BOSTON, Mass. – Mike Burns did not want to talk about his job status at Gillette Stadium last Friday when grilled by local media about his performance as general manager and the circumstances surrounding former head coach Brad Friedel’s firing.
That said, Burns’ standing didn’t appear in doubt at the time. He took questions for seven minutes outside the New England Revolution locker room and said the club still had enough time to make the playoffs this season.
Just three days later, Monday evening, the club fired Burns, an original Revolution player, and put an end to his eight-year tenure as the team’s general manager. Tuesday morning, the club promptly replaced Burns and Friedel with former United States men’s national team coach Bruce Arena, who will serve as head coach and sporting director.
Supporters, media and player agents had been pressuring Revolution owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft, as well as team president Brian Bilello, to part with Burns for years, though calls to shake up the front office hit new levels when Friedel was fired last week.
The Midnight Riders, one of the New England Revolution’s official supporters groups, first called out Burns directly in a statement published to Twitter and asked the club to remove him from his position.
Then, national voices stepped in. Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl opined that the Revolution should get new owners, while commentators such as Fox Sports’ Stuart Holden and Rob Stone questioned the competency of the team’s front office.
In calling out the club’s ownership, these leading media members shed their impartiality and hit on the same themes Revolution supporters have harped on for years: that the Krafts have complacently run their team, which has only reached the playoffs three times in the last nine years; that Burns remained in a position of power despite a controversial reputation as a needlessly tough negotiator and poor roster builder; and that New England could not survive in modern-day MLS due to bleak prospects for a soccer-specific stadium and questionable talent acquisition practices.
Some of those criticisms – like the stadium – extend beyond the responsibilities of a GM.
Others, though, fall squarely at Burns’ feet.
The Revolution had some success with Burns as general manager, including reaching the 2014 MLS Cup, but mostly struggled. Burns became GM in 2011 and shed the title “vice president of player personnel” following a shake-up in management that also saw former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati step down as a president of Kraft Soccer Properties and become a team advisor.
Since 2011, the Revolution have made the playoffs three times. They have missed out on the postseason in each of the last three years. And their regular-season record with Burns as GM is 91-103-57.
Burns also led two head coach searches. First, he hired former Revolution defender Jay Heaps in 2012 to succeed longtime coach Steve Nicol. After Heaps’ firing in 2017, Burns hired Friedel, his former roommate on the United States men’s national team for the 1998 World Cup.
Neither Heaps nor Friedel had any significant coaching experience at the time of their hires.
But most criticism of Burns was rooted in his approach to roster construction, contract negotiation and style of engagement with fellow general managers, sporting directors and agents.
Player agent Ron Waxman, whose clients include U.S. men’s national team captain Michael Bradley and former Revolution midfielder Shalrie Joseph, publicly blasted Burns for his negotiating tactics and job performance. At least three other agents told Pro Soccer USA they agree with Waxman.
Not all of Burns’ colleagues had bad experiences working with him. At least two people with the title of general manager or sporting director in the league told Pro Soccer USA in recent months that negotiations with Burns were open, respectful and professional.
But his controversial reputation remained, and was brought to light prominently in 2018 when Goal.com released a survey of MLS general managers that showed Burns as the “worst GM or technical director” in negotiations.
Players voiced their opposition to the Revolution’s negotiating tactics as well.
Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz, who started his career with New England, was the first. In 2007, he balked at a minimal pay increase to stay with the Revolution and was subsequently traded to the Colorado Rapids, where he won a league title within two seasons. Larentowicz soured on the Revolution because of how contract discussions went and told the Boston Globe the club “wasn’t doing right by its players.”
Other players successfully renegotiated contracts in New England – like Scott Caldwell did earlier this year – but Larentowicz’s situation is no one-off. Los Angeles FC’s Lee Nguyen, who played for the New England Revolution from 2012-18, requested a trade numerous times between the end of the 2017 season and the primary transfer deadline in 2018. The Revolution eventually obliged – after isolating Nguyen in team activities and keeping him out of matchday rosters – dealing Nguyen at the last possible hour of the transfer window. Nguyen thanked Revolution supporters for his time at the club, but was frustrated by how his departure played out.
In 2015, ESPN reported that Jermaine Jones, who helped lead the Revolution to the 2014 MLS Cup, turned down a contract offer that would have paid him roughly 20 percent of his 2015 salary, which the MLS Players Union listed as $3 million. Jones had been hit by injuries during the 2015 season, but believed he was worth more. He was subsequently traded to Colorado, who offered the player a more moderate pay decrease.
At least two former Revolution players and one current told Pro Soccer USA they were frustrated by hardball negotiating tactics and a reluctance to accommodate trade requests.
Burns also struggled to work with the Nicol, Heaps and Friedel coaching staffs to adequately fill the Revolution’s roster.
Burns spoke frequently about having “flexibility” with roster size and assets. The team currently has only 26 of 30 roster spots filled and made no moves before the May 7 primary transfer deadline this year, despite having the worst defensive record in MLS at the moment.
Defense has been an issue every year since 2014, after which the club parted with central defender AJ Soares. While Burns signed defenders such as Michael Mancienne, Benjamin Angoua, Claude Dielna and Gabriel Somi, defensive depth continued to be problematic. Both Heaps and Friedel at times jerry-rigged their back lines and used players out of position.
New England was also one of the last teams to add a designated player — a title reserved for players paid more than the league’s maximum budget charge — to its roster.
Jones was a designated player when he signed with New England, though the circumstances of his transfer were unlike any transaction in league history. Because both New England and the Chicago Fire wanted to sign Jones, the league introduced a blind draw for the player’s rights.
Jones ended up in New England.
At the time, Burns spoke openly to Fox Sports about the club’s interest in acquiring Jones — a stark departure from his usual manner of communicating about transfers and contract negotiations. Burns often refused to comment, both on and off the record, about a number of subjects – from player personnel decisions to front office decisions.
Many GMs across sports take questions from media every day, but Burns remained tight-lipped when reporters sought updates about the club’s direction.
Pro Soccer USA requested to speak with Burns at least four times in the last 14 months, but was denied by Revolution communications staff every time. Other reporters from local media outlets expressed similar frustrations.
During Burns’ final media availability Friday, club communications staff halted questioning after seven minutes.
Three days later, Burns was gone.