Jun 2, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Revolution coach Brad Friedel smiles during the first half of their 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Brad Friedel isn’t about the past.
That much is clear when the first-year New England Revolution head coach looks over a brush of hedges at the sun-splashed Gillette Stadium practice field and points out where the club’s new training complex will be built, hopefully, in a few months’ time. It’s clear when he declines comparisons between himself and the Revolution’s upstart goalkeeper, Matt Turner. And it’s also clear when Friedel – completely unprompted – steers away from talk about how his predecessors in New England used to coach.
So, here are the facts on the forward-thinking Friedel: He is 47 years old and from Lakewood, Ohio. He has the remnants of an English accent from 19 years spent playing in the Premier League for Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham. He was probably one of the top five goalkeepers in the world in 2002, when his lynx-like reflexes helped the United States reach the World Cup quarterfinals.
After retiring from professional soccer, he worked as a television analyst for Fox Sports and the BBC. He started coaching the U.S. under-19 team in 2016 and, in November 2017, rose to the top of an international pool of applicants to be named the Revolution’s eighth all-time head coach.
This is Friedel’s first head coaching gig, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. The Revolution missed out on the postseason for two consecutive seasons, but are sitting in playoff position halfway through this year with Friedel at the helm. The Revs (7-4-7, 28 points) are fifth in the Eastern Conference standings and boast one of the best attacks in the league.
Speaking after a Monday practice following his team’s 18thgame of the season – a disappointing 0-0 draw with Seattle Sounders FC – Friedel, now ninth months on the job, isn’t patting himself on the back.
“I’m the type of person that wants to win at everything I do,” Friedel said under the brim of a black New England Revolution cap. “We want to push the players until we win things. … When you work as hard as these players, you hope you get just-rewards. We have left quite a few points on the table as well, so we’re not satisfied by any stretch of the imagination.
“When we look at the table, we look at what we need to do to be the best. That’s to try to catch Atlanta right now in first place.”
Friedel being in Foxborough at all on a Monday is a sign of how much things have changed inside the club. Unlike almost every past season, the Revolution now hold practice on Mondays after games. The new policy is part of one of the first things Friedel put his stamp on when he arrived in Foxborough: training and fitness.
Under Friedel and new head of fitness Anton McElhone, who joined the club in December from Tottenham, strength and conditioning have reached a new level for Revolution players.
“Between Brad and Anton, they’ve definitely done a great job of getting us prepared for games,” said Diego Fagundez, who was also coached under both Steve Nicol and Jay Heaps, neither of whom held Monday practice.
“We may not get Mondays off anymore, but we come here and we’re actually recovering our bodies. The staff knows exactly what we need. Throughout the week we’re working hard, but they know the right days to slow down a little so we’re fit for Saturdays. You can tell on the field in every game that we’re fit, that we’re competing.”
Not every team in Major League Soccer trains Mondays, but Friedel thinks his blue-collar approach is a no-brainer.
“I don’t know what it was like before, as far as the amount of training days, but I’m not used to days off in the world I come from,” Friedel said. “I think at anything, doesn’t matter if it’s sports or not, in order to be great at something, you have to work at it.
“Being in on Monday is just a normal thing for me, and the players have adapted very well.”
Heaps, Friedel’s direct predecessor, revamped the club’s weight room and introduced former New England midfielder Nick Downing as strength and conditioning coach in 2012. Friedel carried that baton a step further, in part because his style of play requires the players to be in peak physical shape.
Perhaps the most talked-about change in the Revs under Friedel is the advent of the high press. It’s a tactic built on aggressive play and attack-minded players. It requires commitment, hustle, speed, the ability to connect passes quickly in the attacking third and impeccable finishing.
Friedel’s team has all of that.
Cristian Penilla, Fagundez and Teal Bunbury combined makes for one of the top attacking trios in MLS. Penilla is savvy, quick on the ball and is as slick a shooter as he is a passer; Fagundez has the vision to see three plays in advance; and Bunbury, with 10 goals on the season and one of the best shot-to-goals ratios in the league, is proving to be a lethal spearhead at the top of New England’s attack.
“It’s far more enjoyable to play soccer on a team that’s trying to win rather than on a team that’s trying not to lose.”
That’s to say nothing about the core of midfielders working to win the ball back, execute clean transitions and join in on the attack: Scott Caldwell, Luis Caicedo and newly-named MLS All-Star Wilfried Zahibo.
Friedel said choosing the high press was a result of procuring his various coaching licenses and working with colleagues across Europe and the U.S.
“The way [my staff] and I view the game is that most goals are not scored from your own goalkeeper passing it out, 50 passes and then a goal,” Friedel explained. “It tends to be a turnover sport. The way we look at it rationally is, if you can win the ball as close to the opponent’s goal as possible, more times than not you’ll be in a more advantageous position to score.
“I do feel we create a lot of chances out of it. I feel it gets the team in a mode of physical fitness that will bode really well come the end of the season. I also feel it helps our energy in games. You need energy when you’re attacking or defending.”
It’s attack, attack, attack, but not primitive. It’s “the best defense is a good offense,” in the flesh.
Friedel added: “It’s far more enjoyable to play soccer on a team that’s trying to win rather than on a team that’s trying not to lose.”
As it stands, New England has the fourth-best offense in the Eastern Conference. For now, it’s tied for the fourth-best defense in the conference, too. But there have been more gripes of late about New England’s back line than its midfield or strikers.
The statistics may not show it directly, but the Revolution are still giving up cheap goals, regardless of their opponents’ quality.
For example, the Revs gave up two leads and won on a penalty kick in a 3-2 decision over D.C. United, the worst team in MLS, at home less than two weeks ago.
The Revs also slipped up and dropped points against Vancouver and San Jose, conceding multiple goals against both sides. They also nearly let a three-goal lead evaporate at home against Toronto FC in a 3-2 May victory that was too close for comfort.
Friedel said his side has been competitive in all of its games, with one exception – a 4-2 loss May 5 at Montreal – and that he he’s pleased with the team’s style of play. But with an unconvincing back line in need of some depth at left back and centerback, the Revolution may rely too much on their attack to produce results.
Friedel said he’ll look for reinforcements during the summer months. Adding some defensive help will likely be a priority. The club is down to just one left back now that Chris Tierney is out for the season with a torn ACL.
The Revs also are short at least one attacking player after trading Lee Nguyen to Los Angeles FC in the spring.
Friedel said the club has sent out bids on two players, with rumors suggesting one is Stoke City playmaker Bojan Krkic.
Regardless, Friedel is content with the foundation he’s built in less than a year. Most of his inbound transfers have played a pivotal role in the Revolution’s success so far this season, with Penilla, Caicedo and Zahibo making the biggest impacts.
New England will rely heavily on its core of players, newly-acquired and veteran alike, as it presses through the second half of the season. The Revolution, according to metrics released by the league, have the toughest remaining schedule of any team. They conclude their three-game home stand Saturday against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Friedel is undeterred by the challenges ahead and has praised his team for its competitive grit, which he believes will make a difference down the stretch.
“One of our good characteristics is that the boys are resilient,” Friedel said. “We’re not accepting losing. Every game we play, we try and attack. Against any team we play, home or away, we’re trying to win the game. There’s no sense going out there trying not to lose.”