FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – You could tell by the look on Matt Turner’s face as he embraced Mike Lapper for a good, long hug that something had changed.
Turner’s expression was one of celebration and relief, and the mood in the New England Revolution locker room, which had so often become somber after games, was suddenly upbeat.
Players high-fived and joked as they changed into street clothes, pop music played from a small set of speakers just outside the team’s training room, and Lapper – as he did with Turner – made his rounds congratulating players on a job well done. The Revolution, less than 72 hours after firing head coach Brad Friedel, had just defeated the San Jose Earthquakes 3-1 and snapped a four-game winless run that saw the team concede 18 goals and plummet to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
The scenes in the locker room that May 11 night weren’t an aberration. Lapper, who became interim coach immediately after the Revolution fired Friedel, helped infuse positivity into the team, which went 1-0-2 in competitive matches under his care.
But more changes were inevitable, and Lapper’s future in doubt, when the club hired Bruce Arena as head coach and sporting director on May 14. General manager Mike Burns got fired, Marcelo Neveleff announced his departure for Orlando City SC, and Arena, who waited until June 2 to officially make his head coaching debut, filled out his new coaching staff by naming Richie Williams as his assistant, Curt Onalfo as technical director, and Jarryd Phillips as director of sports performance.
Lapper, who in recent weeks has been praised by both the players and Arena for his stewardship of the team, could have survived the turnover, but he chose not to accept a position on Arena’s coaching staff.
As such, he left the club on June 5 with nothing but pride and respect.
“Bruce asked me to stay on, but I felt it was time for me to go,” Lapper told Pro Soccer USA in a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday. “I know I’m not one of Bruce’s guys. I’m sad to go, but it’s the right thing to do for the club with the new staff coming in.”
Lapper, who was mentored in coaching by the late Sigi Schmid prior to teaming up with Friedel in New England, said he understands how every coaching staff has its own unique philosophy and set of priorities.
Schmid led the Los Angeles Galaxy and Columbus Crew to MLS Cup titles, and also coached the Seattle Sounders and U.S. youth national teams. Lapper served as an assistant coach in Columbus, his former team as a player, from 2005-13 and overlapped with Schmid when he led the club to its first championship in 2008.
“On Wednesday I texted Curt and told him what I told Bruce, which is that he and Bruce have what Sigi and I had: They can look at each other and know what the other is thinking,” Lapper said. “That’s such a beautiful thing, and I’m so happy for them, and I wish the team nothing but the best.”
While Arena, 67, joins New England with arguably the top coaching pedigree of any American tactician, his openness to keeping Lapper is a sign of two major things: first, that Lapper really did make a tangible impact on the players, and second, that Lapper is probably qualified to be a head coach elsewhere in MLS.
The story of Lapper’s four weeks as interim head coach of the Revolution demonstrates this as well, particularly as the 48-year-old, Redondo Beach, Calif. native worked carefully to balance the myriad personalities and talents in New England’s locker room, tried to add his spin on coaching with a little inspiration from Schmid, and remained loyal to Friedel, his longtime friend.
‘If you would have asked me two or three years ago if I was ready to be a head coach, I would have said no. I’m all in now, 100 percent.’
The mood in Foxborough the day after Friedel’s dismissal was serious and tense. The team was 2-8-2, its worst start to a season ever, and fans called for accountability from the stands and on social media.
Burns was the first to address reporters, though he would be fired within a week. Revolution veterans Scott Caldwell, Andrew Farrell and Teal Bunbury said they were embarrassed by the team’s record and vowed to improve.
Lapper was more upbeat when he took questions and said he planned to meet with players individually and challenge them to get back to basics, find their love for the game and take responsibility for the team’s predicament.
But, Lapper also spoke in paradoxes. “This is not what I signed up for,” he told reporters with a smile when asked about the challenges ahead and Friedel’s departure. Moments later, he was asked whether he wanted to be a candidate for the permanent head coaching job and enthusiastically replied, “Of course!”
Lapper arrived in New England in 2017 with Friedel, his former teammate on Columbus, the U.S. national team, and in college at UCLA. Friedel had no professional head coaching experience at the club level when he was hired, though Lapper had served as an assistant coach for 12 years, first with the Crew (2005-13) and then at West Virginia University (2013-17).
