Leading the charge

Veteran midfielder Shalrie Joseph will be counted on for his leadership both on and off the fie

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the April 2 game against the Portland Timbers

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Shalrie Joseph has been one of Major League Soccer’s most dominant players since joining the New England Revolution in 2003. In his first eight seasons, the 32-year-old midfielder has racked up seven All-Star nods and four Best XI selections, while he received additional recognition as one of three finalists for the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2009.

Considering his resume, it’s no surprise it took Joseph just two-and-a-half minutes to make an impact in 2011.

That’s how much time had passed in the Revolution’s season opener against the LA Galaxy before Joseph got on the end of Marko Perovic’s cross and buried a header past Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders. Buoyed by the early goal and spurred on by Joseph’s commanding presence in the middle, the Revs fought their way to a 1-1 draw and a valuable road point at one of the league’s most intimidating venues.

With a youthful starting lineup featuring six players under the age of 25 and only two players – Joseph and goalkeeper Matt Reis – with more than three years of MLS experience, the third-minute goal did wonders for the Revolution’s self-belief.

“It was important – especially having such a young team – that we got off to the right start,” said Joseph. “We needed that (goal). If it’d come from [any player on the team] we’d have all celebrated just like we did. Just scoring that first goal and getting it so early, it definitely helped our confidence and helped us settle down a little bit.”

While Joseph claims that first goal would’ve had a similar effect no matter who had the final touch, it was fitting that the Revolution’s captain was the one to provide the boost. After all, he’s consistently delivered when his club has needed him the most for the past eight years.

But this season the burden of responsibility falls heavier on Joseph than it ever has before. In the past year, three of the Revolution’s most influential leaders have all hung up their cleats, with longtime stalwarts Jay Heaps, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman all retiring in a 12-month span.

As the Revs struggled to turn the corner throughout parts of last season, Joseph insisted on holding himself accountable for the team’s performance on the field. He plans to bear that load of culpability yet again – along with fellow veteran Reis and some of the team’s more experienced players – but with better results in 2011.

“With me being one of the senior guys and one of the leaders on this team, I shoulder that responsibility and I embrace it,” Joseph said. “This year we have a lot of young guys with a few years of experience, so everybody is going to pull their socks up and take a little bit more responsibility. But at the end of the day, Matt and I have been here the longest and we know what this team needs the most.”

One of Joseph’s most pressing tasks as a leader is to support the development of New England’s younger players, particularly rookie central midfield partner Stephen McCarthy.

McCarthy earned his first professional start playing alongside Joseph and Pat Phelan in the season opener against Los Angeles, and the 22-year-old said he couldn’t describe how much Joseph’s presence eased his nerves in a pressure-packed situation.

“He’s helped me in every way possible,” McCarthy said of Joseph’s assistance throughout his transition to MLS. “He basically tells me exactly what to do on the field every second. In the best way possible, he’s always coaching me and guiding me.

“Just having him there always talking helps me with my confidence because I’ve come into a league with some amazing players,” he continued. “When you have someone there who’s constantly giving you encouragement and giving you direction, it makes you feel that much more comfortable and ready on the field.”

Joseph played a similar role in the development of Phelan, who arrived in New England via trade in his rookie year of 2008. Since joining the Revolution, Phelan has steadily increased his contributions to the club year-by-year, going from 11 appearances (five starts) in 2008 to 28 appearances (25 starts) in 2010.

Phelan attributes much of his growth to Joseph’s guidance.

“He’s huge,” Phelan said. “He’s a great friend on and off the field. He’s a leader … He’s very good with the younger guys, especially those who play [central midfield]. He’s just a great mentor on the field to have in front of you telling you what to do, what you can do better and where to be.”

While it’s his age and experience which make Joseph a logical choice to lead, he views the task as far more than a simple obligation. Instead, he says, it requires a keen awareness of the individual needs of each player.

“Leadership comes from within,” Joseph said. “You don’t go around saying ‘I’m the leader’ and pointing at yourself, but you know what guys need on a day-to-day basis. Some guys need a little kick in the butt here and there, and some guys need a little tap on the back.”

Of course, Joseph was a rookie once, as well. It was a select group of teammates who taught him the value of leadership as he rose through the ranks, and Joseph hopes he’ll have a similar influence on the players he’s currently mentoring.

“Being here (since 2003), I’ve seen it from all the other guys who’ve been here – Steve Ralston, Taylor Twellman, Jay Heaps,”  said Joseph, listing three former teammates who had the biggest impact on his growth. “I’ve picked up one or two pointers from each of those guys and now it’s my responsibility to pass it on to [my current teammates].”

Joseph’s leadership will be essential in 2011 as the young Revs look to return to the lofty heights which saw the club reach three consecutive MLS Cup finals from 2005-07. A disappointing 2010 campaign ended without a playoff berth for the first time in nine years, while the Revs allowed a league-high 50 goals and scored a club-record low 32 times.

Those results – coupled with expanded roster sizes – prompted a series of changes in New England, which brought in 11 players between the last game of 2010 and the first game of 2011. The Revs spent seven weeks in preseason integrating the new signings to form a cohesive unit, but even with the season underway, Joseph preaches patience.

“It’s definitely a work in progress, from preseason to the first game,” he said. “We still have a long way to go and it’s going to take every day working hard together, practicing hard and pushing each other. That’s what it’s going to take for our team to be a better team.

“Most days you can see how much progress we’ve made, but some days you see us slacking a little bit,” Joseph continued. “That’s inexperience and that’s going to come as we get better and as we get older together as a team.”

Eventually the Revs hope their efforts take shape in the form of more consistency, but in the meantime, Joseph says it will take workmanlike performances driven by sheer will to grind out the necessary results. Led by Joseph, the Revs have already proven they can do just that with their season-opening 1-1 draw at The Home Depot Center.

“Hopefully when it comes together it’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch, but right now it’s all about our heart and effort,” Joseph said. “If we come with that work rate every day and push each other, make each other get better and work together, I think we’ll be one of the better teams (in the league). But it’s going to be our work rate that’s going to make us a better team.”