Jay Heaps is the right man for the job. The newly installed head coach of the New England Revolution can turn the struggling team around if the club lives up to its new philosophy and backs him as he constructs a team in his own image.
Heaps agonized as he watched the New England Revolution hit “rock bottom” last season. He felt powerless to do anything about it as the color analyst on the team’s broadcasts. The 35-year-old, rookie head coach now owns the project of restoring the Revs to its former status as one of America’s best soccer teams.
The former defensive stalwart plans to do so by building on an existing core of talented players — he named re-signed veterans Shalrie Joseph, and Matt Reis along with A.J. Soares, Kevin Alston, Benny Feilhaber and Diego Fagundez in the group — with players that possess the strengths he exuded in his nine years on the Revs’ back-line.
On the field, Heaps was the consummate over-achiever. The student of the game was neither the most athletic nor skillful player on the field, but made the most of his career with passion, competitiveness, determination and savvy. He retired in 2009 as New England’s all-time appearances leader with 294 in all competitions.
One advantage he brings as a coach is that he knows this team inside and out. Rather than taking time to familiarize himself with the group and learn what issues need addressing, he assumed the role with a clear sense of what ails the team, and has a plan of action to remedy it. There is no time to waste as the 2012 season starts in mid-March, and Heaps is better positioned than anyone to improve the current group of Revs between now and then.
The 2011 Revolution had a maddening habit of conceding goals late in games. Heaps has targeted strength and conditioning as an area that can help eliminate late-game slumps. He also emphasizes detailed game-preparation as a factor that can turn losses into draws and draws into wins.
Heaps also recognizes that his inexperience — this is his first head coaching job at any level — is a major shortcoming. He plans to hire an assistant coach with MLS experience, who will help him grow into the league. He should interview John Murphy for the role.
Currently an assistant coach at Clemson University, the Quincy, Mass., native was a Revs assistant from 2000-03. He held the same position with the Columbus Crew in 2004, before moving to the Colorado Rapids from 2005-08. The Crew, Rapids and Revolution enjoyed great success during, or in the years immediately following Murphy’s time at each club.
Heaps has certainly said all the right things since taking charge in November. If he puts them into practice, the Revs could quickly become a good MLS team.
Heaps’ appointment comes within the context of upper management reshuffling its decks. Longtime head coach Steve Nicol was shown the door after a decade on the sidelines at Gillette Stadium. Brian Bilello and Mike Burns were promoted to president and general manager, respectively.
The pair oversaw on- and off-field operations as its fortunes declined sharply in recent years. The Kraft family (Revolution investor/operators) bet that continuity and focus at the top is the shortest road back to competitiveness, rather than tearing down the walls at Gillette and starting over from what Heaps calls “rock bottom.”
In his first remarks to the media as Revs president, Bilello declared that the club would not be outworked or outsmarted by anyone in the league. It has become the club’s stated philosophy. As a bold first step, he and Burns hired Heaps as the living, breathing embodiment of the club’s new club ethos.
Heaps can fix the team in the short term. It is up to upper management to learn from their past mistakes, put their heads together with the bright, young head coach and bring in fresh talent that can take the Revs from good to great.