The irony is that Lapper had more coaching experience at the time of Friedel’s hiring, but he wasn’t full convinced he could be a head coach.
“If you would have asked me two or three years ago if I was ready to be a head coach, I would have said no,” Lapper said. “I’m all in now, 100 percent. I would love the opportunity to be a head coach in MLS. This is all I know and I think I relate really well to the players, I get a good response from the players in general. So yes, it’s my dream.”
The sample size of Lapper’s time in New England is small, but he also covered a lot of ground in a short time. In fact, his role in reviving the Revolution could be the appendix he staples to a job application in MLS, where the Colorado Rapids and FC Cincinnati have an interim coach and Austin FC and Inter Miami enter the league as expansion teams next year.
Lapper said he will do everything he can to make his dream into a reality, but he expressed some reticence about his chances.
“If I ever get the opportunity, I’d run with it and make Sigi proud, but I just don’t know,” he said. “So far as the league goes, I don’t know if someone will take a chance on me, and that’s the reality. A lot of experienced head coaches are unemployed – Jason Kreis, Dominic Kinnear, Preki – there are a lot of good ones out there.
“I hope and pray there’s a chance for me, but I don’t know. I don’t even know my next step, but I want to get back to work and get on the field in whatever capacity I can, whether that’s Y-12 or with a national team.”
A student of Sigi
Lapper brought up Schmid’s influence when he was unveiled as the Revolution’s interim coach and did so again numerous times when he spoke to Pro Soccer USA.
Schmid, a two-time MLS Coach of the Year and the all-time league record holder for coaching wins, was known for his ability to build team chemistry as much his tactical prowess. Many of those qualities rubbed off on Lapper, who spent three seasons as Schmid’s assistant in Ohio.
“Sigi had an uncanny ability to take interest in his players and care about them,” Lapper said. “I think that brings out a lot of good things, and while it’s not the only thing that helped us in New England, I’ve always taken pride in being able to do the same thing and get to know the players.
“I think it’s important to know who the players are on the field, but also who they are off the field – their family, their friends, their hobbies, what they’re doing this weekend…do you have a comfortable home life, is your mother sick, do you have a dog? It sounds stupid, but it works.”
Within hours of taking over as coach of the Revolution, Lapper reinvigorated the players in private meetings and openly in the locker room, and also by using Schmid’s approach.
Some of the new energy he brought revolved around small changes, like instituting a man of the match ball, while others were more profound.
Over the course of his time with the team, Lapper discovered most of the players liked to pray, while some even did bible study. Lapper, who was raised Roman Catholic and now also attends Methodist services, remembered Schmid leading the Crew in prayer and it being an effective way to unite the team, even though there were numerous faiths represented in the locker room.
“His prayer, basically, was the same every time,” Lapper said. “It was to thank God for allowing us to be soccer players. It was a great prayer, and I wanted to bring it into the locker room.
“Sigi warned me, though: don’t offend anyone, because not everyone has the same religious outlook as you, so I approached the team first and asked if they’d be receptive to praying before training,” Lapper said. “No one had a problem with it, so we did it. I’m not saying praying was the answer – lots of teams pray and still lose – but it didn’t hurt, and I think it was a good bonding moment. It’s about team chemistry.”
As the locker room continued to come together, the players improved on the field as well.
The Revolution came out strong against the Earthquakes, then secured their first away clean sheet of the season in a 0-0 draw at Montreal. The following week, they nearly out-played and beat D.C. United, one of the top teams in the conference, but had to settle for a 1-1 tie after Wayne Rooney converted a stoppage time penalty kick.
That trio of performances was a stark departure from the team’s form in the lead-up to Friedel’s firing. But, in relatively short order, the Revolution were creating chances, scoring, frustrating teams on defense, and altogether looking like a different team.
When Lapper took over, New England was at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Now, the Revolution’s 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy in Arena’s coaching debut combined with their undefeated record under Lapper have the club just two points out of the seventh and final playoff spot with half the season remaining.
“Bruce Arena is inarguably the best, along with Sigi, and I was just blessed that I had Sigi with me in spirit during games,” Lapper said. “I know it sounds stupid, but I was very comfortable out there and confident in my decisions.
“I have no doubt it’s because I worked with Sigi for so long and watched him rebuild a program in Columbus all the way to an MLS Cup. He came in with the Crew and showed me what it takes – not too dissimilar from what’s going on here in New England.”
