The rebuild: Revolution head coach Jay Heaps reflects on journey to MLS Cup

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CARSON, Calif. — When former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol was not renewed as manager of the New England Revolution three years ago, a Morgan Stanley private wealth manager–Jay Heaps–was given the opportunity to return as coach to the team where he once played from 2001 to 2009.

Winning the MLS Defender of the Year accolade in his last playing year, Heaps also starred in four MLS Cups for the Revolution, none of which were victories. And when he retired from soccer in 2009, his day job in finance didn’t last long.

Having the chance to get back into soccer in some form, the New Hampshire native wasted no time restoring his interest in what he calls his true passion.

“When you step away from the career I had, it was going in a pretty good direction at Morgan Stanley, [but] it wasn’t about that. It was about getting back to what I truly loved doing, being around the game, being around these guys.”

But his first full season of coaching in 2012 did not show the caliber of the team we see today.

A season filled with average defending and an absence of clinical attacking saw the Revolution plummet to second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference standings, largely unchanged from their bottom-dwelling 2011 campaign.

The squad needed a dynamic element to bolster its results.

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However, Heaps and Co. were patient, and over time, players such as Lee Nguyen, Charlie Davies, and Teal Bunbury, who had enjoyed great success at certain points in time, were brought to New England.

Overlooked and undervalued, they were poised to break out.

“That first year was about finding players like Lee [Nguyen] and players we could build the future around, so for me, as dismal as it may be for you guys to look at, in terms of results, we were really building something,” Heaps said. “I thought we were getting that core group of guys to be in the position we are today.”

Since the Revolution hadn’t made a hard push for a Cup appearance as of late, fans denounced management for not adding a skilled, big-money Designated Player since Heaps’ arrival. This April, a piece from the Boston Magazine was highly critical of the Kraft ownership and their supposed lack of attention to the team.

Heaps never saw it that way.

In his time as manager of the Revolution, he has the utmost praise for the Kraft family and what they’ve done for their club team and American soccer as one entity.

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“They’ve brought a lot to soccer that they don’t get a lot of credit for,” Heaps said. “This whole room is here for what they’ve been able to do and maintain, the league in those meek years of the Miami Fusion folding, Tampa Bay folding, so there were a couple owners who stepped up big, and the Kraft family was one of them.

“In taking over and having a close relationship with them, you realize how much they want this, how much they want to be competitive. Early on, I think a lot of people were asking for a big-name DP, but quite frankly, myself and Mike Burns thought it would have been too soon, too quickly. We wanted to build a foundation first.”

The addition of Jermaine Jones, the name on Americans lips after his wonder strike put the United States past Portugal in the 2014 World Cup, came at the right time this summer.

The Revolution went on a tear, dubbed the hottest team in the second-half of the MLS regular season by many, and Lee Nguyen busted into the MLS MVP conversation, scoring the most goals (18) of any midfielder in the league.

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As far as the most impactful player on the pitch for New England, Nguyen gets the majority of credit, but Heaps was quick to detail exactly how Jermaine Jones has helped the Revolution, apart from the former FC Schalke man’s performance on the pitch.

“The one thing that Jermaine has brought by coming here is a real swagger, a confidence that allows the players to do well. We as coaches can say, ‘Hey, you’re great,’ but that doesn’t mean anything until a player like Jermaine steps on the field.”

On the brink of a championship, Jones leads the rolling Revs.

And their past of struggle–now fading with a talented combination of young players, homegrowns and veteran castoffs–is nearing the most gratifying close.