple of extra games for the reserve team in USL PRO. But he didn’t. He opted for a stronger arrangement – one which will serve his club better in the long run. And for that, Burns should be applauded.