It seems as though every year the roster of the New England Revolution suffers more than its fair share of attrition. In fact, if you collected the Revolution players who have left for Europe or retired in the past three years, you'd have the beginnings of a pretty fair team that would include four current or former U.S. internationals. Yet rather than spend money on big-name replacements, New England coach Steve Nicol has retooled his roster with what is normally the bane of a manager's existence: young players.
As the Revs lined up against Toronto FC last Saturday, seven of the 11 spots in Nicol's starting lineup were comprised of performers that the team either drafted or signed as teenagers. Included in that group were two rookies, defender Seth Sinovic and forward Zack Schilawski. Sinovic has looked right at home in assuming the left back spot, while Schilawski took apart TFC with three goals, becoming just the third rookie in league history to record a hat trick.
This is on the heels of a 2009 campaign in which Nicol relied heavily on rookie defenders Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes. And while a seventh-place finish in what was then a 15-team league might not seem like much of an accomplishment, the fact that Nicol did so after losing defensive mainstay Michael Parkhurst to Danish side Nordsjaelland, as well as Taylor Twellman due to injury for most of the season, certainly ranks as one of his more impressive managerial feats.
Nicol is by no means perfect. In 2006, he completely missed the mark with first-round selection Leandro de Oliveira, who was cut before the season was over. But more often than perhaps any other MLS coach, Nicol strikes draft gold, and not just in the first round. Barnes was selected in the third round in 2009, while forward Kheli Dube was chosen in the supplemental draft a year earlier. For a club that is loath to take risks in terms of big salaries, such acumen has kept the team competitive.
So how does the Scot manage to restock his roster year after year primarily from the much-maligned college system? Nicol deadpans that he has "no idea." But further inspection reveals an approach that leans more toward art than science.
"I think it's really simple, I don't think it's complicated," Nicol insists. "I think generally, most great players have ability, and they also have a love for the game. If you can get a guy who has those two things, then it's a good place to start."
Of course, that is the view from 10,000 feet, and given his track record, Nicol is doing or seeing things that others don't. One impulse is to think that whenever the MLS SuperDraft rolls around, Nicol simply picks whatever ACC player happens to be available. Schilawski, a product of Wake Forest, is just the latest performer to emerge from Nicol's ACC pipeline, with Parkhurst, Barnes and current Seattle Sounders FC defender James Riley some other notable examples. The reality is his approach is a bit more refined than that.
"What we identified early was that because of the budgets, and the fact that the country is so big, it's very, very difficult to go scout players," said former New England assistant coach Paul Mariner, who is currently the manager of English side Plymouth Argyle. "So we relied basically on the ACC, and nurtured our contacts with those coaches in the college ranks. That helped us a great deal cross-referencing players. Then we'd go see them and we could judge pretty quickly whether they could play in MLS."
Yet New England has had success mining other sources as well. Former Revs Clint Dempsey of EPL side Fulham and Andy Dorman of Scottish club St. Mirren both attended schools outside the ACC. The same is true for Alston and Sinovic.
That leaves the always murky "eye for talent" theory to explain Nicol's draft success, but in hearing the Revs manager describe what jumped out at him about Schilawski and Sinovic it's clear that a high soccer IQ -- however that reveals itself -- is high on his priority list.
"A couple of years ago, we went down to North Carolina to play Wake Forest in preseason. The movement Schilawski had with [then teammate Cody] Arnoux was good, and we remembered," said Nicol. "We didn't know a great deal about Sinovic, but at the [MLS player combine] we saw he read the game well, defended well, and wanted to get forward."
Off-the-ball movement and reading the game aren't traits that can be measured easily, yet it's that kind of detail that sticks in Nicol's memory. And the New England manager owes his keen eye to a playing career spent mostly with the legendary Liverpool sides of the 1980s, where he helped the Reds win one European Cup and five league titles. Granted, being around such a club is not a guarantee of success, but in Nicol's case, it definitely helped.
"I've been fortunate that I've been involved with a team like Liverpool, and other clubs that have had good players," said Nicol. "You don't necessarily say, 'I'm going to go out and get that [kind of player].' But I think it's just kind of a thing that you've got in your brain, and you like what you see and that's it."
Identifying talent is only half the battle, however. The other challenge is getting it to perform on the field. That requires a willingness to take the risk of putting rookies in the lineup in the first place.
"[Nicol] isn't afraid to play anyone," said former New England defender and current Revs television analyst Jay Heaps. "His trust factor is really unique because he does put players in situations, and he does trust them, and that gives players a bit more confidence.
"When I first saw Darrius Barnes, no one thought he was going to be as good as he was, and every time he stepped on the field, he just got better and better. I don't think most coaches would have played him right away, and Stevie just kept putting him in."
Heaps added that another strength of Nicol's is not overloading his young players with information. This proved to be critical last season when Barnes and Alston were inserted into the back line.
"Nicol will break things down, piece by piece," Heaps said. "It's not like 'We've got two new guys in the back, we have to go over every set piece, or every ball out of the back.' He just broke it down and started a slow buildup to cover each thing eventually but not cover it all at once. Every week he added a little more information to the rookies without blowing them out of the water."
Such a process is inherently long and riddled with potholes, but Nicol's belief in his young charges remains steadfast, even as he throws out the usual caveats about the team's start and the performances of his first-year players.
Nicol said, "We're always cautious. It's early days, but [both rookies] have been fantastic."
Given his ability to identify and develop talent, that's no surprise.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.