FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England Revolution President Brian Bilello and Sporting Director Curt Onalfo believe there is plenty of cause for optimism for the future of the club.
The Revolution are preparing for a new era under the stewardship of a new head coach and the newly-appointed Sporting Director Onalfo, and announced their year-end roster moves on Friday morning, exercising the options on six players and adding three new Homegrown Players to a 27-player squad for 2024.
Addressing the media following the news of Onalfo's appointment, both Bilello and Onalfo asserted there is much to look forward to in the new year and beyond, with a new direction sparking new optimism. Bilello said: “I’m excited to be here with Curt for the first press conference and discussions around 2024, and the Revolution seasons to come. We’re very excited about that.
“Many of you know we have been busy already in the later part of this year, making moves and trying to put the team in a great position for 2023, and we continue that with Curt. Obviously, the next step is to bring in a head coach, and Curt has already been working on that process. We are excited for that, and hope to be speaking with you some time in the near future about coaching decisions, and that next step for the club.”
Sharing his thoughts on the news, Onalfo added: “First of all, I want to thank my very supportive and loving family and loved ones. I want to thank Brian, our President, Jonathan and Robert Kraft for their support and in trusting me in this big job to lead the soccer side of the New England Revolution.
“It’s a really exciting time for soccer in our country, it’s an exciting time for soccer in Boston and New England. I’m extremely excited to put my print now on this organization from the top down. I’ve been here for a long time, I’ve helped build some really great parts of our organization, and now with my style, we’re going to build up from the top down, and I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead.”
Boasting 20 years of front office and coaching experience, and four years of service as the Revolution’s Technical Director, Onalfo has helped shape the team to become a serious contender for silverware. Lifting the Supporters’ Shield title in 2021 with a single-season points record in MLS (73), the Revs reached the playoffs in four of his five seasons in Foxborough.
With a proven track record of identifying and developing talent, and also responsible for the club’s nationally-acclaimed Pro Player Pathway, Onalfo has played a major role in player recruitment and the rapid rise and success of the Revs’ II and Academy sides, guiding young players to their professional debuts, Homegrown contracts and on-field success with record-breaking triumphs. Discussing the selection of the club’s new Sporting Director, Bilello declared Onalfo’s wealth of knowledge stood him out as the ideal candidate for role.
“I have a lot of confidence in Curt based on not just the last six months but the last four years, and the work he has done for the club,” he added. “I would go back to 2019 and [look at] all the time with the club – not just the interim Sporting Director time. When you think about a Sporting Director in the position, and what you need to be able to accomplish in there, starting at the youngest [level], he’s done an excellent job with the Pro Pathway that we’ve bult here. Then you look at player transactions and bringing players to the club. Curt has played a role with players he’s helped bring to the club, what transactions he was involved with, and we’ve done a really good job – particularly in some of the spaces with international scouting and players.
“That’s a really big component: can you get those players right? When I look back on some of those players, such as Gustavo [Bou], Adam Buksa, Djordje Petrović, Tomás Chancalay, we’ve had a really good track record on the high end, and we expect to be a club that’s going to be competing for cups. To do that, you need to have good DPs, and you get those decisions right.
“By and large, we’ve done that over the last few years, and that’s a crucial component because looking forward, that’s a place where we expect to be playing: in that marketplace. As the league evolves, the outbound transaction side is really important as well. You have to do what you can to both time those transactions well, and plan for them, but also get maximum value out of that, so you have more to invest back into the club, and bring in more guys. We’ve done really well in that space, and that gives us a lot of confidence in Curt and his ability moving forward in those areas.”
Onalfo noted: “The way I manage is though empowerment and leading people. We have Chris Tierney [Director of Soccer Operations] – he’s instrumental in what we do on the scouting side, and he’ll continue to have a bigger role within our organization. I believe in people, I know how to lead – I’ve been doing this a long time – and I’m excited to see this incredible organization that we have, and the people we have in this organization, thrive and do some great things. We have can some great memories down the line.”
Onalfo’s first order of business will be to recruit a new Revolution head coach.
Though the Sporting Director would not discuss specific candidates, he said the club have been inundated with applications and will strive to find the perfect fit, aligning with the club’s values and ambitions to ensure another competitive season.
“The search started yesterday,” he stated, “and we want to make sure we have a coach in place prior to the start of preseason, so January is the timeline to have a coach in place. [We want] a strong character, strong leadership; a very good tactical understanding on the offensive part of the field, as well as the defensive part – the game is always changing and evolving – and the ability to manage big personalities and big players.
“We’re a big club and one that has a track record, so those are some of the qualities we will be looking for in our head coach. We’ve had end-of-season meetings with all of our players. It was a challenging year, as we all know, but everybody is extremely optimistic about the future. All the qualities I talked about and what we’re looking at for a head coach, that’s what the players want, so we will hire the right coach, and we’ll be on the right track.”
Onalfo shares insight on roster decisions
While Onalfo's focus is now squarely on the coaching search, he has been plenty busy over the past week. Argentine forward Chancalay was unveiled as the club’s newest Designated Player in late November, following an impressive loan spell as a summer recruit from Racing Club. December’s end-of-year roster announcement then revealed the club had exercised the one-year contract options on defender Andrew Farrell, captain Carles Gil, goalkeeper Jacob Jackson, midfielder Damian Rivera, and defender Ryan Spaulding, as well as the two-year contract option on midfielder Ian Harkes.
Homegrown Players defenders Peyton Miller and ‘Tiago’ Suarez and forward Malcolm Fry were also promoted to the first team squad for 2024, while midfielders Emmanuel Boateng and Maciel, midfielder/defender Christian Makoun, and defenders Ben Reveno and Ben Sweat did not have their options exercised. Forward Bou, defender Omar González and Justin Rennicks are now out of contract, but Onalfo explained discussions are ongoing regarding player recruitment.
