New England doesn't need a revolution, but standing still is no longer an option
It's tough to be a New England Revolution fan these days. Perhaps more accurately, it's tough to put your finger on why it's tough to be a Revs fan, even when it's evidently a common theme when speaking with those fans.
After all, the team was an MLS Cup finalist in 2014 and an Open Cup finalist last year. Two finals in three years would appear to be the mark of consistency and health. And even the bad moments never get that bad. In most underwhelming years for New England, it's easy to find two or three teams that seem to have it worse.
Perhaps that's part of the problem. The Revs never seem to experience disastrous enough circumstances to force change, and in some ways it's that sense of a stable but unambitious status quo that's so galling for some of their fans. In an expansion era when "constant change" is not so much a condition as a motto for the league, and when soccer-specific stadiums and new markets continually reinvigorate MLS, the Revs' mediocre conservatism is put in fairly harsh relief.
It can't help that the Chicago Fire have finally reignited after their own long drift. Never mind Atlanta United's exuberance in transforming the East -- the fact that Chicago held its nerve through a tough 2016 rebuild to reap rewards in 2017 is a particularly tough sight for New England fans for whom the future seems endlessly deferred.
This past weekend the Revs were in Chicago, hoping to take advantage of any All-Star Game hangover on the part of a Fire team that had shown the first signs of slipping in recent weeks. The Revs, meanwhile, had quietly notched back-to-back wins, scoring seven goals in the process. It may have been only the second time this season they'd won consecutive games in the league, but it had the makings of a run.
Instead, the Revs were overrun 4-1 by the Fire, and visibly frustrated coach Jay Heaps said afterward, "We can't have these spotty performances like we've had a few too many times this season."
Heaps, like the team itself, can be hard to pin down as a coach; at times his teams seem to be a symptom of a broader malaise at the club rather than the cause. At other times inexplicable selections and substitutions suggest he can be his own worst enemy when it comes to effecting change.
A former club player turned manager, with little if any coaching experience at the time of his appointment, Heaps has been given time to grow into the job and can point with legitimate pride to those Cup final appearances on his watch. But like Steve Nicol before him, Heaps' longevity has eventually raised questions about diminishing returns.
Whether that's fair goes back to whether you feel Heaps has done his best within the limited ambitions of the team under the watch of the Kraft family -- the owners' priorities clearly lie elsewhere (see: Patriots) -- or whether Heaps has failed to exploit the generous mandate of an organization loathe to change coaches.
Long-term fans point to Heaps' persistence of building around Lee Nguyen in the center despite his drop in form since his MVP-nominated 2014, while at the same time wasting the potential resource of Kelyn Rowe by pushing him to left-back, as examples of overextended patience on the one hand and lack of development on the other.
The same critics also talk about the visible influence Jermaine Jones had as an organizer on the field during that second-half-of-the-season surge that carried the team to an MLS Cup appearance in 2014. Those skeptical of Heaps' skills as an organizer suggest it was Jones' influence that raised the game of the players around him, rather than Heaps' ability to assemble the roster with Jones as the final piece of a jigsaw.
And last year's Open Cup run? Too short to count, and no surprise it ended so emphatically in Dallas.
Yet, like D.C. United, whatever problems there may be with the current coaching regime, it's equally true to point out that changing the coach fixes nothing in isolation. While D.C. faces stadium limbo, New England apparently has pride in its own inertia.
And as one Midnight Riders fan told ESPN FC this week: "I hate to say it, but I'd rather be a D.C. fan at the moment. However bad they are right now, they've been something and there's at least a chance they could be something again when they get the stadium and start spending on players again. We're a mediocre soccer club and always have been and there's no good reason for it, other than ownership not even noticing how the team's doing."
Whether that's true or not, it's not an absurd claim. Robert Kraft has been an immense figure in the history of MLS, and as MLS commissioner Don Garber has said, if there's ever an MLS Hall of Fame, Kraft's bust will sit alongside those of Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz as the sports industrialists who built and at one stage saved the league. But the team Kraft owns in New England currently looks like an anachronism in the modern league, and as the rest of the league has adapted, the Revs' shortcomings in MLS 2.0, let alone 3.0 and beyond, have become painfully exposed.
Whether the Kraft family have the will or interest to adapt the Revs for changing times is an open question. What seems clear, though, is that while New England might not need an outright revolution, standing still is no longer an option.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.