New England Soccer Today

A View from the Fort

Despite the turf and the horrible bounces – Agudelo’s Magic golazo.

Despite the turf and the horrible bounces – Agudelo’s Magic golazo.

Despite or In Spite, Will The Revolution Be Built To Last? plus An Interview with Darrius Barnes

A VIEW FROM THE FORT (Through The Rear View Mirror) by Jim Dow

With the New England Revolution’s 2013 season now laid to rest under the real grass of Sporting Park, the time has come to cast an at-once-jaundiced and rose-tinted eye towards the future. The 120 minutes of blood, sweat and tears in the Midwestern version of Galatasary’s “Welcome To Hell” that followed far too closely the 90 minutes of same at a big Razor that actually had atmosphere served to test Jay Heaps’ charges in myriad ways and while the goal difference was close, only a single score over 210 minutes, it was clear that there were a number of gaps between the two sides that could have made for a far different scenario in the back of the net department.

Many of the reasons for that could be attributed to coming up short in the very qualities that Darrius Barnes cites in his assessment of the current side in a short interview graciously given just before he departed for the second leg in K.C. with the rest of the traveling party.

The thoughtful Duke graduate opined that the 2013 Revolution played with a winning combination of “fight and grit” (his words), plus technical skill that emphasized possession and high percentage passing. Further, he observed that the squad had significant depth and the ability to shift positions when obliged to cover for injuries or suspensions. In fact, he projected that with a one goal lead in a two-legged game, the task at hand was to impress the all the above in the first portion of the match so as to force Sporting out of their comfort zone and into making mistakes through low percentage pressing.

Finally, he even coined a catch phrase to describe the team, “Built To Last.”

When he said all that in the bright noontime sun the day before the final big match, it made sense and, should there be a replay some time, somewhere in the near future, like next season, I wouldn’t quarrel with his appraisal. But 33 hours after the interview, for 120 minutes, the collective legs and minds of the Revolution players appeared stuck in mud while their opposite, more experienced and, at this point, more accomplished opponents were purring on eight cylinders powered by aviation fuel. But Barnes was certainly right about the fight and grit part and that, plus an out-of-sight performance by Matt Reis (surprise?), made the match agonizingly close.

But not close enough to avoid a serious examination of everyone involved. For example, the Sporting side that faced New England on the night started four 2012 All-MLS players: Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Jimmy Nielsen and Graham Zusi. While the latter three of these worthies had somewhat less stellar 2013 regular season campaigns, all were absolutely outstanding vs. the young, exhausted Revs.

A mid-season appraisal across the league rated Juan Agudelo (3), Diego Fagundez (2), Andrew Farrell (3), Jose Goncalves (3), Kelyn Rowe (5) and Chris Tierney (5) in the top five out of nineteen at their respective positions. And this assessment didn’t rate Scott Caldwell, Lee Nyguen, Saer Sene or Matt Reis. While Caldwell and Nyguen had excellent seasons for the most part, Reis was injured and indisposed (the bombing incident) early, and Sene’s contributions were sandwiched between a comeback from an injury and a season-ending repetition in seriousness, if not location.

While some of the Revs players were effective at times against K.C, the overall performance was played on their collective heels, plus a consistent failure to connect on obvious passes and thumped clearances to Sporting feet made under duress. In other words, the pressure generated was all from the Kansas contingent and only a combination of inspired goal keeping, opportunistic scoring (Rowe, Andy Dorman and Dimitry Imbongo) and the aforementioned fight and grit kept New England in it until almost the end.

In addition, it is important to note that Jay Heaps had three starting players (Sene, Kevin Alston and Chris Tierney) out, while Peter Vermes could call on rested reinforcements for the Revolution, it was a case, to quote Paul Mariner, of “all (uninjured) hands to the pumps.”

But now that the leaves are off the trees, and the snow will soon be here, it is time for the front office to take action to be certain that the weaknesses exposed through tussling bravely with the big boys get addressed. And none of the moves that need to be made are anything less than obvious. Specifically, signing Jose Goncalves and Lee Nyguen to long-term contracts. Finding a devastating but skilled central midfielder of the mid-2000’s Shalrie-type to play alongside Caldwell (whose game most tellingly came back with a bit of rest). A surefire goal scorer to replace Agudelo could be any type but one who will mesh with what is already in place. Ascertaining if Sene can fully rehabilitate and wants to stay. Making a decision about how to play at the back, perhaps three not four, etc. And, of course, deciding what Matt Reis wants to do, and can do, relative to returning from his untimely and possibly debilitating injury in the final moments of the final match.