“Do you — Give 100 percent today, and that’s all I’ll ask”
Lapper had a positive effect on the Revolution almost immediately, but it also wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
One of the biggest challenges Lapper faced came in his second game at the helm when he substituted out Diego Fagundez in the 60th minute for Tajon Buchanan against Montreal. Fagundez was not happy to come off and threw a water bottle after not shaking Lapper’s hand as he approached the sideline.
“I saw Diego a little fatigued and not being able to track back in a difficult game, and so I wanted to take him out for Tajon, who had fresh legs and could give us some speed,” Lapper said. “I told the coaches that we needed to keep a close eye on Diego’s reaction. He threw a bottle, and I have no problem with that because players should be upset with being taken out. That’s life as a pro athlete.”
Lapper monitored Fagundez in training that week, but ultimately decided to keep him out of the starting lineup for the team’s game against D.C. United.
“When he saw he wasn’t in the lineup, he had one training where he phoned it in to the point where players asked me, ‘What’s going on with Diego?’” Lapper said.
Lapper then left Fagundez out of the match day 18 entirely, which led his father and agent, Washington, to send out a tweet suggesting it was time for his son to leave the club. After the game, Lapper confronted Fagundez directly, something which some players have privately said Friedel didn’t do.
“I can’t have a guy out there not giving 100 percent, especially a leader on the team,” Lapper said. “There is no entitlement on the team – I don’t care what your name is. So I took him out of the 18 to teach him a lesson: that every day you have an opportunity to fail or succeed. He chose that he didn’t want to succeed.
“If I had accepted that and let him be in the 18, it would have affected the whole group. That’s not the standard I wanted to set, and I like Diego. He has a lot to offer, but if anyone thinks they’re bigger than the team, it’s not going to work out.”
Lapper was able to work through the issue with Fagundez.
“In fairness to Diego, he called after and we talked about it. I showed him the stats that opened his eyes and he agreed that he wasn’t playing his best but wanted to get back on the field. The three of us, with Bruce Arena, then had a good talk and we came to the decision that he should start against LA.”
Lapper’s approach with Fagundez also hit on a number of themes he brought up with entire team, namely effort, grit, motivation and passion.
While Friedel had questioned the team’s effort and motivation on numerous occasions, Lapper demanded effort, though his method for getting the most out of his players was straight forward enough to sum up in two words: Do you.
“We’re all in this together, so ‘do you’ is what I’d tell the team,” Lapper said. “That means, whatever you do for this team, do it to the best of your ability. Give 100 percent today, and that’s all I’ll ask.”
“Anything can happen”
Lapper is proud of what he and the Revolution were able to accomplish, but is hesitant to put the club’s recent improvement in the context of Friedel’s firing.
In fact, Lapper won’t comment on why Friedel was dismissed or if he ever disagreed with his longtime friend.
“I have to be careful, and tread lightly, because I don’t want to lose a friend,” Lapper said.
Friedel and Lapper golfed together for five hours on Tuesday. Lapper isn’t sure what’s next for Friedel, but he said the former head coach has been self-reflective in recent weeks.
“He asked me questions about the team, why I think we didn’t succeed, he’s curious,” Lapper said. “But I don’t want to get specific, because those were private conversations. Still, any time you get a punch in the gut like that, so to speak, you’re bummed and you want to figure out what you did wrong.
“That’s how a coach grows. When you don’t succeed, you always wonder what you could do better or different. That’s the process, and it sucks, but it happens.”
Numerous current and former Revolution players have come out on different sides of Friedel. Some say he was misunderstood, while others say he struggled to communicate with players and left them feeling ignored or micro-managed.
Regardless, the team is well on its way to turning the page with Arena, thanks in no small part to Lapper.
“I feel very proud of the body of work we were able to do, I’m proud of the team, and proud of the organization, but disappointed that the Brad Friedel era was not what any of us anticipated or wanted,” Lapper said.
“I’m happy the boys responded well to the challenges we put on them. We didn’t let them off the hook, and they responded in a positive way, just really impressive with their determination going into games.”
On May 9, Lapper told his players the season was far from over and that they all had potential.
Within one month, he seems to have helped prove it.
“I told them when I left that they can make the playoffs,” Lapper said. “And, when you make the playoffs, anything can happen.”