By Kevin Koczwara
Changes needed to happen for the New England Revolution to keep up with the rest of Major League Soccer. The Revolution enjoyed success in the mid-2000’s, but as the decade came to a close the Revs fell so far behind the rest of the league that they can barely see the rest of the league’s brake lights ahead. This winter, New England’s front office staff set out on a mission to change that, to get the team back on track and catch it up with the rest of the league.
Manager Steve Nicol was let go at the end of the season, the team’s second consecutive season missing the MLS Cup Playoffs. Former player and TV color analyst Jay Heaps was hired as his replacement. Sunil Gulati left his post inside the franchise as the man behind the curtain and Michael Burns was promoted to General Manager from his Vice President of Player Personnel, making him the main man in charge of building the team instead of someone working with the coaching staff and Gulati. Brian Bilello became the team’s President, moving up from COO.
The big changes, though, weren’t as much about personnel changing. Instead, they were about streamlining operations and making sure the team, coaches and the front office are better suited to making key decisions regarding players’ health, fitness, and tactically.
One of the major changes around Foxborough is the new weight room specifically for the Revolution. The new facility was inspired by the team’s front office new vision of what the team should be and how it should run. With the new weight room came the team’s first ever strength and conditioning coach, Nick Downing.
“It was a priority for him [Heaps] to have a full-time strength and conditioning coach and to do weight and training sessions with the guys, so now we’re doing it,” said Bilello after the Supporters’ Summit on Feb. 16.
Downing, a former player, was brought on by Heaps to help monitor the health of the Revolution players and to keep them in shape. Something the team hopes to work on is staying in shape and finishing games. New England conceded 16 goals after the 75th minute last season, including eight goals that were either game-winners or game-tying goals. For the Revolution to be successful this year, it needs to turn around that record into its favor.
“I don’t think you can always pinpoint injuries. So to say that Nick’s going to be a remedy; I wouldn’t want to put all that on his shoulders. But at least to monitor our bodies from a more scientific approach; [it] is the only way to go. If you look at every other team in MLS, teams around the world, they’re taking a long hard look at what the data says, not just what a player is saying,” said Heaps on a Jan. 25 conference call with reporters. “I could ask Matt Reis five times over, (or) A.J., “How are you feeling?” and they’ll say, “I feel great,” no matter what their bodies are telling them. So now we have a little bit of a look into what their bodies are saying, not what the athletes are saying.”
Bringing in a new strength and conditioning coach and improving the facilities fit Bilello and Burn’s vision for the Revs. On top of that, Bilello wanted to add in a video room for the team attached to the weight room so players and coaches could work on watching more video and working on bettering their bodies in one state of the art area specifically built for soccer, something the team hasn’t had in the past.
With the new video room, Bilello also wanted to bring in a modern approach to how the team operates and views situations on and off the field. Bilello, a graduate of MIT, wanted to bring in more analytical analysis to help Burns in his search for players and Heaps prepare for opponents.
“I think we’re going to find a lot of things that are going to help us in both the player selection process, talking of the scouting on that side, and some of the game management side,” said Bilello. “There’s some cool stuff out there right now but it’s not really refined or MLS specific, so we’re looking at a lot of that work and whether we want to make it MLS specific or if its someone part time doing it and they spend three months doing it that they can find out. I think we’re going to be pretty quiet about it, but I think it’s something we’re going to be able to find.”
Bilello admits soccer isn’t perfect for analytics and that it’s a game that defies numbers at times. But if doing analysis and studying numbers can improve the team in any way, then it’s a good investment and something he wants to work on. It might take some ingenuity and looking at other sports, but Bilello is willing to try to do anything to help the Revolution win in the modern world of sports.
“I think, from my perspective, we’re going to tackle things that make the most sense and that you can draw clear conclusions from and draw from that analysis. When you get into that other stuff we want to make sure we really believe what we’re seeing than more than what we think we know,” said Bilello. “The other thing with analytics is that it might say do this and it will improve your chance of selecting the right player from 34 percent to 38 percent, it’s still the right thing to do but you’re still going to get it wrong two out of three times.
“It’s [analytics] not going to get your draft right every time, but over a 10 year period you might end up with two or three more players versus the other way,” he continued.
Analytics will take time before it begins benefiting the Revs, but the team has taken the step of hiring a full-time analyst. The strength and conditioning regime and new weight room should show positive signs right away, as the Revolution have had troubles the last few seasons with injuries and pushing late in games. Even if tangible results aren’t visible right away, the new moves and investments are good signs for a team slacking behind others in regards to searching out new ways to get an advantage on and off the field.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org