Miami, Fla. (May 14, 2019)
The New England Revolution have appointed Bruce Arena the club’s sporting director and head coach, effective immediately. Arena is the winningest coach in United States Men’s National Team history and a five-time MLS Cup champion. He brings more than four decades of coaching experience at the international and domestic levels to the Revolution.
“Bruce is one of the most successful coaches in American soccer history, and we feel his commitment to excellence, track record of winning championships in Major League Soccer, as well as his success at the international level, makes him the best person to bring the Revolution back to MLS Cup contention,” Revolution Investor/Operator Robert Kraft said. “We have known Bruce dating back to the advent of MLS, and we have full confidence that he will raise the level of our club to the standard we all expect and demand.”
“It was evident when talking with Bruce that we share a vision for the future of the Revolution and we look forward to having him oversee our soccer organization,” Revolution President Brian Bilello said. “We believe that now is the time for a change in leadership and there is no one better suited to usher in a new era of success in New England.”
Backdrop To Arena’s Hiring
(Note: Includes edits and portions of reprinted article in The Athletic by Sam Stejskal)
After a 5-0 blowout loss to the Chicago Fire last Wednesday, May 8, the New England Revolution fired head coach Brad Friedel the next day.
He wasn’t the only problem plaguing the Revs. New England is a prime example of how not to succeed in today’s Major League Soccer.
Friedel was just 46 games into his tenure as head coach. The defeat was a good encapsulation of the myriad of problems that the former U.S. international faced in New England. The Revs had nothing in the way of attacking ideas, failed to finish the few opportunities they did create and made a slew of basic individual errors in defence to allow a five-spot against a Chicago team that had been shutout in three straight games heading into Wednesday’s match.
The loss was New England’s second consecutive five-goal defeat, dropped the Revs to 2-8-2 on the season and pushed their goal differential to a staggering -19. It was a pathetic performance, the type of game where you could almost see the players quit on their coach.
New England was justified in their decision to dismiss Friedel, but things won’t meaningfully improve for the Revs just because they’re changing managers. Even the soccer equivalent of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, the man who’s led Revs owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft to so much NFL glory over the years, would have a hard time fixing the myriad issues that come with how his bosses run their MLS team.
The Revs don’t spend on their first team and don’t pay transfer fees. They’ve been in the bottom half of the league in payroll in six of the last eight seasons and have ranked in the bottom three in three of those years. Being cheap makes it difficult to build a consistent winner in MLS, but it doesn’t make it impossible. As Kansas City, Dallas and Columbus have shown in recent seasons, low-budget clubs can thrive when they make smart signings, hire astute coaches and invest in youth development. New England has done none of those things under General Manager Mike Burns, who, despite mostly subpar results, has been with the club since 2005 and in his current position since November 2011.
It’s telling that Burns’ most impactful signing — Jermaine Jones — happened almost entirely by accident. The Revs weren’t even initially in on the former U.S. international, as a source confirmed that the German-born midfielder was seriously negotiating only with the Chicago Fire when he began talks to join the league following the 2014 World Cup. New England worked themselves into the picture in the latter stages, and the league eventually decided that they’d assign Jones to either New England or Chicago via blind draw. Commissioner Don Garber picked the Revs’ name out of an envelope and Jones ended up in Boston. Seriously. That’s how it worked.
Jones ended up teaming with playmaker Lee Nguyen to lead New England on a second-half tear that ended with a surprise appearance at MLS Cup 2014. Burns did an undeniably good job assembling that roster, which, in addition to Jones and Nguyen, featured veterans Jose Goncalves and A.J. Soares and promising youngsters Scott Caldwell, Andrew Farrell, Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe and Teal Bunbury.
New England looked positioned to sustain their success, but they’ve gotten just about everything wrong in the four-plus years since they appeared in the final. Soares left for Norway as a free agent after the 2014 season, unhappy with the contract he’d been offered by New England. Jones was gone a year later, off to Colorado to help the often-lackluster Rapids to the second-best record in the league in 2016.
By the time Jones left, MLS was six months into its targeted allocation money era. Teams had been given the money to shop in better markets for better players. Some have used the extra cash well. The Revs have only fallen behind, having made a series of over-the-max signings that taken together are a cautionary tale of how not to spend. Michael Mancienne, Claude Dielna, Antonio Delamea, Benjamin Angoua, Luis Caicedo, Wilfried Zahibo and Krisztian Nemeth have ranged from mildly disappointing to utterly disastrous. Winger Cristian Penilla had a strong 2018, but he fell into Friedel’s doghouse over the last six weeks and didn’t even make the 18-man squad for Wednesday’s heavy loss. Striker Juan Fernando Caicedo has only been with the Revs a few months, but early returns have been middling at best.
New designated player Carles Gil is talented, but he’s the Revs’ lone DP. Colorado is the only other team in MLS with a single DP on their roster. Fittingly, the Rapids, who fired coach Anthony Hudson last week, are perhaps the only club currently in a worse situation than the Revs.
