To a kid from the Seattle suburbs — Federal Way, to be precise — Westwood was a sun-splashed Eden. His sisters Bree and Baely, both recruited by UCLA, might have opted for Oregon and Utah, but Kelyn Rowe was going to be a Bruin.
“I wanted to go to UCLA since I was 10 years old,” he says. “It was going to be there no matter what. It really is paradise for me.”
For soccer purposes, two years in paradise was sufficient. The summer after his first season, Rowe paid his way to France and Germany for tryouts with Stade Rennais and FC Koln. Had one of those clubs signed him, he likely would have gone on permanent sabbatical from campus.
“I think UCLA’s an amazing place but I wanted to be a professional as soon as possible,” says the 22-year-old Rowe, who normally would be graduating this spring. “And I thought two years was a perfect amount of time for me.”
Rowe already has been in Foxborough that long, serving a paid apprenticeship as the Revolution’s Swiss Army knife, an all-purpose attacking utensil with a heavy shot who can play midfield, forward, or wing. Now, it’s time for him to become a master craftsman.
“I have nowhere near veteran experience yet and nowhere a veteran voice yet,” Rowe muses. “I’m still learning every day. I’m just ready for the next level.”
With New England coming off its first playoff appearance in four years and a commendable showing against eventual MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City, expectations for both the club and for Rowe will be markedly higher this season, which begins Saturday night at Houston.
And while the Revolution may not yet be back at the level that had them in the MLS championship match for three straight years, they’ve still made significant progress from three seasons ago when Steve Nicol’s final bunch of weekend warriors went 5-16-13, the worst campaign in franchise history.
“We don’t think we’re as far away as we probably thought we were a few years ago,” reckons general manager Mike Burns, whose club finished third in the Eastern Conference last season with a 14-11-9 mark.
The Revolution still have the league’s fifth-youngest roster (average age 24.82). Only two players — midfielders Andy Dorman and Daigo Kobayashi — are over 30, and nine are 22 or younger, most notably 19-year-old Diego Fagundez, the club’s top returning scorer. That puts Rowe on the verge of becoming an established veteran, which is how the team brass saw him when they took him as the club’s first pick (third overall) in the 2012 SuperDraft.
The lineup had so many holes that “we were looking to add players to every position on the field,” says Burns.
What the Revolution wanted was the best player on the board, and they were convinced it was Rowe.
Jay Heaps had noticed him while watching a UCLA match on television.
“It was, ‘Whoa, who is this guy?’ ” says the New England coach, who was the club’s color analyst that season. “His name stuck out and I followed him.”
Adjustment to the pros
Rowe, who was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, wasn’t exactly a nonentity. He’d been on US national teams, and after his first appearance at the MLS Combine, Rowe was on everyone’s list.
“He was already on the radar,” recalls Burns. “He was a known quantity.”
So the front office wasn’t dismayed when Rowe had a so-so sophomore season for the Bruins, figuring he might still be available when New England was drafting. When Montreal picked Andrew Wenger and Vancouver went for Darren Mattocks, the Revolution happily grabbed Rowe.
The original chatter had been that the local boy would prefer to be a Seattle Sounder.
“A lot of people said he wants to go to Seattle, he wants to be in the Northwest, but I just wanted to get picked where I could play,” says Rowe. “That team was stacked with a bunch of stars and it would have been hard to break in there.”
That was not going to be a problem in Foxborough, where Rowe started right away. The question was how well Rowe would hold up under the grind of an MLS regular season that extends from early March until late October.
“College seasons are pretty short,” Rowe observes. “It’s three months. My first year, I’d played two full seasons by midseason. So a 10-month season is very hard because you don’t have the time off, you’re not used to taking care of your body for a full year.”
So it wasn’t surprising that Rowe hit the wall midway through his rookie season and learned a career lesson.
“It’s all about being a pro, as Matt Reis and those guys taught me,” he says. “You have to manage yourself throughout the week to be the best you can be on Saturday.”
As it turned out, it wouldn’t have mattered if Rowe had had a topped-off tank in October. The Revolution, who went winless in 10 matches from mid-July into September, ended up in ninth place and were eliminated from the playoffs with five matches to play. But the front office had seen enough of Rowe to conclude that he was what they’d hoped he’d be, a versatile hybrid around whom they could build a system.
“Kelyn has that X factor,” says Heaps. “He has that ability to score goals as a midfielder which not many midfielders have. He’s a clinical finisher — he gets a chance to score, he does. He’s as good as any forward I’ve seen. He’s lethal when he has an opportunity. And competitively he’s got a higher desire than most.”
The Revolution saw that immediately in last season’s opener at Chicago when Rowe came off the bench in the second half and served Jerry Bengtson with a deft chip for the game’s only goal.
“Kelyn came in and changed the game,” said Heaps.
A big-game player
What Rowe called his “finally!” moment came in the US Open Cup match at Rochester in late May when he scored two goals and set up another in a 5-1 rout.
“Jay just told me to go play, go have fun, it’s just another game, you’ll play on the weekend, it’s not a big worry,” Rowe says. “I said OK and ended up putting two away and getting an assist and I thought, ‘Wow, this feels good. I should probably keep doing this.’
“The confidence rose, and once confidence rises, any athlete will tell you, it’s not going to go away fast.”
As the stakes grew higher during the final month when the Revolution needed points from every match to make the playoffs, Rowe elevated his game.
“Those last five or six games of the year were the most fun for me because you’re laying it all on the line every weekend,” he says. “Jay told us, ‘That’s where men are made.’ Every little bit is emotional, every little bit is as hard as you can. For me, that’s tremendous.”
When New England stunned Sporting Kansas City, 2-1, in its first playoff leg at Gillette Stadium, it was Rowe who set up the first goal and scored the winner. His big-game flair and his season’s work — seven goals, eight assists — had his advocates thinking that coach Jurgen Klinsmann would call him into his World Cup camp in January.
“It was hopeful, it wasn’t too sure,” says Rowe, who didn’t get the call. “I thought I had a good year and I know I’m on his radar at least, and that’s good for me right now.”
Right now, Rowe’s assignment is to continue evolving into the player that the Revolution hoped they were getting out of Westwood.
“It’s the guy that’s going to be here for a while,” he says. “The guy that’s going to make this team run offensively, defensively — whatever it needs to win.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.