FOXBOROUGH — The Revolution had another strong finish to the regular season, though the team fell short of advancing to the playoffs, raising questions about the direction of the organization.
But general manager Michael Burns confirmed Thursday the return of Jay Heaps for his sixth season as coach, saying he believes the team is on the right track.
“We feel, collectively, we underachieved this year in a big way,” Burns said. “It’s pretty disappointing when you have your goals and sights set and you underachieve. That’s the best way and strongest way I can say it — we underachieved.”
The Revolution finished tied for sixth place with the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference, losing out on a postseason berth on goal differential. Over the final nine games, though, the Revolution rallied for a 5-3-1 record (16 points), their success coinciding with a formation change that brought out the best in both attacking and defending.
“Not for us, close doesn’t count,” Burns said. “The season is 34 games, not nine games, and over the course of a long season we weren’t good enough. It’s going to be a difficult, long offseason and we have to address some of the needs to get better next season.
“We felt, on paper, we were a stronger team this year than last year. Clearly that wasn’t the case, so we need to reassess everything to get better because this year wasn’t good enough.”
After the Revolution defeated the Montreal Impact, 3-0, in the season finale, Heaps talked about improving the team’s defense. The Revolution surrendered 54 goals, their highest total since 2011.
Some of the problems relate to inconsistency in central defense — the Revolution have paired five players next to 2013 MLS defensive player of the year Jose Gonçalves in the last two seasons. Other problems related to the Revolution’s 4-3-3 alignment, which had become ineffective and predictable; changing to a 4-4-2 setup helped unleash the explosiveness of Juan Agudelo and defined the roles of holding midfielders Scott Caldwell and Gershon Koffie.
“To me, it actually helped the defense, because what it did, it simplified the No. 6 role,” Heaps said. “Rather than having two sitting in front of the center backs, the center backs always knew they were going to have a No. 6 [Caldwell or Koffie] in front of them.
Over the final nine games, the Revolution had the league’s second-best goals-against total.
“Let me tell you right now, if we were in the playoffs we would have been a real contender,” Heaps said, “for the timing of how we were playing the last nine games of the year. But we have to make sure we can put together 34 games, not nine games. We have a lot of the right pieces. We just have to find one or two, maybe three pieces to augment our group.”
One of those is likely to be Gonçalves, whose contract expires, meaning they would have to recruit two potential starting central defenders.
The Revolution, though, also could be in danger of falling behind in a league that has taken significant steps to upgrade coaching and management staffs. The team’s stability has been a strength, but critics note signs of institutional inertia, which could limit the ability to keep pace.
“That is an interesting question, because it’s only been two years removed since we played in an MLS Cup final,” Burns said. “Those questions didn’t seem to be raised then. When we go from MLS Cup to making the playoffs to not making the playoffs, it becomes more of an issue.
“I look at it like did we have the ability to compete this year, to make the playoffs and compete for the championship? I think with the roster that we had the answer is yes. So, I think with the staff we have, the players we have, I feel like we’ve underachieved. I don’t look at the team we had this year as a bad team but it was an unsuccessful team. When you’re an unsuccessful team and don’t make the playoffs you need to look at that. But to say we need more staff or we need X, Y, and Z, I would tell you if I thought that was the case. I don’t think that was the case with the team we had.
“The league is evolving before our eyes. You’re seeing teams with full-time scouts. A few years ago, teams didn’t have technical directors and now they almost all have technical directors. Or strength and conditioning coaches — now they all have one. I think scouting is the next thing.
“Are some teams a little bit ahead of the curve? Yes. We as a league will all get there, but we as a league are not all there yet. That’s the evolution of our league. But I don’t look at it like our club is at a disadvantage or we need more staff or more of this or more of that. Because I think we’re still in a place where we can compete for championships and I think we’ve shown that very recently. That’s what makes this year even more disappointing. Because collectively we felt like we should have been better.”
The Revolution also have past MLS Cup failures hanging over them. Just making it back to the final might not be good enough, since it could mean a sixth defeat.
“I think, for a relatively young league, for a 20-year-old league,” Burns said, “for the Revs to have participated in five — unfortunately they’ve all been losses — no one can guarantee you’re going to win a championship, to win MLS Cup. But I feel my job is, what we’re trying to do is put our team in a position to be able to compete for it year in and year out. To be able to get to five, it’s a massive disappointment, because clearly we were good enough to win at least one of those, we’re putting our team in a position to be successful. There aren’t many teams that can say they’ve participated in five. When I look at it like that, I feel like we’re doing OK in that regard. Of course, you want to win one.
“But I do feel good that, overall, over the 20 years, more often than not we’ve been able to compete for championships, and that’s all you can really do. You need a little luck to win it. And unfortunately we’ve had bad luck five times. It’s been hard for everyone to take, hard for the fans, hard for the organization. I would take five cracks at it in the next 20 years. Right? If you’re doing that you’re doing something right.”
“Every time we’ve lost, the downside, the feeling almost gets worse. Because you’re so close again. But we’re going to continue do everything we can to get back to one and, hopefully, win one, for everyone in this community, all the fans that supported us, all the players who have gotten there and not won one. That’s our job, that’s what we’re trying to do, put ourselves in a position to compete for one every year.”