By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Sep 20 2017) US Soccer Players - The fifth coaching casualty of the 2017 MLS season fell on Monday evening when the New England Revolution fired Jay Heaps.
Heaps was on the job for all or parts of six seasons. A former Revolution player, he took over for longtime coacj Steve Nicol after the 2011 campaign, moving from the broadcast booth to do so. The height of Heaps’s run as head coach was an Eastern Conference title and an appearance in the MLS Cup final back in 2014, when the Revolution made a push into the DP age with the signing of USMNT midfielder Jermaine Jones.
It’s all been downhill in the years since that runner-up finish. Rather than leverage the wealth of attacking options available in the Revolution stable, the club regressed. The only identifiable features of soccer in New England over the intervening period between the 2014 MLS Cup final and Heaps’s dismissal were inconsistent play and the lack of elite talent. New England’s playoff success in 2014 couldn’t paper over the fact that the club trails the best of MLS by at least a decade in terms of spending, infrastructure, and relevancy.
If it hadn’t caught up with them before, there’s no doubt about it now. Following a four-day stretch where the Revs gave up ten goals to Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City while scoring once, the leadership reacted dramatically. Losing to Atlanta in front of a crowd of 40,000+ in an NFL stadium that included soccer considerations in its design sent a message. Even the usually tone-deaf New England Revolution ownership heard it Amidst a fan revolt and needing to sell tickets for next season, the club decided to make a change.
The timing of the head coaching change suggests that the Revolution either believe that a temporary coach might light a fire that somehow gets them to the playoffs, or that they want the fans to see it as such. There’s an additional added benefit of firing Heaps now, in that it allows coaching candidates to start lining up now for a chance to take the job come the offseason. Not waiting until the regular season was over means the Revs can shop the full roster of alternatives. The more time a new coach between his hiring and the start of the next season, the better.
What happens next in Foxborough is worth watching. While the search for a new head coach will start as soon as it possibly can, there’s plenty of reason to think that other changes are necessary. General manager Mike Burns cannot escape blame for putting together a roster that in some ways hung Heaps out to dry.
There wasn't a replacement for Jones, the club lacks depth at numerous positions, the back line is an open question. The Revs never even managed to sign a full complement of players for the 2017 season. With a chance to reboot the soccer operations completely, a spotlight now shines on the Krafts. If the original MLS investors really are being shamed by what Arthur Blank is doing in Atlanta or how Toronto FC has overcome their history to set the MLS standard, then they’ll react with more than the token move of casting Heaps aside.
It’s hard to tell from the terse, two-paragraph statement that followed the breaking news of Heaps’s dismissal whether such a reboot is coming. It’s even worth asking if the Krafts can do much to close the gap on the MLS elite without finally finding a permanent, soccer-specific, home for the club somewhere in the region. Money is not the issue. The Krafts have plenty. Playing at Gillette Stadium and being second-class citizens in their own home sets a psychological hurdle they may never clear. Whatever the Revs do, they’ll be a hard sell for the best coaches and players because of their status in a venue that does not suit them.
The end of the Heaps era in New England brings to a close another coaching tenure of an MLS alum pulled into to coaching ranks with little experience on the technical side of the game. Heaps retired, became a broadcaster, then moved to the sideline. His path is slightly different than that of Pablo Mastroeni who made no stop in the broadcast booth, but the firing of both men speaks to the changing winds of MLS. Former players with limited resumes may not be the obvious choices for new blood, no matter how cheaply they come.
Five coaches losing their jobs in one season says something else about MLS and the rising tide of pressure. Clubs like New England face a choice. They can continue with business as usually, hiring under-experienced coaches and trying to find the fine edges that makes it possible to occasionally contend with a budget squad. Or, they follow the lead of the new MLS elite like Toronto, Seattle, Atlanta, and NYCFC.
It will probably take a few more years, at the very least, for New England to fully commit if they do at all. For the time being, the rest of the league will hardly glance back to see what’s next for a team left so far behind.
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