Pierce enjoying change of scenery
Rusty Pierce didn't shed a tear when he got the news that he was plucked away from the New England Revolution by Real Salt Lake during last November's MLS Expansion Draft. It didn't matter that he was going to an expansion team that would probably suffer in its first year, and would be moving to a city and state he didn't know much about. All he knew was that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were getting out of the Bay State, and heading to a new club, which was the most important thing.
"Both of us were anxious to move on and to a different team," said the 25-year-old defender. "It was time for a change for me."
It didn't matter that the Revs had just come off of a successful run in the postseason, which included an upset of the top-seeded Columbus Crew in the first-round and an epic match against DC United in the Eastern Conference final that went to penalty kicks. For Pierce, a five-year veteran of the club, it simply wasn't a good situation for him in Foxboro anymore.
It was never about his teammates. Though Pierce wasn't exactly the belle of the ball in the inner sanctums of a sometimes cliquish Revs locker room, he said he still has several friends on the team and is generally happy for his former side's scorching 4-0-1 start. It was more about the clashes he had with members of the front office and the manner in which they treated him.
As a starter for all five years he spent in New England, Pierce was one of the players most identified with Steve Nicol's teams, as his heart-on-his-sleeve efforts and versatility seemed to define the side that somehow found its way to the MLS Cup final in 2002, and made subsequent furious runs to the playoffs the last two seasons.
The respect he was looking for simply didn't exist from the higher-ups in the organization. Or at least the type of respect that Pierce was looking for. That made it a less than desirable working environment the past two years.
"It was very necessary that I change scenery, and right away," he said. "With the organization here (at Real Salt Lake), I would be happier winning half the games that the Revolution win -- if it were to work out that way, hypothetically.
"It wasn't about wins and losses. It was about everyday quality of life. For me, the organization at New England and I really did not mesh at all. And I don't consider myself a hard person to get along with. It just did not work.
"I'd wake up for a practice each morning and really not be happy. I'd just have to try and grind through practice. I was just unhappy. For the first time in my life, the last two seasons felt like a job. Getting up and playing really felt like a job, and one that I wasn't enjoying on a day-to-day basis. Being happy just on Saturday during matchday isn't enough. To be happy one day a week with your job, for me, wasn't enough. I want to be happy almost the days of the week."
And that's exactly what he's found in Salt Lake City through his first five months of being a part of the expansion club.
"There's nothing like waking up in the morning and being surrounded by mountains," he said. "It puts you in a good mood."
Pierce and his wife have already built a home and have been overwhelmed by the welcome they've received from local fans. It started right away when he was sold a sprinkler system for his new house by an RSL supporter who had just bought season tickets.
"I got forty percent off," he joked.
That, and a few other similar examples, showed Pierce right away that there was already excitement and a higher awareness of the team in a market where they are the only game in town. In Massachusetts, as strong a youth soccer community as there is, the Revs are simply a speck in the rearview mirror behind both the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics.
"It's amazing how many people have season tickets here or are aware of us," he said. "People come up to me a lot saying how happy they are to be here. It's nice getting used to that."
Pierce has also been able to play the position that he feels he's best at: right back. That's a change from the role as a central defender that Nicol had Pierce in for the majority of his time with the Revs,
"John (Ellinger) felt that I'll be a stronger right back than a centerback, and I agree with that," he said. I've always thought of myself as a right back who can play centerback, where in New England I was a centerback who could always play right back."
Through five matches, Pierce has been a part of a back four that has been juggled a bit due to injuries, and that questionable red card Eddie Pope was called for in the 3-0 loss to FC Dallas on April 23. Once everyone is healthy, including Pierce, who sat out training early this week due to a sore hamstring, it's a defense that has a lot of potential. Pope, one of the top defenders in MLS, will be the rock in the middle to go with Brian Dunseth and either Matt Behncke, Nelson Akwari or Marlon Rojas, depending on who emerges in the coming weeks.
While Pierce bemoans the team's 1-2-2 start, saying that the defense has given up goals in spurts but has been strong overall, he feels as though he's playing as well as ever.
"I'm probably having my best start than in any of the six years I've been in the league," he said. "I've felt the most comfortable with my play, and that's probably because of where I'm playing on the field."
That familiar tenaciousness that often doesn't sit too well with opposing forwards wasn't lost in the move, either. Pierce is still as feisty as ever, which is one of the reasons that Ellinger and general manager Steve Pasterino wanted him so badly. Ellinger carefully pieced his team together with "characters" -- or "villains" depending on which team you support -- like Evan Whitfield, Clint Mathis and Pierce who, as Pierce says, "leave their stamp on the game." Or, as Pasterino knows from being in the Chicago Fire front office, are the type of players you hate to play against and love to have on your side.
"There's no single play or game that defines my memories of Rusty Pierce from those Fire-Revolution games," he said. "Just that every time we broke down a Revolution game, we'd talk about where he was playing, who would have to 'deal with him', etc. He's a tenacious player whose well-deserved reputation has opposing attacking players adjusting their game so they don't have to go through him."
The next group of forwards that will have to "deal with him" are those from Chivas USA, as the two expansion teams play each other for the first time this Saturday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Pierce doesn't think they'll be added motivation due to the fact that both teams are new to the league. It'll simply be the case of trying to get back to .500 against a side that has yet to win a game.
"It's a team that is in our division, so it's a six-point game," said Pierce, whose side currently sits in fourth place in the Western Conference. "It's a chance to win points. And we need them. We felt that we could have taken some points away from some games where we didn't. Same with Chivas. I've seen them in games where they deserved some points and didn't get them."
Coming off a tough 1-0 defeat to the Revolution, Chivas USA might be ready to turn the corner. The same may be true for Real Salt Lake, having earned four points in their last three matches. Wherever they stand on May 7 or November 7, Pierce is just ecstatic to be in a new environment playing for a different club.
"I would rather not be anywhere else in the world right now than here in Salt Lake," he said. "I feel right at home here."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.