Mention the word contraction in American sports circles and many fans will shudder. It was this word that was mentioned in the mid-90s by Major League Baseball in hopes of dissolving teams in markets that made little money. However, MLB never contracted a team; rather, they expanded the league in Tampa Bay and Arizona.
In Major League Soccer, contraction was put into action as the league dissolved two teams in the early part of the century. In 2001, after four seasons of play the league contracted the Miami Fusion and after six years of play the league contracted an MLS original in the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
Terrible names aside, the league was losing money each season and was attempting to shake things up. People weren’t coming out, and it wouldn’t be until the US Men’s National Team’s successful 2002 World Cup that attendances increased around the league.
One of the teams MLS didn’t contract, rather, than two Florida/southeast based clubs was the New England Revolution though they may have had reasons to dissolve them at the time. In their first six years of existence the club was quite poor performance wise, though they boasted the likes of Alexi Lalas, Joe-Max Moore and John Harkes, and never progressed past the first round of the MLS play-offs. This was a time that MLS fluctuated between 10 and 12 teams, a far cry from what the league is today. As a matter of fact, on the surface MLS today resembles very little of what it 11 years ago did.
In 2002, New England slowly turned into one of the better sides in MLS thanks in large parts to former manager Steve Nicol. It was Nicol whom transformed the club into a solid defensive team. Add in the likes of Taylor Twellman, Matt Reis, Andy Dorman, Clint Dempsey and Steve Ralston and the club produced a purple patch of results for several years. Though in the end, they only achieved heartache losing the MLS Cup Final four times; including being runners-up three consecutive seasons.
Since 2007, however, the club has been in a downward spiral. Consistently being the cheapest team in the league hasn’t helped as owner Robert Kraft instead prefers to put his money into his NFL team the New England Patriots. Many believed the Revolution turned the corner last season with the signing of Benny Feilhaber, but with the talent around him Feilhaber looked less like an US international and more like another run of the mill MLS player.
This is a franchise that has relied heavily on the MLS college draft to fill out its roster and find diamonds in the rough. Luckily, the Revolution had Nicol and one time assistant Paul Mariner to help sift through the duds and find some capable quality. Unfortunately for Revolution fans, Mariner left in 2009 and after a spell with Plymouth Argyle in England is now with Toronto FC. Nicol parted company with New England this off-season.
Former Revolution defender Jay Heaps has been given the responsibility of bringing the club back to the forefront of MLS. Many see Heaps’ hiring in a similar fashion to that of Real Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis and DC United’s Ben Olsen. However, unlike Kreis and Olsen who went from playing to managing, Heaps was working for a financial company and doing color commentating on the side following his retirement from the game.
Being overlooked in the criticism of Heaps’ hiring is whether or not he holds a relevant US coaching certificate. That same question could have been asked about Kreis and Olsen when they took over their respective clubs as well. Regardless of certificates it’s whether or not he can produce results on the pitch, and his hiring is most likely the cheapest club being even cheaper.
The New England Revolution is not a club in transition; rather, it is a club attempting to play in MLS as if it was still 1996. This is a club that is being left behind by the rest of the league. While teams such as Kansas City re-established itself with a new stadium, colors and name. The Revolution has stayed true to its origins; and not in a good way.
Perhaps, it’s time for MLS to make a decision on Robert Kraft and company. Get serious about your team, your stadium and change with the rest of the league or face the consequences: Contraction.