The New England Revolution are a team in transition this offseason. Long-time coach Steve Nicol has been fired and replaced by a man familiar to Revs fans: former player Jay Heaps. The new head man comes in at a time when the team’s glory days of MLS Cup appearances seem in the distant past, which a last place finish in the Eastern Conference will do to you.
So far this offseason, the team has made a few intriguing moves to bolster its lineup and when they trot out for First Kick 2012, the Revs will be a recognizable and veteran team. But is this the right strategy for a team that is currently mired in mediocrity? Let’s continue our offseason “3 Questions” series with the Revs.
1. Can Jay Heaps replace Steve Nicol?
Really this is the most important question for this club, but the question might be better phrased as can Jay Heaps make a difference? Stevie Nicol was undone towards the end by a couple of factors: the end of his dominance in collegiate scouting, his owner’s unwillingness to spend more on players, and untimely injuries to key players that have not been fully replaced.
In comes Jay Heaps from the team’s broadcast booth, and these challenges will be facing a guy who’s never been a coach at any level. This does not mean he will not succeed; in fact, the trend in MLS is to hire former players as coaches and there is a record of success with this route. That said, team blogs like The Bent Musket have been underwhelmed by the hiring, noting that this may have been the Krafts simply going after the cheapest and easiest coaching option. In addition, the fact that Heaps was never a team captain is an intriguing point. Nevertheless, all of this will be moot if he can turn the culture around and begin finding success in a “fluid” Eastern Conference.
2. Where will the goals come from?
This team has an offense and defense problem, but the glaring lack of production from the Revs’ forwards is an obvious deficiency in this team. Shalrie Joseph was the team’s leading scorer, and with the acquisition of Clyde Simms (see below) he will be able to continue to be a threat up front for the team. Rajko Lekic chipped in six goals in his first MLS seasons (and could be resigned for cheaper), but the rest of the forwards vastly underachieved or simply couldn’t contribute with any consistency.
There are two ways this team can improve here, and the most obvious one is to do a little shopping for new forwards. New England will likely go sniffing around for new faces, but how much money they will commit to buying a top flight striker (especially after taking on Benny Feilhaber’s salary plus bumping up Shalrie Joseph) is a key question. Their move to cut-and-restructure some of their higher-salaried players may clear up space.
But a second in-house option is to gamble on soon-to-be 17 year old Diego Fagundez. The young midfielder made an impact with two goals in the Revs last six games and is being touted as an up-and-coming star. However, as long-time MLS watchers know, depending on a teenager to lead an attack can be a dangerous proposition, and Heaps may be content to let him stay in the more veteran midfield anyway.
3. Is a more veteran team a better team?
New England was one of the more aggressive teams in the Re-Entry draft, grabbing Clyde Simms from DC United and Nate Jaqua from Seattle. Simms is a veteran holding midfielder who can provide some consistent defensive cover while Jaqua can give some depth and a potential scoring punch. For a team whose best players are aging, this is an interesting strategy. If the team adds only one or two new contributors, the starting XI we will see in 2012 will be familiar to MLS fans and have years of MLS experience.
But is this a good thing for a team like New England who again has stagnated over the past few seasons? Without making a game-changing signing this is the type of team that can tread water and maybe be a threat in the East. Last year that may have been good enough for a playoff spot but with the improvement of teams like Chicago, it will be harder to make a playoff run being just mediocre. However, depending on who they sign or how the conference shakes out, maybe this low-cost strategy could be the key to bringing them back to the playoffs.