FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The last time Kelyn Rowe feels like he was in top form was summer 2017.
Then 25 years old and in his sixth professional season, Rowe was a regular with the New England Revolution, starting 16 of the club’s first 17 games before joining up with the U.S. National Team for the Concacaf Gold Cup. There, under the guidance of Bruce Arena, Rowe registered one goal and one assist while roaming the left side of midfield in four appearances. That form continued upon his return to the Revs, as Rowe notched three assists in his first four games back in MLS.
It stands to reason, then, that when Rowe, now 28, had the opportunity to hit the free agent market for the first time in late November – looking to regain that top form after a rollercoaster 2019 – he chose to return to New England, where he’ll rekindle his love for the club that started his career, and link up with the coach that got the best out of him in 2017.
“There are a few factors (that brought me back),” Rowe said via phone interview on Friday afternoon. “One – the biggest one, I think – is Bruce. With a guy like Bruce Arena and the (résumé) that he has, and the way that he speaks to me, and the way that he speaks to my growth and what he wants from me, is very similar to my goals and my growth that I want. It’s hard to say no to a guy like that.
“I want to get back to playing really well, and the last time I was playing really well was under Bruce (with the national team) when I was playing in New England. Go back to what you know. Go back to the basics as a player. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Rowe craves that return to form after something of a rocky 2019 season. Traded to Sporting Kansas City late last year, Rowe looked forward to a rebirth in the Midwest, but it didn’t materialize. He made just 14 appearances (seven starts) with SKC before he was shipped to Real Salt Lake in August.
Playing time was just as hard to come by on the Wasatch Front as Rowe totaled just four appearances and two starts, finishing the season with a career low 870 minutes played.
The experience was somewhat humbling for Rowe, who now aims to use that adversity to spur himself forward into the 2020 season with the Revolution.
“It was eye opening,” Rowe said of his 2019 journey. “I’m my own biggest critic, and you kind of see that firsthand when you go to a different team and you’re fighting for a spot every day, and no one knows who you are, and they don’t really know how to play with you.
“You have to create these relationships really quickly, and it’s not easy. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be.”
So, when presented with the opportunity to choose his next destination, Rowe opted to return to a place where those relationships are already firmly in place. Not only is he familiar with Arena and his entire staff, most of his teammates, and the club support staff, but also the club’s supporters.
The bond between Rowe and those fans is so strong, in fact, that when Rowe returned to face the Revolution with Real Salt Lake this past September, he became the first player from an opposing team to join the supporters on the capo stand postgame.
That moment – and so many others like it – resonated as Rowe decided upon his next destination.
“It’s hard not to feel like home,” said Rowe, who remembers being “basically in tears” when he saw how he was welcomed back to Gillette Stadium. “When I came back (with RSL) I didn’t think (I’d get that reception) – I thought maybe a quick clap, or a ‘Hey, Kelyn,’ kind of thing. But it was a full moment. That – for lack of a better word – is love. It’s great love. I’m excited to go back and perform for that group.”
There’s no doubt that returning to New England offers a certain level of comfort for Rowe, and he believes that sense of belonging will be critical in his continued development. But at the same time he knows that Arena will be looking to push him out of that comfort zone in some regard, as both aim to maximize Rowe’s potential as a player still very much in the prime of his career.
“In talking to (Bruce) during the offseason and before making my decision, he told me he wanted me in these (specific) areas, I’m very good as a player, and he wants me to grow,” Rowe said. “But then in very Bruce fashion he gave me points that I need to work on to become that player; as in, ‘We would like to work with you on these things.’ That, to me, means he wants me to grow. He’s not just blowing smoke.”
Rowe is hoping to grow along with a club that’s growing, as well. Arena’s arrival last May sparked massive change in Foxborough, both on the field – as the Revs returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2015 – and off, with optimism around the Revolution organization soaring.
From the state-of-the-art, $35 million Revolution Training Center set to be unveiled on Monday, Dec. 9 – which Rowe said he’s heard from teammates is “unreal” – to the Arena-inspired on-field revival, there’s a sense that a bright future continues to rise over the horizon.
Having watched it from afar last year, Rowe can’t wait to come back and experience it for himself.
“You could see it even when you’re watching on TV,” Rowe said. “You can see the faces change. You can see the smiles. You can see the energy kind of grow, and grow, and grow as the season went on and Bruce made those changes. But that’s not just from the players’ standpoint – that’s from staff members, that’s from fans, that’s from the whole club.
“It’s that ‘new’ New England, and I get to see it firsthand. It’s really exciting.”