And lastly, there is this; in a wonderful recent article in the New York Times, soccer columnist Sam Borden wrote about the plight of Barcelona’s other team, Deportivo Espanyol. At the beginning of the piece, he describes the team manager’s lamentations about his club’s position in that city’s sporting pecking order…

“Every day, (manager) Javier Aguirre sits in his office and reads four all-sports newspapers. And every day, he finds himself furious as he turns page after page (after page after page)… Aguirre likes to skim through the major sports dailies to see how his team is being covered, but he still has not gotten used to how long he must search each day for the first mention of Espanyol.

“Look at this,” he said last week, disgustedly jabbing at a paper on his desk. “Page 40. Page 40!” He sat back in his chair. He held up his hands. And then he sighed.

“On Page 39 there is a story about Barcelona’s youth team,” he said. “We even come after that.”

I cannot vouch that Mike Burns or Jay Heaps sit in their respective offices and search the endless churnings of Boston’s sports media outlets for signs of an uptick in Revolution coverage. But I would wager that Barcelona’s youth team is far more deserving of mainstream attention than a midweek Boston Celtics early season tankathon that took the Revs biggest game since MLS Cup 2007 off the principal channel of Comcast Sports New England.

To put a finer point on it, the 15,164 who attended the first leg of the Sporting series were there because they wanted to be, not from group kiddie sales, summer outings with Slyde, or any other promotions. More than any match this season, those fans in attendance were Revolution fans first, and they made that known with their voices and their energy. I don’t know the numbers that watched that thriller on TV, but if Diego Fagundez and his friends make a great base to build upon on the field, that crowd, plus those on their sofas at home, possess the same potential. While Burns, Heaps, et al need to seek players add to the core, everyone who is a fan of live soccer in the area needs to demand better attention in the media and in the stands to bring the level of interest and excitement to where it ought to be.

In spite of the gridiron and all that goes with it – a playoff win with great atmosphere.

In spite of the gridiron and all that goes with it – a playoff win with great atmosphere.

Enough kvetching about the past, it is time to move forward, despite and in spite of all the ups, downs and frustrations, the 2013 season proved the roller coaster ride was well worth it, it is time to resolve to pile the pressure on everyone from ownership to couch-bound casuals to build this club to last.

While Darrius Barnes played in only a few matches this season, he slotted into the wounded backline in seamless fashion and held up well under the constant pressure from the Kansas City forwards. In the second leg, he even began to participate offensively, showing signs that he could be competing for a starting spot next season.

I spoke to him just before the team boarded the bus to take them to the plane to fly to K.C. for the second leg. While a few of his comments apply to that particular situation, the general drift of the interview took a somewhat longer view.

JIM: What I’m writing about relates, of course, to what will be happening tomorrow eveningm but I’m also interested in the longer view. You played with the last Revolution team that was in the playoffs, in 2009; what would you characterize as the differences between that team and this current squad?

DARRIUS: I think this team is a lot deeper. I think this team is better built to make a playoff run. I think we have the talent and ability and what it takes to be a playoff team, to be a title team. My ’09 team, we definitely had good players on that team; I’m not knocking that team at all, but it was kind of (a situation) where we were hanging on, we had no consistency with the team and what not. This team, I think we’ve kind of found our identity and know who we are a little bit more than that ’09 team and I think we are more playoff ready and built to make a playoff run. I know with this team we have a lot of young players who don’t have too much playoff experience, but we do have a core group of guys that do, like myself and Kevin Alston, Matt Reis, Chris Tierney, there are some guys with a little bit of playoff experience and having guys like that around, along with the talented young players who haven’t been in the playoffs, that makes for what I think is good chemistry.

JIM: So if you had thirty seconds to pitch the movie about this team, what would the storyline be?

DARRIUS: This team? Built to last, that would be it, “Built To Last!”

JIM: Built to last?

DARRIUS: I think so,. Like I said, this team has tons of depth and tons of talent and I think when you have a team like that where you can take one guy (out) and replace him with another one and you really don’t skip a beat, it speaks wonders about your team. It speaks volumes about what the capabilities of this team (might be).

