New England Soccer Today

A View from the Fort



A View from the Fort by JIM DOW

Over the past month, I have spent much of the time on the road and in every quiet moment searched the web for updates on the travails of the New England Revolution’s search for reinforcements. While I was able to attend all the recent matches, including the game in NY/NJ (more on this later), the hours spent in the car made for endless speculation on possible players, the competence of management, and the commitment of ownership. Like the kind of concentration that comes in those last moments just before sleep, every different thought led to ever more crazed conjectures.

So, of course, the emergence of rumors that Kraft FC were actually in the hunt for U.S. Nats midfielder and World Cup hero Jermaine Jones made for even more sleepless supposition. With more than eighteen years of dashed hopes when it came to big names, common sense dictated that it really wouldn’t happen and there were also good arguments against the idea, particularly voiced in an excellent recent piece in NEST by Sean Donahue.

In his column, Donahue opined that the Revolution should follow the Real Salt Lake model of intensively scouting for reasonably priced imports along the lines of Javier Morales, etc. He backs his argument with facts and figures and certainly the commitment of $4.5 million over a year and a half to the almost 33-year-old Jones would pay for a full-time scout, lots of travel as well as transfer fees for a number of good level players from bankrupt clubs in Latin America and beyond. Some of these players might be low-budget Designated Players, others not, but his point is totally valid long term and, likely in the middle haul as well.

On the other hand, there is an important cultural question relating to the methods of acquisition that the Krafts themselves are comfortable with. With the NFL being a closed shop, they are used to dealing with players who have no viable alternative save to play for the team that drafted them (or got them in trade, etc.). Yes, there is free agency and the bidding wars that come with it but nobody has to fly to Asuncion to look at a supposedly disgruntled left back who has a gifted left foot and hasn’t been paid by Sol de America for six months, nor deal with his agent who is likely somewhere south of Tony Soprano. Indeed, you need to have someone in your employ whose ears are pretty close to the trembling pampas or at least regularly surf Paraguayan futbol websites and, of course, be able to read Spanish, or Portuguese, or Romanian, or, well, you get the idea.

Finding players through the draft, allocations and lotteries (ping pong balls or not) is pretty much the Patriot way, but American football is hardly a world game despite playing the odd match or two in London. Conversely, in a notoriously provincial sports market, the Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox all look far beyond their own borders to stock their rosters, and to succeed in the contemporary MLS, the Revolution have to do that as well.

Consider this: currently the Revos have players from Canada, The Congo, England, Germany, Grenada, Honduras, Japan, Portugal and Uruguay but with the exception of Jerry Bengston, Jose Goncalves and Dimitry Imbongo they have arrived at the Big Razor through MLS-regulated channels and while that may be a contradiction in terms it still is an in-house operation compared to scouring the globe.

Further, if you look at a list of former Revs, despite having notable players from Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Italy, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela (I may be forgetting a few and I’m not counting people like Giuseppe Galderisi, Alejandro Farias and Walter Zenga who came in the early days by who knows what methods) the only significant additions to the side that were gotten outside various league acquisition formats were Pepe Cancela from Deportivo Saprissa and Jose Goncalves from F.C. Sion.

Unquestionably obtaining JoGo on loan with an option to buy has been a significant success but, on the other hand, neither Bengston nor Imbongo have had much effect. And further, a 33% rate of return of foreign acquisitions is actually around the norm across the league. You need to find and bring in a lot of bodies to get a decent return.

So, in a league where non-US players have considerable influence it seems logical to acquire as many as possible (like eight) to ensure a balanced, competitive roster. There may have to be considerable turnover; with endless scouting, evaluation, trying out and, maybe, signing players who have come through the ranks in other countries, it is the way to go going forward, in addition to competing for a big name or names.

Along these lines the signing of Geoffrey Castillion, ex of Ajax development is exactly the kind of sifting through the bargain bins required for stocking the roster. Michael Burns said that the team had “intensely” scouted him, and it would be illuminating, if not reassuring, to know exactly what that means. The big Dutch forward may be a bust, might turn out to be a find, or maybe somewhere in between, but since MLS is not a destination for top flight young prospects from across the world the search at levels just below is exactly what needs to be done on an intensive, ongoing basis. Goncalves, late of F.C. Sion in Switzerland, is a perfect case in point, a player who had moved between many decent second tier European clubs (Basel, Hearts, Sion, Venezia) and was looking for a change of scene while still in his prime. Here’s hoping that the sea change in New England’s ways will continue to pay attention to this crucial aspect of acquisition.

