FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Revolution has a new leader.
Former defender Jay Heaps was officially introduced as the sixth head coach in club history at a press conference on Wednesday morning at Gillette Stadium, marking the start of a new era after Steve Nicol’s largely successful decade-long run came to an end shortly after the 2011 season finale.
Heaps, 35, becomes the second-youngest active head coach in Major League Soccer behind D.C. United’s Ben Olsen (34), and brings a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm following back-to-back seasons in which the Revs missed out on the playoffs.
“It’s very exciting for this organization and for this team going forward,” said defender Darrius Barnes, who, like Heaps, played his college soccer at Duke University. “It’s a breath of fresh air and a fresh start for the organization.”
“It’s great to hear all the things he’s saying, all the things that they’re putting on the table, all the changes they want to make,” echoed Kevin Alston, referencing the press conference which also included Revolution President Brian Bilello and General Manager Michael Burns. “You always look forward to something like that.”
Both Alston and Barnes – along with several of their teammates – will be acutely familiar with Heaps, who spent nine years anchoring the Revolution’s backline from 2001-09. Alston and Barnes were rookies during Heaps’ final season and the trio comprised three-fourths of New England’s first-choice defensive unit, while veterans like Shalrie Joseph and Matt Reis wore the jersey with Heaps for three straight MLS Cup appearances from 2005-07.
Having played alongside him, those players know Heaps perhaps better than anyone in the organization, and they’re confident the passion and dedication he brought to the field will translate to his new position on the sidelines.
“I know how passionate he is and I know he’s going to apply that to everything he does,” said Alston. “I think it’s really going to benefit the team. Knowing Jay, I know he’s not going to settle for anything less (than equal passion from his team), so I know he’s going to motivate the players. Everybody’s going to want to play.”
The transition from teammate to coach is unique, however, and the players understand their relationship with Heaps will differ in many ways moving forward. Still, the situation is far from uncharted territory, as both Jason Kreis (at Real Salt Lake) and Olsen made a similar leap with varying levels of success in recent years.
“That’s the dynamic that’s definitely in some aspects going to be easy, and in other aspects going to be a little more difficult,” admitted Barnes. “He understands us, he knows where we’re coming from and he knows a lot of the guys on the team’s personalities. But also just being able to separate the friend and coach part, being able to hammer down on us and making sure we’re prepared to play every time we step on the field (will be important).”
“Everybody respects him and looks up to him, so I don’t think that would ever be an issue,” added Alston. “I think it’s going to be a little easier for him to communicate to the players.”
Although the players are currently dispersing to various destinations for the holidays and their offseason break, the appointment of Heaps has everyone energized and ready to move forward with 2012 preparations.
“This past year was tough, so you’re always looking forward to the next season and you’re always trying to make things better,” said Alston. “I think everybody’s just ready to go.”
“We all have something to prove; all the players and Jay himself,” said Barnes. “We want to come out here and make sure we show well for this organization next year.”