JIM: Now you are a grizzled old veteran at, what is it, 25?

DARRIUS: (laughing), Yeah, no, no, I’m 26, I’m going to be 27 in December actually, so…

JIM: Oh really, sorry, I didn’t mean to disrespect you as such a young guy…

DARRIUS: (continuing to laugh) I’ll take 25. I’ll take it. I wish my body felt 25, you know? Five years in this league feels like ten years. It is a physical and tough, long season and I’ve been blessed enough to stay healthy for these five years, and I hope that I can keep it going.

JIM: And you are looking forward to next year? Perhaps this is not the appropriate time to talk about that, but are you looking forward to next year and continuing to fight for a starting spot?

DARRIUS: Yes, for sure, for sure, I mean soccer is a passion. It’s my dream. I want to go on, to keep riding this wave as long as I can. Obviously, there will be decisions to be made after the season, depending on how everything plays out. But you know I want to keep this thing going as long as I can, and I hope I’ll still be around.

JIM: And you stepped in the other day (Saturday, 2 November v. K.C. at Gillette) and it appeared to be a seamless transition. Now, as you have matured into the middle years of your career and are more developed as a player, but being asked to play in a variety of roles, what would you see as your absolute best and preferred position?

DARRIUS: I think my best and preferred position is still center back. That is just where I feel most comfortable, But just having this experience to play outside back over these past years has been invaluable to me to (be able) to see the game from a different perspective and to know what to expect of my teammates from playing left back, and what to expect from a center back, and what to expect from an outside back. You just see the game in a different way and being able to be versatile like that only adds value to yourself. Hopefully, I can continue to progress and get better. As you said, I’m hopefully in the middle of my career, and I can still continue to peak and get better in my prime years, and just continue to get better at all those positions to just add value to myself, and just become a more complete player.

JIM: You are off to Sporting KC to play on grass, on what many people consider to be one of the very best surfaces in the league. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages for the Revolution moving from your situation at home (turf, football lines, etc.) to a grass field?

DARRIUS: On our field we like to come here and battle. We know teams hate playing on the turf, and turf with the football lines especially. When teams come here, they know it is going to be a battle, because it isn’t going to be a pretty game when it is on that turf and the ball is bouncing around. It is hard to get your touch right because you have to focus on your touch and it is hard to keep the ball on the ground. But I think our team is a possession-oriented team, and we like play the ball around and move the ball around and keep it going. I think that once we move to the grass field, you will see that more possession-oriented style that we like to play, but we are going to have to bring that fight and grit that we play with at home so we can put both of those (qualities) together so we can get the ball moving, move for each other, keep the ball on the ground, move the ball quickly and also have that fight and grit. (If we do that) I think it is going to be definitely hard to beat this team when we play in K.C. tomorrow night.

JIM: The last few games here at home and away as well, you have had really good sized crowds, the crowd last Saturday was really up for it and made a lot of noise and atmosphere. How much of a difference does that make for you guys on the field?

DARRIUS: It’s huge. It is huge when you have the crowd behind you, especially when you score a goal and you have that momentum, you know that you have that twelfth man behind you and you get things rolling and get that momentum and that atmosphere is just huge to push the team to win. Like the last game (last Saturday vs. K.C.) we’re up 2-0, Kansas City clawed back and got a little cluster goal and they scored and you know the crowd was behind us to hold on and make sure that we willed ourselves to victory and go into K.C. with a 2-1 lead.

We’re not going to have that crowd behind us, it will be going against us on Wednesday night, and we are going to have to find our own motivation to hold on and to even go there and attack and score goals…

JIM: And make them quiet…

DARRIUS: Exactly, exactly, we want to hush their crowd. If we can go out and put our stamp on the game, you know in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the game, I think they’ll start to get a little bit nervous, and a little bit antsy and be out of their comfort zone and start doing things they don’t want to do, and I think that plays into our hands.

(Postscript: And while we all know it didn’t work out that way, it might be important to reflect that the team came within six minutes of going to penalties, despite being outplayed and exhausted and that maybe, just maybe, in this new era of coaching, management and general attitude in Fortress Foxboro, the exciting core will not only be sustained, but built upon with an eye towards being Built To Last.)

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