Mr. Versatile finds a home

Chris Tierney has shed his nomadic nature for a regular place at left back

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the May 12 game against Vancouver Whitecaps FC

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – This is not a story about Chris Tierney’s versatility.

Tierney has earned a reputation as the New England Revolution’s utility man in recent seasons, so much so that it became the story every time he stepped on the field in a new position. Left midfield, central midfield, left back, center back, right back. Someone’s hurt? Tierney can play there, for sure. No problem.

Versatility and reliability came to define Tierney’s value in a league in which roster limits put a premium on flexibility. But now Tierney has a different kind of value for the Revolution as the 26-year-old Wellesley, Mass., product seems to have finally found his niche under new head coach Jay Heaps.

First-choice left back.

“The last couple seasons he’s put his time in as kind of the utility man and played anywhere as needed,” said goalkeeper Matt Reis. “His attitude is always phenomenal. He doesn’t want to say that he’s a left back, but I’m sure he just wants to be penciled in on the starting 11 every week and he’s put enough work in to ensure that he’s going to be there.”

Apart from the season opener in San Jose – which he missed through suspension – Tierney has been the clear choice to start on the left side of the Revolution’s defense in 2012. He played there throughout preseason. He trains there every day. And he knows that’s where he’ll be when game day rolls around.

“Consistency is so important to me,” said Tierney. “You get in routines and just getting repetitions in one spot is crucial.

“That was the hardest part over the last couple years of having to move around spot to spot,” he said. “Once [I started] to get repetitions and get comfortable, then I’m moving from right back to left back, left back to center mid. It’s just different angles and different looks and different timing. The more reps you get, the more comfortable you’re going to be in any spot.”

Tierney’s versatility remains an asset to the Revolution – it always will – but Heaps prefers to keep the Noble and Greenough School graduate at left back, a position which was foreign to Tierney just a few years ago. Primarily a left-sided midfielder throughout high school and college, Tierney first played left back in his rookie year of 2008 when former head coach Steve Nicol tried him on the backline midway through the season.

Heaps was a teammate of Tierney’s in 2008 and 2009 – in fact, Heaps played left back himself quite a bit in those two seasons – and he saw the potential for Tierney to excel on the backline in the right system. Now as the head coach, Heaps has tailored his own attack-minded approach which meshes perfectly with Tierney’s strengths.

“First of all, he’s very technical,” said Heaps. “He doesn’t lose the ball, he’s smart with the ball, he sees the game from an attacking standpoint and we like that in our backs. But I also think defensively he’s buying into the idea that we’re going to have to be tough, we’re going to have to be hard defensively, and when you get the opportunity to go, we want our backs to attack.”

“Left back, it’s defending first,” said Tierney. “That’s going to remain my priority – trying to keep clean sheets – but Jay’s definitely given me much more freedom to go forward. I think that’s paid off so far and that’s the part of the game I really enjoy the most.

“Stevie’s style, he liked a back four that stayed home, kept its shape and was just solid and kept things in front of them,” Tierney added. “I think Jay’s been willing to take a little bit more risk in terms of giving us freedom to go forward and put the other team under pressure.”

Tierney pointed out that both styles have their benefits, but admitted that his attacking instincts and possession-oriented approach fit more appropriately in Heaps’ system. At times, Tierney said, he doesn’t even feel like he’s playing left back because of the freedom associated with his attacking responsibilities.

“At times it feels more like a full-out wide player, like a winger,” he said. “Not as much in terms of receiving the ball up high – you get the ball in less advanced positions – but you have some time and space to move forward and try to get some balls in the box.”

It’s still early in the season and Tierney’s continuing to learn the intricacies of the left back position under Heaps on a daily basis. But learning the position is not necessarily a task Tierney ever expects to complete. Rather, it’s a process he believes will continue so long as he’s a professional soccer player.

“I’ve been in the league for five years and I continue to try to learn every day,” Tierney said. “If you keep improving year to year – which I feel that I’ve done and try to make sure I do every year – it’s going to be only a good thing for the team. That’s always the goal. I’m always trying to learn.”