Meanwhile, the young core that looked so promising in 2014 has either left or stagnated. Nguyen was traded to LAFC after a messy holdout in 2018. Rowe had issues with Friedel and was sent to Kansas City this past offseason. Caldwell, Fagundez, Farrell and Bunbury remain, but none have markedly improved since the club’s run to the final. Part of that falls on the individual players, but some of the blame lies with Friedel and his predecessor, former head coach Jay Heaps, both of whom struggled to develop young talent and both of whom were hired during Burns’ tenure as GM.
Things aren’t much better off the field. The Revs have only finished in the top half of MLS in attendance once in the last decade, barely managing that feat when they finished 10th (average of 20,184 per game) in the then-20-team league in 2016. It was the club’s highest average attendance since 1997.
The Revolution, however, remain invisible in a sports-mad market, where each of the other professional sports teams have great popularity, long traditions, and constant media coverage. Some say this is due to the suburban location of Gillette Stadium, tucked away in the hills of tiny Foxborough, Massachusetts and actually located closer to Providence, R.I. than downtown Boston. But that cannot be the reason, as the Patriots have called Foxborough home since the days before they were a winning team, and even back then fans drove from all over New England to see them play.
Editor’s Note: Access to the stadium is easy and parking is included in the price of the ticket. With the crowds the Revolution draw in a 67,000 stadium, there is never a traffic jam. That said, the sparse crowds make for a terrible soccer game day atmosphere.
Despite their longstanding irrelevance in the region, the team’s business operations have been led by the same man, president Brian Bilello, since the 2012 season. Bilello, who has been with the Revs in some capacity since 2003, and Burns both have difficult jobs.
The Krafts don’t give them the same level of resources as most of their more successful counterparts around the league, and becoming a real player in the crowded Boston sports scene while stuck in Foxborough is a tall order when you don’t employ one of the best coaches and one of the best players ever to play your particular sport, as the Patriots do.
But to stick with the same leadership in the face of so little progress, or, in the case of the on-field product, flat-out regression, raises real questions about how much the Krafts care about the Revs. To be fair, the Krafts, along with the Hunt family and Phil Anschutz, sunk millions upon millions to keep the league afloat when it was on the brink of going under in the early 2000s. They deserve credit for that. It shouldn’t be forgotten.
But it’s also fair to ask if they’d tolerate this type of mediocrity from the Patriots. The Patriot Way works with Belichick and Brady. It hasn’t with Burns and Bilello. Would the Krafts let their NFL franchise languish for so long near the bottom of the league in payroll, results and attendance without holding their top executives accountable? If not, why on earth should they do so in the face of such lackluster results from the Revs?
There isn’t a good answer to that question.
All is Not Lost: Positive Steps
Thankfully for New England, there are a few ways forward. Better coaching and smarter management should lead to better results, which will naturally lead to better attendance in Foxborough.
New Training Centre
The Krafts are starting to open the wallet, too. They’re spending $40 million on a state-of-the-art training facility that will open at Gillette Stadium late this summer.
They were reportedly on the brink of committing $14 million total in transfer fee and salary to sign midfielder Paul-Jose M’Poku from Belgian club Standard Liege before the deal broke down over personal terms earlier this week. Even being in discussions to spend that kind of cash on designated players and TAM signings should lead to better things in New England.
A real step forward would be to finally build a stadium of their own in or closer to Boston. Boston is a densely-populated, older city, and it’s not easy to find the land needed for such a task.
According to sources, the club is working on finding a soccer-specific home of their own in Boston proper. Two separate sources have gone as far as to say that the club is on the brink of securing a stadium site. One of those sources added that the architectural plans are near completion, and that the Revs would be ready to break ground on a stadium shortly after receiving approval, should it come.
But the club has been down this road before. Too many times to count, really. Plans have been leaked, sites have been teased, hopes have been raised. They’ve all been dashed. Maybe this time will be different.
Editor’s Note: This is one of the many stadium plans in and around Boston that have not succeeded:
Perhaps the Revs will soon build the first open-air pro sports stadium in the city of Boston since Fenway Park was constructed in 1912. The club would certainly get a huge marketing boost if they do, and the Krafts, per those two sources, would start to spend significantly on their roster if they build a stadium.
But all that’s worthless unless shovels actually hit the dirt. Until then, the Revs are stuck in Foxborough. And while their ceiling is certainly lower there than it would be at their own soccer-specific home in Boston, they can still consistently succeed on the field and find a measure of relevance off of it while at Gillette.
In addition to hiring a new coach and potentially seeking new execs for New England, to achieve those two objectives, will require increased attention, investment and accountability from ownership. It’ll require the Krafts to start driving real, long-term solutions for the Revs.
It’ll require them to stop being the problem.
In the wake of how this season has gone for New England, the club, on May 13, 2019 released General Manager Mike Burns.
“As an original Revolution player and throughout his time with the club’s front office, Michael has always been a terrific ambassador for the club,” said Revolution President, Brian Bilello. “His impact on the team and organisation has been felt in many ways and we are grateful for his commitment and service to the New England Revolution.”
With regard to next steps for the club, Bilello said, “In light of recent results and the team’s on-field direction over the last few seasons, we felt it was time to take the soccer side of the organisation in a different direction. We expect to make an announcement related to leadership of the soccer organisation in the coming days.”