Missing Paul Mariner

Five years ago, the phrase “Revolution attack” elicited vivid images of Clint Dempsey, Taylor Twellman, and Pat Noonan barraging opponents’ backlines, breaking ankles, and burying barrels of goals. It was theatre. It was art. And it was breathtaking to behold.

Paul Mariner, who left his position as assistant coach of the Revolution in 2009, is now Director of player development in Toronto. (Photo by CHRIS ADUAMA/aduama.com)

Yet, like so many great things in life, its shelf life was all too short. As the years rolled by, the players, one by one, began to bolt. New players were brought in. Tactics were switched.

But perhaps more importantly, Paul Mariner, the lieutenant of the most dangerous attack the local XI ever unleashed, decided to pursue other opportunities abroad near the end of the 2009 season. For a club known for its fine-tuned offense, it was the end of an era.

Any question or doubt that things had changed significantly in the wake of Mariner’s departure were promptly erased after last season’s lethargic production. A worst in team history 32 goals scored only solidified the idea that the team was lost without its former Gunner goalscorer.

Some will point the debilitating brain injuries to Taylor Twellman as the primary culprit behind last season’s famine. Others will point to the departures of Dempsey, Noonan, Andy Dorman, Steve Ralston, Jose Cancela…well, you get the idea. And these are not far-fetched theories. They are very good theories, in fact.  When the club’s first, second, third, fourth, and fifth-best goalscorers all exit within a four-year window, it’s only natural that the goals become fewer and farther in between.

But, to say that player departures and retirements are the primary reason for the downward sprial is to forget the man who developed and cultivated the vast majority of these players.

And it wasn’t just Best XI members that thrived as a result of Mariner’s tutelage. In fact, players like Kheli Dube, Kenny Mansally, and Sainey Nyassi all benefited from their former assistant coach’s insight and acumen.

It was that knowledge that kept the Revolution attack potent, even without Twellman in the lineup. Somehow, New England always seemed to find goals from its supporting actors. Some nights, it was Noonan. Some nights, it was Adam Cristman. It didn’t matter who, so long as the results arrived.

For the Revolution, many of those results were the byproduct of Mariner’s hard work with his attacking charges. As a former poacher himself, Mariner applied the lessons learned during his illustrious playing career to his coaching career, and the team reaped the rewards:  three MLS Cup appearances, a U.S. Open Cup Championship, and a SuperLiga Title.

Given his impressive playing resume, Mariner could have coasted his way through coaching on his reputation alone. Instead, the affable assistant coach set out to impart his experience, insight, and easy-going guidance to his acolytes and, in the process, became one of the best in the business.

Although his coaching reputation sparkled as the Revolution strikers parked themselves in a class of their own during their mid-2000 MLS Cup runs, he was frequently bypassed when coaching vacancies cropped up across the league.

And that was fine by everyone wearing the Revolution blue. After all, they got to keep the man who oversaw their lethal attack – one that wasn’t predicated upon one player. Though Twellman was the class of the field, Dempsey, Noonan, Ralston, and Dorman, all managed to bolster their contributions to the goal department thanks to Mariner.

But perhaps more important than on-the-field form was what Mariner instilled in his players at their onset of their professional careers. Twellman will tell you that, as a young player, Mariner’s hiring was one of the best things manager Steve Nicol did for him.

And Twellman wasn’t the only recipient of Mariner’s teaching. A common sight at training during those successful seasons was Mariner engaging in one-on-one conversations with young strikers – conversations that often instilled both insight and confidence, two crucial areas that every attacking player needs in order to succeed.

What appealed to Mariner wasn’t necessarily having his offense destroy their opponents, but rather, to see the progress and development of a younger player. To see them  flourish. That was the reward. The transition from the college game to the professional soccer is often a gauntlet, but Mariner’s mix of good humor and guidance served as an elixir for many of his younger charges.

The axiom that players win games and managers lose them fails to grasp the notion that the collective cannot win unless properly guided. Sure, it helped that the Revolution had a number of talented players during Mariner’s tenure, but without him there to squeeze every ounce of talent from those players, the team could have easily turned into an all-talent, no-trophy team.

Steve Nicol is renowned for getting the most out of his young defenders. Paul Mariner’s intuition did the same for his strikers. Under both, the Revolution became an MLS power, securing playoff berths in consecutive seasons, and reaching pinnacles previously unseen.

What the team needs to do to reclaim that success is another superb coach of Mariner’s coaching cloth. A coach who can nurture the number of promising youngsters on the preseason list. A coach who can once again get the most from even the most unlikeliest candidates (see: Shalrie Joseph, nine goals in all competitions in 2009).

But until that coach is hired, the Revolution attack, with all the glory it gathered, will remain nothing more than a grand memory.

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About Brian O'Connell

Brian O'Connell serves as editor and staff writer at New England Soccer Today. He's also the Revolution beat writer for ESPNBoston.com, and is Officer at Large for the North American Soccer Reporters. He regularly contributes to The Associated Press, and has been featured on MLSSoccer.com & RevsNet.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianOConnell21 or contact him via e-mail at BOConnell21@aol.com