Jay Heaps doesn’t have the experience. Jay Heaps is too young to manage an MLS squad. Jay Heaps doesn’t have the connections to lure legitimate international talent. Jay Heaps has never been a head coach.
And so on. These were just a few of the doubts that echoed the bars, chat rooms, and coffee houses when the news came through that Jay Heaps was named as Steve Nicol’s successor last November.
And yet, in his first 100 days as Revolution head coach, the 35-year-old head coach has done more than taken over the manager’s office. He’s changed the culture of the operation almost single-handedly.
It started on Day 1, the day Heaps was introduced to the media for the first time. Staring at a swell of questions about his coaching credentials, he emphasized a mantra that has proven to be prophetic thus far: We will not be outworked, and we will not be outsmarted.
Ever since that first day, Heaps hasn’t stopped doing his all to purge the losing, and often careless, mentality that’s plagued the Revolution since their last MLS Cup appearance in 2007. Under Heaps, it became clear right from the start: no more wasted time or opportunities.
When the league set Jan. 16th as the first day MLS camps could open, Heaps called his players back to Foxboro on that very date. And any notion the players had that the former Nicol pupil would run things the way his mentor did were immediately dispelled.
On the first day, the ball was regularly dished amongst the players – something not usually seen until the second week of camp. The message: there’s a new sheriff in town, and Heaps wasn’t about to devote the entirety of the first week of the preseason on calisthenics and jogging.
But it was more than simply breaking old habits. It was much more than that. Behind every drill, every sprint, and every short-sided scrimmage, there was a clear purpose. It was about getting right today, rather than fixing what’s wrong tomorrow.
Instead of allowing his players to practice at their own casual pace, Heaps, along with trusted assistant Jay Miller, implemented exactly what they wanted from the players every day. The days of freelancing and improv during practice were history.
With a host of young players on the roster, Heaps didn’t just stand by and count on the veterans guide them. He did the exact opposite. He put an arm around his youngsters and showed them what he wanted, and how he wanted them to do it. The time and place to tighten up on the basics is now. Not during the fifth match of the season, not around the All-Star game, and not when the team is in the midst of a downward spiral. Now.
In order to evaluate the improvements – or any remaining deficiencies – Heaps scheduled two preseason trips to Arizona. He entered the team into an ambitious tournament against three playoff-caliber clubs. He scheduled three more scrimmages to examine the progress. On a team brimming with question markers, Heaps set out to eliminate as many of them as possible, as soon as possible.
Behind the scenes, away from the practice pitch, Heaps, along with General Manager Michael Burns, scoured through endless resumes and clips of potential targets. After all, they had a roster to rebuild.
In January, they sifted through numerous South American prospects and netted a strong central defender in John Lozano and a clever, attack-minded playmaker in Fernando Cardenas, both from Colombia. Earlier this month, they landed another Colombian -Jose Moreno – even if he has to pried from the hands of Once Caldas.
Then, when it seemed as if Heaps was settled on the international market, he invited four internationals, each from different countries, ahead of the upcoming Desert Diamond Cup. So much for the idea that Heaps was handcuffed when it came to recruiting foreign-based talent.
Meanwhile, he’s incorporated video analysis into the player evaluation and gameday preparation processes. No more of the blind leading the blind. The team may not be perfect under Heaps’ watch, but one thing they’ll never be is unprepared.
Looking back, a legitimate argument could be made that Heaps’ appointment was actually overdue. At end of the 2011 season, the Revolution was a team in dire need of drastic changes. A team that had painfully grown stale. A team that needed a serious kick in the backside. A team that needed new ideas.
True, it may be another two-and-a-half weeks until the games start counting. But, at this juncture, it’s obvious that the Jay Heaps Approach is the antidote to what’s ailed this once proud club. A club that Heaps himself helped steer to four MLS Cup finals as a player.
In the last 100 days, Jay Heaps has done more than just tinkering and tweaking. He’s brought about a refreshing shift in attitude that this squad has thirsted for since they walked off RFK Stadium pitch as second-best on that unseasonably warm afternoon in the nation’s capital.
The doubts that greeted Heaps’ at that first press conference may remain. In fact, they may live rather comfortably until Heaps starts winning games that matter.
But rest assured, if there’s one thing that won’t be in doubt, it’s that the Revolution will be a markedly improved squad, from top to bottom, from performance to preparation, by the time First Kick arrives. And it’ll be because of Jay Heaps.