The ultimate role player
The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the June 18 game against the Chicago Fire
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Chris Tierney spent the first three years of his professional soccer career filling just about every role you can imagine with the New England Revolution.
One game he’d be playing left midfield. A week later he’d be at left back. When someone went down on the right side of the field, Tierney was almost always the first option to plug a hole there, too. His adaptability came to define his role on the team and media members took to referring to him as “VersaTierney” as an homage to his undeniable versatility.
All told, Tierney spent time at a league-high seven different positions in 2010 while making a career-high 27 appearances in the regular season. Officially, the 25-year-old logged minutes at left midfield, left back, right back, center back, central midfield, defensive central midfield and attacking central midfield.
Oh yeah, Tierney also serves as one of the Revolution’s player representatives to the MLS Players Union. Technically I suppose you could consider that an eighth position.
But the Wellesley, Mass., product and lifelong Revolution fan finds himself serving in a new role in 2011, one which presents an altogether different kind of challenge.
Tierney is filling in for the club’s 2010 Most Valuable Player, Marko Perovic.
Perovic made just four appearances this season before a left knee injury suffered on April 23 against Sporting Kansas City ended his 2011 campaign. The 27-year-old Serb underwent three surgical procedures on his knee in early June – including a reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament – and is expected to make a full recovery in six to nine months.
“It’s a huge loss,” said Tierney. “Marko’s a really creative, attacking player and I think that’s what we’re missing at the moment … Marko can be a 10-goal-a-year guy, if not more. He was just kind of coming into his own last year and it’s a huge loss for us. Hopefully we’ll have some guys step up and fill that void, but it’s going to be difficult.”
In terms of filling Perovic’s position on the field, Tierney has been the choice in recent weeks, playing on the left wing with Zak Boggs patrolling the right side and Rajko Lekic serving as the lone striker. Tierney claims it’s taken a bit of time adjusting to the role – “It’s a little higher than I’m used to playing, so I’m still kind of getting used to it,” he said prior to the Revolution’s game against the New York Red Bulls on June 10 – but he’s more than willing to contribute in whatever capacity best suits the team.
“That’s what teammates are all about,” Tierney said. “When someone goes down, other guys have to step up and do the job. I’m just relying on the experience I’ve gained my first three years and just trying to fill in, do as best I can and help this team win.”
But while Tierney is technically filling in for Perovic on the left wing, the former University of Virginia standout cautioned against the expectation that he’ll attempt to replicate Perovic’s specific role in that position.
“I’m not going to step in there and try to be Marko,” he said. “That’s just not my game. Marko’s really dynamic on the ball and a good dribbler. I’m more of a possession, defensive-oriented player.
“You just have to know how to stick to your strengths,” Tierney continued. “I’m going to do what I do well, which is pass the ball and try to get balls into the box for strikers. Again, it’s just about not trying to be Marko. I’ll try to bring what I can to the table.”
Ironically, one of the strengths Tierney brings to the table is his ability on set pieces, an area in which Perovic excelled in 2010 with three goals directly from free kicks. Like Perovic, Tierney is heavily left-footed – he often jokes that his right leg’s sole purpose is “for standing” – and the type of ball he can strike with that left foot is a rare skill in Major League Soccer.
Prior to his injury, Perovic served as the Revolution’s primary weapon on free kicks and corner kicks. Tierney has since taken over that role – delivering the majority of the team’s set pieces in recent weeks – and it’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly.
“We have some big guys, so service into the box is important, especially when we’re not creating all too much out of the run of play at the moment,” Tierney said. “I look forward to getting those opportunities to be able to shoot or whip balls into the box. Hopefully we can create more, win more free kicks and start getting some more goals.”
Tierney had already proven his value on free kicks in recent years – he picked up one of his four assists in 2010 by delivering a set piece to Pat Phelan in a 1-0 win over D.C. United on Aug. 7 – but he’s taken his abilities to a new level with his goal-scoring exploits in 2011.
A glimpse of Tierney’s skill in dead-ball situations was witnessed in a preseason match against the U.S. Under-17 National Team in February, when he scored the game-winning goal with curling 25-yard free kick which eluded the wall and nestled inside the right post. Tierney replicated the feat for all to see in a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on May 21, scoring a late consolation goal with another bending free kick.
Tierney’s ability on the ball has increased as his poise has developed, according to Revolution head coach Steve Nicol.
“It’s confidence,” Nicol said. “The more confident he is on the ball, the more chance he’s going to have of putting it where he wants as he did against San Jose.”
As for situations in which Tierney is delivering the ball into the box for teammates rather than shooting directly on goal, he uses a simple approach which he’s found has proven quite successful.
“My theory is that if you whip it in with pace, it’s always going to cause trouble,” Tierney said. “I think if you look at free-kick takers around the world, some of the best will tell you that when you’re whipping those balls in from wide areas, you’re not trying to pick someone’s head out. You’re just trying to put it in a good area and cause some mayhem in the box.”
Tierney has honed his abilities through experience, and while he’s still one of the younger players on the Revolution at just 25 years old, it’s that experience which has helped Tierney become one of the club’s leaders both on the field and in the locker room. After Shalrie Joseph (2003), Matt Reis (2003), Sainey Nyassi (2007) and Kenny Mansally (2007), Tierney is one of the most tenured players on the team along with Kheli Dube and Phelan, having signed with the Revs in 2008.
While Tierney is humble about his role as a leader, he admits that in the present situation it makes sense for him to be one of the guys younger players look to for advice.
“It’s not like I call myself a leader,” Tierney said. “I still see myself as a young guy who has a lot to learn. But there’s some experience that I’ve taken from Revs players in the past – Steve Ralston, Jay Heaps, Taylor Twellman, Matt Reis and Shalrie – all those guys have kind of shown me the way and how we do things here. I just try to pass that stuff along to the younger guys.
“We’ve had a lot of [roster turnover] in the last three years, so the guys who have been around, I think it’s kind of our duty to show everyone the ropes, make sure that we’re all on the same page and we’re doing things the way that Stevie wants us to (do them),” he continued. “I’m not necessarily a really loud person by nature, but communication is key, especially in a team environment. You can’t be afraid to speak your mind.”
After reaching three consecutive MLS Cup finals from 2005-07, the cyclical nature of professional sports has seen the Revs go through a bit of a readjustment process in recent years. New England was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in both 2008 and 2009 before missing the postseason completely for the first time in nine years in 2010.
Featuring a wealth of new faces – including rookies Stephen McCarthy and A.J. Soares, plus recent additions Ryan Cochrane, Ousmane Dabo, Didier Domi, Benny Feilhaber and Lekic – the Revs are continuing to find their way as they near the midway point of the 2011 campaign.
“At the moment, we’re still trying to figure out the best way for this team to win,” said Tierney. “I think we keep getting better with the players that we’re bringing in and (with) guys growing up. I think it looks good for the future.”
As for the here and now, Tierney thinks the Revs are closer to being a contender than their early-season record would indicate.
“We’re very confident,” he said. “We’re in training every day, so we see what we’re capable of doing. We play some really good stuff in training and we have some very good players here at this club who are still coming into their own.
“Hopefully when we get this whole squad fit, the results will come and we’ll perform the way that we know we’re capable of (performing),” Tierney concluded. “Because we definitely have one of the deepest squads since I’ve been here. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to get results.”