Commentary

New England's new philosophy

Plus: Thierry Henry's best role with the Red Bulls

Updated: March 14, 2012, 8:04 PM ET
By Jeff Carlisle | ESPN.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As Jay Heaps lounged in the lobby of the New England Revolution's team hotel last Friday morning, the upcoming 36 hours seemed to be mapped out clearly before him. His team's tactics and formation were set. His knowledge of the Revs' opponent, the San Jose Earthquakes, seemed spot on. All that was left was to coach -- and hopefully win -- his first game in charge of the club for which he had excelled as a player.

[+] EnlargeBenny Feilhaber, Shea Salinas
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesBenny Feilhaber and New England lost their opening match, but it will take time for coach Jay Heaps' possession-based philosophy to take root.

"I think I'm nervous in the sense that it's the first game that really means something as a coach," he said at the time. "But I'm more excited for our guys. I'm excited that we're going to give them every opportunity to go out there and play. And give them every opportunity to go out there and compete, because we've prepared so much for this week. I'm excited. Our group, I wouldn't say we're there yet, but we're taking those good steps forward."

Little did Heaps know that he would soon embark on a juggling exhibition that would have earned him a guest spot in Cirque du Soleil. Left back Darrius Barnes was a late scratch because of a calf injury, forcing Heaps to slide A.J. Soares over from center back and put nominal midfielder Stephen McCarthy into the center of defense. This was on top of the fact that Heaps' first-choice forwards were either injured (Saer Sene) or had yet to report to the club (Jose Moreno), a development that left the coach wondering out loud where his team would find goals.

His sleight of hand didn't quite pay off. A careless pass from the normally reliable Shalrie Joseph ended up sparking a San Jose counter that led to the only goal of the game from Chris Wondolowski. Benny Feilhaber's stoppage-time bullet whistled just wide, and on a night when New England's passing wasn't sharp, the Revolution fell 1-0.

Afterward, Heaps didn't try to hide his disappointment, stating that his team needed to learn how to adapt to games where things don't go New England's way. The fact that his official coaching record was now 0-1-0 didn't sit well either.

"I think that I was a rookie out there, trying to get my bearings," he said. "It's good to get in these situations, where you have to make decisions; you have to make subs … But I'll always remember [the game] because there's a big 'L' next to it. I don't like losing."

The difficulties Heaps faces are varied. Once the class of the Eastern Conference, New England's talent pool has steadily eroded, and the Revolution have failed to reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. And while a midfield featuring Feilhaber, Joseph and rookie Kelyn Rowe is solid, much work remains to be done. Then there is the fact that Heaps is following not only a legend in Steve Nicol, but a coach who was his mentor as well.

[+] EnlargeJay Heaps
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesNew England coach Jay Heaps, who signed with the team in November, said of his first official game in charge of the team: "I think that I was a rookie out there, trying to get my bearings."

For that reason, the first-year coach isn't running away from Nicol's shadow. Instead, Heaps is attempting to strike a balance. He still talks to his old coach, gleaning nuggets of information about the grind of preseason, international player pipelines, and which agents should be trusted more than others. He then fuses that knowledge base with lessons he learned at Duke University as a walk-on basketball player under another legend, Mike Krzyzewski, especially as it relates to man management. Heaps later returned to his alma mater for an internship under Krzyzewski, and while there wouldn't appear to be much crossover from basketball to soccer, some concepts are universal.

"I remember when [Krzyzewski] prepared J.J. Reddick," said Heaps. "He was the main man on the team back then, and how Coach K got him ready for March started back in December. He's such a genius when it comes to motivating his players to get them to where they need to be. It's not like 'I won't worry about J.J. until then.' It's more, 'What do we need to do now so that he's playing his best when we start playing in the ACC?' It had to do with how J.J.'s confidence would be, how his body would be in terms of breaking down, how he was as a teammate.

"Those things mattered to Coach K," Heaps added, "and quite frankly that's how I've built the stuff that I want to do around the players and how I want to see them as a collective. It's not, 'He has to hit that shot every time he takes it.' It's more about how does he fit into the group, and how do they make this team take that giant step forward that we need to do?"

The team's veterans like the approach Heaps has taken, whether it be a long-serving player like goalkeeper Matt Reis, or a relatively new arrival like Feilhaber. Reis praised Heaps' organizational abilities, as well as his calm demeanor and knack for communicating with players.

"It's very bright and very positive, what we're trying to do here," said Reis. "We had an awful last two years and we're definitely moving in the right direction."

Feilhaber looks more at ease with the possession-based style Heaps is trying to implement, and is confident that the concepts the new manager is trying to implant will eventually take root. "Once you start [playing possession], little by little, you're going to gain confidence," said the Revs midfielder. "That ball you didn't feel so comfortable giving the week before, you're going to be able to thread the needle. It's all about working and Jay is guiding us. I have complete faith that we're going to improve as a team this year."

Now it's a question of getting the results -- along with some more players -- that will cement the players' and fans' buy-in to Heaps' philosophy. And even in the wake of Saturday's loss, the Revs' manager can't wait to get started. "We hit the drawing board again, and we've got another big game coming up soon," he said.

