Jay Heaps was handed a monumental task when he was named Revolution coach two autumns ago. A task that many might have run from at first sight.
Following the worst season in club history in 2011, Heaps came into the job with no head coaching experience, and his playing career still visible in the rearview. But it was more than just a new title for the former defender -- it was a calling, one which the former Revolution couldn’t turn down.
Now, with the Revolution readying themselves for their first postseason appearance since 2009 -- incidentally, Heaps’ final season as a player -- there’s no doubt that reaching the playoffs is an accomplishment that’s especially poignant for the 37-year-old coach who grew up in Longmeadow, Mass.
To grasp just how much Heaps has done to reverse the club’s fortunes, you have to go back to November 2011. Almost immediately after Heaps was introduced to the media as the Revolution’s new coach, he went to work. He poured through game film, took a hard look at the roster, and began sketching out his rescue plan.
From there, he started the steps necessary for creating a new identity for this club that had missed the postseason during the previous two seasons, and finished among the worst teams in MLS.
To do so, he needed to create a new culture, one in which everyone from the top to the bottom of the roster, as well as the coaching staff, was held accountable. Gone were the days in which players called the shots and coaching decisions relied so heavily on habit. There was a new boss in charge, and the excuses used in previous years were cast into the wastebasket.
“Those are things that right away, you want to instill in the players,” Heaps said. “But then you have to get talented players that can adapt to the system you want to play in the style in which you want to play.”
But as Heaps began selecting the players who embraced his philosophy, and fit into the system he envisioned, he learned some hard lessons along the way. Lessons that proved both enlightening and humbling at the same time.
For all the attention to detail he gave to roster decisions, game day preparation, and even the placards inside the locker containing motivational sayings, he’d encounter the harsh reality that he couldn’t control everything. Whether it was unfavorable referee decisions, schedule congestion or injuries, Heaps often let misfortune turn into frustration, which only served to distract the rookie coach.
After the 2012 season, Heaps took stock of how he handled his first year at the helm. He realized he had to let go of the distractions. It was a noticeable shift in attitude, one which veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis, who once played with Heaps from 2003-09, observed as the 2013 season progressed.
“I think that this year, he’s mellowed out quite a bit,” Reis said. “He’s not really allowed the things that we can’t control affect us. I think it’s tough coming in without any head coaching experience, and the change from year one to year two has been great.”
Even though Reis conceded that the degree of difficulty for Heaps may have been steep during the past two seasons, there was never any concern that his former teammate could do the job.
“Being a former player in this league, (he) knows what it’s about,” Reis said. “(He) knows the grind of the season and knows what it takes to get into the playoffs and to go far. He’s got knowledge -- he’s not (just) guessing on a lot of things.”
Indeed, Heaps’ insight into what it takes to get the most from his players has been a revelation this season. He made a number of lineup changes throughout the season, unafraid of bruised egos or hurt feelings. A poor match could send a player to the bench the following week. Conversely, a strong week of practice could open the door for a well-deserved opportunity.
Heaps’ commitment to sharpening the Revolution’s form wasn’t just limited to the lineup. After the traditional 4-4-2 formation failed to produce points earlier this season, Heaps scrapped it in favor of an unorthodox 4-1-4-1, a style more attuned to the personnel at his disposal. It was a bold move that could’ve easily sent the season down the drain. Instead, it lifted the Revolution from the depths of the conference and sent them to a third-place finish.
“We had played a lot of little different systems, but we really wanted to find the one that worked for us,” Heaps said. “It was a commitment to the younger players and building on those players, and taking that faith in our younger players (and) putting them in a position to succeed and not just go out and survive.”
Thanks to that success, Heaps and his team are getting set for Saturday’s first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Sporting Kansas City. For the first time in four years, Gillette Stadium will host postseason soccer.
While the Revolution may be considered underdogs in the home-away series, Heaps knows that regardless of how far into the postseason his team reaches, there’ll still be plenty of work to attend to. But if it wasn’t for the long days, the countless mornings and evenings spent watching film and the tireless efforts of their coach, it’s fair to say the Revolution would probably have their sights set on next season instead of this weekend.
“It’s been a process, and it’s not easy,” Heaps admitted. “A lot of hours were put into it. So when you get to the playoffs, and you work for that goal, you’re excited to get there. But now, you’re even more excited that you have an opportunity to play in the playoffs.”