LONDON, ENGLAND – By the time the 2011 season stuttered to a merciful halt for the New England Revolution, it was clear a change had to be made. A team that once dominated the Eastern Conference had officially hit rock bottom, finishing in last place in the East, five points clear of the next closest team.
Steve Nicol was pushed out as head coach, ending a decade-long run that saw the Revs reach four MLS Cup finals, but never win one. Nicol took the fall for the stretch of seasons that simply saw the Revs swing and miss repeatedly in their attempts to replenish a roster that lost most of its key players to Europe, injury or age.
In stepped Jay Heaps, the former New England defender and a man with zero coaching experience, to run a team in disarray. He has been given the task of taking over a Revs team with a weak roster and no track record of making good international signings.
It won't be an easy rebuilding process under Heaps, but if the pre-season is any indication, the early returns are positive. There is a buzz around the team after finishing the pre-season unbeaten, and there are some promising pieces to build around, but expectations should remain modest for a team that played some of the worst soccer in the league last year.
If the Revs are going to turn things around, their success will hinge on the play of their midfield, which is the team's strength. The tandem of Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber is among the best in MLS, but the addition of rookie standout Kelyn Rowe should make the New England midfield even more dynamic, while the addition of veteran defensive midfielder Clyde Simms should help provide some cover and allow Joseph to play a more offensive role at times.
The biggest question mark remains at forward following the departures of Rajko Lekic and Milton Caraglio. The latest role of the forward dice has yielded French forward Saer Sene, a former Bayern Munich reserve team striker, and Jose Moreno, a Colombian League veteran. The Revs endured a rollercoaster ride just to secure Moreno's services, but he is expected to be the anchor up front, while Sene showed some dynamic qualities in pre-season and could wind up forcing Heaps to consider playing two forwards.
Heaps' other major task will be rebuilding the defense, which conceded the second-most goals in MLS last season. A.J. Soares has the makings of a future star at centerback, while Kevin Alston should return to his elite form after enduring a tough 2011 season. The Revs have brought in Colombian centerback John Lozano, who is expected to provide an upgrade at centerback, and Heaps will have the task of helping Chris Tierney improve as a left back, the position Heaps held down for New England for almost a decade.
New England may have a new coach and a plethora of new faces, but all the changes aren't going to be enough to help the Revs come all the way back to respectability just yet. That will take some time, and a few more transfer windows to clean up the mess that has been made over the past few years. Jay Heaps should be given some time to rebuild, and success in 2012 will be measured not by making the playoffs, but by showing significant progress towards a better future.