March 23, 2019

Robert Kraft’s Other Problem — Soccer

Robert Kraft’s Other Problem — Soccer


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Robert K. Kraft’s New England Patriots are a very good football team, winning six Super Bowl championships the past 19 years. They are 33-5 against the A.F.C. East division rival Buffalo Bills during that span.

In a cruel twist of fate, Robert Kraft’s other team that plays at Gillette Stadium, the New England Revolution, might as well be the Buffalo Bills of Major League Soccer. There was a run of dominance — four M.L.S. Cup Finals appearances in six years — without a championship, and a mostly fallow period now going on a decade. The team is below .500 (125-148-89) since 2008, the year after they went to three straight M.L.S. Cup Finals.

Kraft has bigger concerns at the moment than the Revolution. He is facing two misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution at a massage parlor in Jupiter, Fla. (Kraft denies illegal activity.) Kraft most likely won’t face jail time, but the charges could result in a fine or a suspension or both from the National Football League, where he has become one of the most powerful owners, and from Major League Soccer.

If his attention turns back to his soccer team, he is likely to find a house in the middle of a major overhaul.

“One of our strategies last year was to instill a new culture at the club,” said Brad Friedel, the former U.S. national team goalkeeper hired to turn around the team last year, who believes a tear down was necessary.

“We felt that there needed to be a completely different work ethic.”

Friedel spoke before the Revolution home opener last weekend, a 2-0 loss to the Columbus Crew. He praised his team’s recent signings, but he didn’t hesitate to criticize the team he took over. “We needed leaders, we didn’t have a lot of leaders last year,” he said.

There is no Tom Brady here.

The Revolution began play in 1996, as one of Major League Soccer’s original 10 teams. Kraft, alongside Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz, recruited Don Garber from the N.F.L. to be the league’s commissioner, and helped keep M.L.S. afloat in the early 2000s when it was on the verge of collapse.

But while Kraft has been able to master the N.F.L., the soccer revolution in America has mostly passed him by.

The Revolution are one of three M.L.S. teams to still play in a cavernous football stadium. The two others, Atlanta United and the Seattle Sounders, justify it by drawing the largest average attendance in the league, but only 13,808 fans showed up for the Revolution home opener. The Revolution will draw better when there isn’t snow on the ground, but last year’s average attendance was 16th in a league of 23 teams.

The club has been trying to build a soccer specific stadium somewhere in the Boston area since 2006. In the 13 years since, sites have been mooted, millions have been spent on architectural renderings and plots of land have almost been purchased, all to eventually collapse for one reason or another.

“It’s about getting into a stadium that will transform soccer in our region,” said team president Brian Bilello. “With that in mind, we have been patient, probably to a fault, to try and get the right project done.”

In Garber’s mind, most of the Revolution’s problems will be fixed by a new stadium. “My view is their economic model is challenging in Gillette,” he said. “It has not been able to tap into the young, millennial sports fan in the Boston metropolitan area because it is further away.”

The couple hundred die-hard Revolution fans tailgating in the parking lot before the home opener weren’t so sure. The stadium search has gone on for so long that they rarely get their hope up anymore. A number of them said it feels like the Revolution are a distant priority for the Krafts.

Both Bilello and Garber deny that is the case. Still, the N.F.L. is a $15 billion a year league, while M.L.S. is much closer to $1 billion a year. Robert Kraft sits on some of the N.F.L.’s most powerful committees. His son, Jonathan Kraft, sits on M.L.S. committees and seems to handle most of the team’s day-to-day business.

Last year, the Krafts spent $20 million to buy their third team, the Boston Uprising, an e-sports team that competes in the Overwatch League. The sardonic joke among some Revolution supporters is that now they’re not even the neglected second child, but something even worse: The ignored middle child.

The team declined to make either Robert or Jonathan Kraft available for this story.

Over the years, the Revolution have dabbled in signing higher-priced players, but none have been a particularly large draw or game-changing on the field. The team now wants to give young homegrown players, like Isaac Angking, Nicolas Firmino and Justin Rennicks, a real pathway to first team minutes and success.

This off-season the team also acquired Carles Gil, a Spanish midfielder they hope will jump-start the attack, along with other players who figure to make an impact like Edgar Castillo and Juan Fernando Caicedo. Bilello said the team’s spending on players has been ramping up, and the Krafts are giving the team all the money they need to compete; both Bilello and Friedel promise another designated player — the league’s highest salary classification — is coming in either May or July, once contractual issues can be worked out. They won’t reveal his identity.

The team is also building a new $35 million training center adjacent to Gillette Stadium that will house both the first team and the academy. It will feature a number of grass and artificial turf training pitches — the team’s current training pitch is covered in snow, so they have been practicing at Gillette Stadium — and the state-of-the-art facilities will, they hope, help convince new players to join.

Soccer is soccer, and building a winning team is mostly the same the world over. The thing that makes M.L.S. unique, according to Friedel, who spent nearly two decades playing in England and other top European leagues, is that it is constantly evolving.

“Whether there is a new rule, a new stadium, a new training ground, other new designated players, a new club, a new franchise, a new second division, a new third division,” he said, ticking off the list of possibilities, “all these things happened in this country because the league is growing.”

The last four M.L.S. Cups have been won by teams that weren’t original league members, and the last few years have witnessed a steady expansion of the league. When fans think of the most exciting teams in the league, they’re often thinking of bright new teams with bright new stadiums with bright young stars, like Atlanta United and Los Angeles F.C.

“At times it is easier to be new, and it is easier to be a new and improved, than it is to be a legacy business,” Garber said.

In New England, they know how true this is.



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