“First of all, we’re very confident in the roster we have,” he continued. “We’ve made some roster moves – we currently have 27 players on our roster. We have a very strong roster, so we feel very good about it. Obviously, we’re always going to be looking to enhance every part of the organization – every single position. Our stance is: we’re always looking to enhance the team, so we’ll look at each position and if it makes sense for us to make a move that enhances us, and we can deal with in our salary cap and the rules of the league, we’ll go ahead and do it.
“We’ll see how the roster unfolds – it’s evolving, always a moving process, so we always stay open to that. In life, anything’s possible, right? You always have to keep things open. In the case of Ema, he’s an exciting player. I had him when I was in L.A. so we love Ema – we love the contributions he’s brought to the club and we keep opening dialogue with him and his agent at this particular time. There is an opportunity for him potentially to return to our club.
“I have a strong, very close relationship with Gustavo, and I love Gustavo, but at the minute, we picked up the option and bought Tomás Chancalay. That meant we had three DPs and at that point, it makes it much more difficult to sign a player like Gustavo Bou with his quality. I stay open-minded that this still could be a possible as well, but that’s our stance on that situation.”
There were also positive updates on injured duo Dylan Borrero and Brandon Bye, who each missed large periods of the 2023 campaign through injury.
Borrero suffered a season-ending ACL setback in late April, before Bye then tore his ACL at the start of August. Onalfo admitted the loss of both defenders struck a cruel blow to the Revs' hopes of success, but added the pair are progressing well.
“They’re doing great, which is really encouraging,” he said. “The way we look at both of those players is: they’re going to be kind of mid-season signings for 2024. If we can get them earlier, that’s great. In the case of Dylan, he’s likely to be back earlier than that, but in the case of Brandon, probably a little bit longer. They’re progressing well but they still have ways to go.
“[Bye’s injury] hurt us in a lot of ways. Maybe people didn’t think it would hurt us that much, but sometimes when you lose something, you see how valuable it is. We had a lot of injuries. There was cover in our backline but because of the amount of injuries (because Henry was also injures at times and so was Farrell at that particular time), it forced us to have to move things around – Matt Polster ended up playing in that spot. The important thing is: when you build rosters, make sure you have enormous depth because sometimes with injury, that causes issues.
“Moving forward, we’ll make sure that to the best of our ability, we have great depth in every position the best we can. There’s a salary cap – in the league, you can’t have starters in every position one through 30, that’s just impossible to do – but the goal is to be as robust as you can be, and the way to do that is to have a strong strategy, and make sure utilizing all the rules of the league, to try to be a team as robust and as balanced as possible.
“The difference between winning and losing is slight, so it comes down to details. There was a lot of disruption, and we need to start preseason properly, get off to a good start. We want to strive for excellence every day, and we need to get a little bit better every day. You can stand up in here and say: ‘We’re going to go and win championships’ but winning championships is hard. So, how do you position yourself as an organization to do that? It comes down to all the details. An important part will be attracting the right coach for us and making sure we start preseason the right way, and continue work well; get a good start and then position ourselves towards the end of the season so we can be a contender.”
One of the highlights of the 2023 season saw the club’s incredible fanbase, who loyally stuck by the team through the highs and lows, turn out in remarkable numbers.
Recording an average of 23,940 fans per game at Gillette Stadium, the Revs faithful set a new single-season record, and stood among the top 10 in MLS for the campaign. With those figures set to increase further next year, Bilello and Onalfo believe the club are building something special both on and off the pitch.
“Where we are now from my perspective, the club has a lot to look forward to,” Bilello declared. “The fans in general have been great and very supportive of the club. We’re coming off our best year ever in terms of attendance, and where we are now, we’re going to be way ahead of that next year. We’re looking at probably near 28,000 average attendance for next year, just based on season membership sales and what we see happening right now.
“Our fans have been tremendously supportive of this club, and it is very much appreciated by everyone at the club, by myself. I think they see – going back five or so years – the direction we’ve taken as a club. It really started with bringing more players in here – guys like Carles Gil – then the training center came online and we had that project to really invest in the squad, and be able to be one of those clubs that was attractive for players and personnel frankly to come here and be part of this club. Collectively, all of us – everyone who has been with the club this last five years – has done a tremendous job at building that reputation within the league, with players, and really around the world.
“If you think about the types of players we were able to attract, and also the clubs that are looking at our club and buying players from our club, we’ve turned this club into a great destination for players, for technical staff. None of that has changed and what we see in terms of players coming back to the club – guys like Henry Kessler re-signing with the club, the move of Tomás Chancalay – there are more good players staying and more good players coming to this club. I don’t see any reason why that would slow down. I think we've done a really great job over the years of making our club a desirable choice for young, really talented players from around the globe to look at and think of as a place that they can come to, and have success and continue their career.
“I do think that is important – if you don't have that, you're limited in the types of players you get and how you fill that roster out. if you're not a club that's proving that you can do that and make that happen, there's an entire market of really desirable players that you won't have access to. While it's great in theory to get great players in here and keep them forever, if you look at the global market for soccer, that's just not the way the soccer world works.
“The difficult job is to balance that out with always having a top MLS team on the table. I do think it's important to understand that it's not as simple as: you go out there and you spend the most money, and you get the best players. The players that you really want are the ones that have a choice, and you want to make your club desirable. In the marketplace and with those folks, the reputation is stellar.
“We have a great staff – not just Curt – but guys like Chris Tierney, Remi Roy [Director of Scouting & Player Personnel] who have been a big part of building this club, and they remain with the club. From my perspective, fans can really take faith in what we’ve built here, what’s going to continue to be built here.”