By Ridge Mahoney
There's not much ambiguity when it comes to evaluating a straggler that's made a coaching change; if the team makes the playoffs, it's a success; if it doesn't, it's not.
Unfair it may be, but that’s the criteria set out for several head coaches in MLS, including Jay Heaps of the New England Revolution. The Revs are in seventh place but just one point out of a playoff spot heading into a home-and-home series with Columbus, which of the 13 teams still in the hunt for eight spots has the fewest points and the faintest hopes.
“We wanted to be in contention at this point in the season,” says Heaps, a defender in his playing days who last year jumped into the fray as a rookie head coach and suffered through a 9-17-8 campaign. After 32 games this season, the Revs are 12-11-9 and their goal difference of plus-9 is third-best in the Eastern Conference.
“We didn’t have any illusions about running away with it or having 60 points,” he says. “This is the time of year that, quite frankly, the best teams I was on as a player, guys showed up.”
Heaps played on four New England teams (2002, 2005, 2006, 2007) that reached the title game and lost each one of them. Those Revs finished in first place in two of those seasons yet Heaps has been consistently preaching to his players, including a few key members who are 22 or younger, that a playoff spot is more than good enough at this phase.
But as a team on the rise, New England needs playoff-type intensity in late-season games just to reach the postseason. A 2-2-1 record in the past few games reflects its work-in-progress status. A solid 1-0 win in Montreal last weekend, marred by a serious ankle injury that will sideline Saer Sene for at least a few months, signaled an upgrade in maturity from its last home game.
“Our game against Houston recently was the most playoff-like,” says Heaps of a 1-1 tie at Gillette Stadium Sept. 28. “Houston knows how to disrupt a game, they know how to play on the road. We had every chance to win that game but Houston took advantage of one mistake.
“Going to Chicago [Sept. 14], we were up, 2-1, and could have gone up, 3-1, but there was a controversial offside call where Saer scores. We give up a goal and don’t win [actually a 3-2 loss] and that was another good learning experience.”
Learning is all well and good, and one must remember that the 2011 team Heaps inherited from former Coach Steve Nicol won all of five games. New England is battling Montreal and Philadelphia, which also play this weekend, as well as the Crew and Chicago for the unclaimed spots. New York and Sporting Kansas City have qualified.
New England won the only 2013 meeting played so far, 2-0, on July 20 at Crew Stadium, which is where the teams conclude their regular seasons next weekend. Yet the Revs could sweep both games, finish at 14-11-9, and still not qualify for the playoffs if other results went against them.
The Crew has been there. It fell short of the postseason last year despite a 15-12-7 record. Its poor performance this season triggered a change of coaches, and so Heaps will match wits with another former defender, Brian Bliss, rather than Robert Warzycha.
Heaps is the only holdover from the 2002 team, but keeper Matt Reis arrived the following season and was a Heaps’ teammate until he moved into the coaching ranks after that dismal 2011 campaign. Reis has watched as stalwarts such as Jeff Larentowicz and Shalrie Joseph were moved on, and youngsters like A.J. Soares, Jalil Anibaba, Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez, Juan Agudelo and Scott Caldwell were groomed for the big time. They are now on the brink of a significant milestone.
“It’s a great test for us no matter what; the last two games, home and away,” says Reis, who in the second half of the season reclaimed the starting slot from Bobby Shuttleworth. “It’s like what we’re going to have to face in the playoffs. We want to be a playoff team, year-in and year-out.
“It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re right where we need to be and it’s just a matter of execution."