Alone in a crowd

On Fan Appreciation night, the team from Boston hobbled across the finish line, slumping to another humiliating defeat at home. It was a fitting end to an infamous season–hobbled by injury and underperformance, a stacked team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Outside of the stadium, nobody noticed.

Boston is generally revered as the current epicenter of sports success. Across the four ‘major’ sports in the United States, the city (and surrounding area) has claimed seven titles and 29 playoff berths since 2001. Last month, ESPN the magazine’s cover hailed it as ‘America’s Most Dominant Sports City.’

The New England Revolution are the outlier. In a town where titles talk, the Revolution have never won the league. Two years in a row, they haven’t even made the playoffs.

While the Red Sox hold the record for most consecutive sell-outs in MLB, the Revs struggle to seat 14,000 in a 82,000 seat stadium. Their home games are remarkable in their unremarkable characteristics–how fast you can get in and out of the parking lot, the availability of tickets, and the ease with which you can make out the chatter on the field.

After watching the dejected 2011 team hang their heads as they left the field to near-silence, the thought pervaded–why doesn’t Boston care about the Revolution?

Some will try to cite the facile–soccer hasn’t taken off in America. This vague argument of the turn of the millennium is now plainly untrue: median and average attendance figures in the MLS are at an all-time high. Teams like the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders, and Toronto FC consistently sell out their matches. Seattle averages more than 37,000 fans per game–more than triple the Revolution. Sporting Kansas City registered 70% growth in ticket sales this season. MLS attendance averages have now leapfrogged both the NBA and the NHL–only trailing MLB and the NFL.

It’s not a case of building a fan base, either. The Revolution is one of only ten “charter” teams in MLS. Most of the teams that break the attendance records are actually the newer teams, like Seattle and Portland. Exposure to the locality is also in the Revs favor. Get this: the Revolution is the only MLS team in the league’s history to have every single home match televised.

Let’s take a look at the team, then. The head coach, Steve Nicol, has some commonalities with recently ousted Red Sox manager Terry Francona–both presided over their respective team’s most successful periods before eventually sliding into the mire. Francona led the Red Sox to two World Series titles; Nicol took the Revs to the finals four times.

Nicol is one of the original faces of the MLS. Since taking over full-time in 2002, the team only finished outside third place in the regular season three times–in this golden period, the Revs made at least the Conference semi-finals eight years in a row.

Nicol’s reputation preceded him–he’s a Liverpool legend, voted 39th in a fan poll of favorite LFC players. A likable guy with a big reputation, he earned the honor of the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year in 1989, bestowed upon the experts’ pick for best player in the English Premier League. Does any of this matter for the Revolution? In a word: yes.

In any sport, but particularly a fledgling league with enormous potential for growth, the public perception of a head coach is vital. The league is trying to attract top young talent; once lured, the players often decide based on the coach.

Nicol has cemented this idea, even through the unsuccessful past two seasons. This year specifically, Nicol attracted one of the premier American talents: Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber could be likened to Steve Nash–he’s a relatively small, graceful player with a remarkable gift for playmaking. At times he’s been touted as the “future” of American soccer, but after injury problems, he was looking to rebuild in the MLS. He chose Nicol’s Revolution, despite the fact that the team was floundering.

Feilhaber doesn’t have the prestige of David Beckham, but a marquee signing usually means public attention. For Benny and the Revs, it didn’t. Further on in the season, they were given a new opportunity to try and capture the local eye; Nicol gave 16-year old Leominster High School student Diego Fagundez his debut. And he scored.

The marketability of the moment was absurd, and the Revs tried to capitalize. Diego-centric promotions abounded, but there was only a small ripple of attention.

In this state, the season ended, with the Revs registering their worst season in history. Reports of their troubles went unnoticed, buried under inexorable dissections of beer in the Red Sox clubhouse and petulant sniping in the NBA labor negotiations. Come March, Nicol and the boys will be back, and they’ll toil away in a stadium that feels as rented as the support.

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