Jay Heaps fired, but New England Revolution still beset by problems
Jay Heaps was fired as manager of the New England Revolution on Monday, and there was much cheering, at least among certain segments of the fan base. But as emotionally satisfying as Heaps' ousting might be for some fans, it shouldn't be -- can't be -- the only change that takes place in the Revs organization.
This is a franchise that isn't so much adrift as it is in a death spiral. The Revs were second in the Eastern Conference in 2014, fifth a year later, and then missed the playoffs in 2016, a scenario that is almost certain to repeat itself this year. Only a collapse on the part of the New York Red Bulls, Atlanta United or the Columbus Crew, combined with New England running the table in its five remaining games, will see the Revs reach the postseason. Not happening. As such, it was Heaps who took the fall.
"I think that the way that we've been trending over the last couple of years was the overriding factor in why we decided to make a coaching change," said Revs GM Mike Burns in an exclusive interview.
"I think if you look at the six years Jay has been here, we've had some success, but in the last couple of years, we have not, and we have been trending in the last 12 to 24 months in the wrong direction."
The team's game management has been an issue all season, and without question some of that falls on Heaps. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Revs have had a lead in 17 games this year. Their record in those matches is 10-5-2, meaning that they have dropped 19 of a possible 51 points in those games. The five losses after leading are tied with Atlanta for most in MLS this season. The percentage of points dropped (37) after leading is the highest in the league in 2017. And if you miss the postseason two years in a row, you can't be surprised if the manager gets shown the door.
As for why now, Burns shot down a theory making the rounds that it had to do with season-ticket renewals. "I'm not smart enough, clever enough, to be intertwining coaching decisions with season-ticket renewals," he said.
Rather, Burns said it was about maximizing the time available to look for Heaps' successor. Logically, that seems like a stretch. There is likely to be little to no competition for coaching talent this offseason given that four other teams have now already fired their manager and replaced him with a long-term solution. And there was absolutely nothing stopping New England from beginning the search now and letting Heaps finish out the season. Now that task has fallen to interim manager Tom Soehn.
Yet this team has issues that go way beyond the manager. Clearly there has been a talent drain within the roster since the team's MLS Cup final appearance in 2014, and the attempts to restock it have resulted in a team that is imbalanced with lots of redundant parts. Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez and Lee Nguyen look to be the same kind of player, looking to play quick combinations. The roster seems ill-equipped to provide Kei Kamara with the kind of service from out wide, which he thrives upon.
The pieces in the back don't fit together either, and while one can say that 10 of the 51 goals New England has conceded have come in the last two games, even if you eliminate those two matches, the team's goals against average of 1.51 would still be in the bottom half of the league. Center-back Toni Delamea has been a solid pickup; Benjamin Angoua, not so much. That, and other personnel decisions, are on Burns.
Yet Burns didn't sound like someone inclined to believe that the roster is an issue.
"There is a certainly a feeling internally -- and I would include all of our coaches and players -- of a certain sense of underachievement with the roster that we have," he said. "We feel we should be better than what we are."
The problems go deeper still, however. New England has long been an organization that has done things on the cheap. Now, this is not a knee-jerk call to spend more on player salaries, though that might help. As of last April, New England ranked 18th out of 22 teams in terms of payroll, according to data provided by the MLS Players Union. It's no accident that the one time the Revs spent big on a player -- Jermaine Jones in 2014 -- they reached that aforementioned MLS Cup final.
A big issue is infrastructure, or in this case, the lack thereof. MLS is still a league in which success doesn't necessarily require shelling out multimillion-dollar salaries on individual players. But MLS has also evolved to the point where if you're going to go that route, you had better be making other, longer-term investments. You had better be investing in your academy. You had better be investing in your reserve team. And, perhaps more critically, you had better be investing in scouting and player recruitment.
In an interview earlier this year, Burns admitted that New England still relied heavily on its coaching staff to do its scouting. Other teams, like Sporting Kansas City, the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers, are investing considerably more bodies and resources.
Granted, spending in this way guarantees nothing. But it's engaging in roster arbitrage, a way of increasing the slim margins among teams. The alternative is to essentially engage in a high-wire act, where you had better not screw up in terms of roster building. If a few obstacles crop up -- a new player doesn't work out, another gets injured, and, yes, a coach makes mistakes -- that is oftentimes enough to hamstring your season. Long term, it means getting left in the wake by teams who spend more aggressively in terms of club infrastructure.
Burns indicated that he has received approval to hire a full-time scout -- "It's a priority for us," he said -- but that will only slow the pace at which the Revs are falling behind, not reverse the trend completely.
That is the decision that owner Robert Kraft has in front of him. Is the next choice of coach important? Without a doubt. Should Burns' seat be getting hotter? Absolutely.
But other investments need to be made. Otherwise, the result will be rearranging the deck chairs at Gillette Stadium, and the Revs' ship will continue to sink.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.