While Jones himself is certainly a top level player, it is important to remember he is not Tim Cahill, Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane; in other words, he is not an absolute game-changer. Partially that is a question of his position; he isn’t a forward or a playmaker. Rather, he is a grinding, gutsy dominator who plays all over the middle of the park. Certainly he is of the quality of other top U.S players like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey or, to draw a useful parallel, Shalrie Joseph (with more speed) in his salad days. As JJ recently acquitted himself superbly against the World Cup champions (Germany), two top level European teams (Belgium and Portugal) and a very tough African one (Ghana), for the immediate future, he should be able to dominate MLS opposition until such time as he loses the ability to roam, destroy and create box to box. It is much the same problem that Joseph himself presented in 2008/9 as he began to be unable to find that extra step that allowed him to do the very same thing and caught the eye of European scouts three to four years earlier. You could argue that Jones has over a decade of success against far tougher opposition than Joseph ever did. But wouldn’t it have been interesting to see how our own #21 would have fared wearing the Red, White and Blue in the 2006 World Cup against the Czech Republic, Germany and Ghana, or what sort of role he would have had with Glasgow Celtic in European competition had he been allowed to leave?

All this is pure speculation, but here is why I think the arrival of Jones, on balance, will be a positive influence on the team’s fortunes.

First, in Patriot fashion, his contract has a canny ending. The Revos have certainly overpaid him for the 10 games (plus possible playoffs) remaining in 2014 but, in return, he is only contracted through December 2015 which means that the team will not be saddled with a deteriorating player on an expensive long-term agreement. This is somewhat brutal to say but important and in keeping with the way Kraft Sports, Inc. does business and, frankly, I think it is smart for all parties involved. Jones gets big money up front and the Revs are protected at the back end of the deal. Should it prove time to part ways in November 2015, the stage has been set to continue to look for other marquee, signings, the big money genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back.

Second, it may be that when Jonathan Kraft spoke of “moving the needle” he was, in part, speaking about his own perceptions. Jones may not add significantly to attendance or media attention but if he truly succeeds on the field he may pave the way for a further loosening of the purse strings for both players and logistical support. If the Jones signing succeeds in helping the New England ownership attain a worldview as regards its soccer operation, the $4.5 will have been well-spent, really seed money towards future success.

Third, as has often been said recently, Jones brings a level of hardness to a team that has been often seen as a bit soft in a tough, physical league. Along with the estimable captain Goncalves, he can show by example day in and day out exactly what a top flight professional has to do to get room to operate on the pitch. In hockey parlance, he knows how to keep the elbows and stick high enough to give the opposition pause, and he bangs in the corners. Yet Jermaine Jones isn’t Joey Franchino or Shawn Thornton; he has a lot of skill and game sense to go with all that experience and toughness. Maybe, besides Joseph, think Cam Neely despite the legendary Bruin being a right winger (ice-wise). If he and the Portuguese central defender can present a party line in the dressing room and on the training field that serves to stiffen the spine of the squad, everyone will benefit.

During the Red Bull game in NY/NJ and the Timbers match at Foxborough, I spent considerable time perched high above the pitch with a vantage point that allowed me to observe the lateral spacing between all the players from one end line to the other. What was glaringly apparent was how little space the creative Revolution midfielders and forwards had to operate and, conversely, how much existed for the opposition. The Red Bull players in particular often looked like football wide receivers, running to an open spot before the ball was delivered, Brady-like just as they cut towards a useful position. On the other hand, the Revolution players almost seemed to have to acknowledge a teammate through direct eye contact before making or taking a pass which meant the game sped up when NY/NJ had the ball and slowed down when New England was in possession. It was the difference between intuitive, penetrating play and a more predictable, pedestrian and, ultimately, losing variety.

While things have definitely improved since that early August match, the fact is that Jones’ greatest contribution will likely be making every player that comes near him play with one eye on him, again just like Joseph back in the day. While the knock against the German-American hard man has always been that he is a red card waiting to happen, if he can temper that edge just enough to keep himself on the field, then there is considerable likelihood that the Revolution creative munchkins can operate more freely with fewer direct challenges for space, which will suit their passing game, and likely allow for more open chances on goal.

Whatever it was that Jurgen Klinsmann imparted to the former Schalke bad boy, it has worked in spectacular fashion and if Jay Heaps can build on the new, post-World Cup JJ then any questions of salary inequity, a super fit, but heavy mileage body, and all the other things that have serious observers thinking seriously, will go by the boards and the sky will be the limit.

I, for one, cannot wait for Wednesday night and it bodes to be a fascinating fall.


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