[+] EnlargeThierry Henry
Brandon Wade/Getty ImagesThierry Henry dropped deep to help launch attacks, but Red Bulls coach Hans Backe hopes that Rafa Marquez's return will see Henry play further up the pitch.

How deep is too deep for Thierry Henry?

The opening weekend of the MLS season always tends to take on an exaggerated level of importance. One performance is all most observers have to go on, ignoring the fact that there will be peaks, tweaks and valleys as the season progresses.

So what to make then of the sight of New York Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry dropping deep into midfield during last weekend's loss to FC Dallas? On the one hand, this has long been Henry's habit, especially when the Red Bulls' attack is struggling like it was last Saturday. On the other hand, even though the tactic did help set up Kenny Cooper's well-taken goal, the sight of Henry dropping almost into New York's defensive third to start one foray was a bit jarring.

So does Henry's immediate future lie more in midfield? Is that what Hans Backe really wants? In a word, no, although Backe wasn't alarmed by Henry's self-imposed stint as playmaker.

"Perhaps he dropped a little too deep in this game, but I have no real problem with it," said Backe via telephone. "It's more about our back four and how they come out with the ball."

Backe added that he expects Henry to stay at forward for this weekend's tilt against Real Salt Lake, especially given the absence of Juan Agudelo because of Olympic qualifying duties, as well as New York's historical struggles against RSL. That said, the solution to who should initiate the offense could eventually come from an unlikely source, the much maligned Rafa Marquez. The Mexico international is suspended for this weekend's game for his part in sparking a postmatch melee in the playoffs last year against Los Angeles. But Backe expects that Marquez, even in a midfield role, will eventually assume the duties that Henry took upon himself against Dallas.

"I know, when Rafa is playing in central midfield, nine out of 10 times, Thierry is also more of a high striker," Backe said. "Rafa can then take over the final passes, and he's very precise in that. He definitely will be a key to Henry playing as a higher striker."

Following Marquez's struggles last year, it remains to be seen exactly where his head is at, but Backe insists that the player is ready to go.

"Marquez is definitely a competitive guy that likes to show everyone what he can do," he said. "I'm 100 percent sure he will have a totally different season."

No gimmes for Sapong: You'd think that garnering last year's rookie of the year award would practically guarantee a starting spot for C.J. Sapong. Yet as Sporting Kansas City kicked off its season this past weekend against D.C. United, the newly minted U.S. international found himself on the bench. Sapong eventually entered the game in the 75th minute, and his impact was immense, as he nodded home the winner in stoppage time.

So was manager Peter Vermes trying to send a message? In a manner of speaking, yes, but it's one that Vermes has been delivering over time.

The SKC manager said via telephone, "Sapong and I talked prior to the season, and I told him, 'The toughest thing about a guy's second year is it's not just about consistency, but also focus. Everybody knows you now and you have to be a different player.' You say that to a lot of guys and you think they hear you, but they don't necessarily hear you. With him, he hears you. He listens and he's got a great attitude from that point of view.

"I think the big thing this year is there are going to be all types of opportunities for him, whether he's starting or coming off the bench. As I said to him, he's got to be prepared for all of them. He knows that, and that's the good thing about his attitude, he knows and he understands and prepares that way, as opposed to thinking that he's expected to be the guy. That's where you run into problems as a player, you lose your edge."

Teal Bunbury started at center forward in Vermes' 4-3-3 on Saturday, and the SKC manager credited him with wearing down DCU's defense. But with Bunbury now with the U.S. U-23 team as it prepares for Olympic qualifying, Sapong should get his chance to be on the field from the beginning. That said, Vermes wasn't making any promises, insisting that players like Soony Saad, rookie Dom Dwyer and veteran Jacob Peterson will press Sapong for playing time.

Vermes said, "Having those choices is a huge help when you're trying to put pressure on the opposing team."

And on a certain rookie of the year as well.

San Jose scores with Bernardez: San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch was holding court in the Quakes' locker room after the team's 1-0 defeat of New England, and the subject of communicating with newly acquired defender and Honduran international Victor Bernardez came up.

"You didn't hear my Spanish? My Spanish es muy bueno," said Busch, tongue firmly planted in cheek. He then turned to Bernardez for confirmation. "My espanol senor? Muy bueno, si? Yeah, izquierda, derecha, cabeza, no problem."

No problem indeed, especially as it relates to Bernardez's performance. As Saturday's game against New England entered the latter stages, it was looking more and more like the kind of match that had plagued the Quakes in 2011, one where San Jose would take a lead only to squander it late. But the presence provided by Bernardez in the center of San Jose's defense helped the home side see the game out for a 1-0 victory.

So in spite of Busch's language skills, how has Bernardez settled in so quickly?

"Soccer is the same everywhere," he said with the help of a translator. "It's universal, there's only one language in soccer. But I had a lot of confidence, I had a good preseason, and the technical staff has all the confidence in me. And I'm feeling comfortable here, and my family is here. I'm just very happy to a part of the team."

It also helps that Bernardez has experience playing outside of his native Honduras, having spent three seasons on the books of Belgian side RSC Anderlecht. Regardless, count Busch among those happy to have the defender on board.

"To me, he's a stud," said Busch about Bernardez. "Nothing against the guys we have, but I think that's what we were missing last year, a leader in that back line."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet.