TUCSON, Ariz. – Jason Kreis and Jay Heaps shared an interesting exchange earlier this week when the two crossed paths during a promotional event for the Desert Diamond Cup tournament.
The two Duke alumni hadn’t really spoken much since Heaps was named New England Revolution head coach in November, but Kreis knows a thing or two about being placed on the hot seat as a head coach of your former team when you don’t have any coaching experience.
Kreis briefly said hello to his fellow former Blue Devil and asked him how the transition was treating him. The answer surprised him.
“He’s like, ‘I’m really enjoying it,’” the Real Salt Lake boss recounted to MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. “And I thought immediately, ‘My God, what is he doing differently than I did?’ Because I didn’t really enjoy it at all. I certainly enjoyed the idea of it, I enjoyed the challenge of it, but man, I don’t think I could have said I was enjoying myself after a couple of months.”
Heaps’ unwavering positivity has been the breath of fresh air the Revs have been clamoring for. That’s no slight on his predecessor, Steve Nicol, one of the most successful coaches in MLS history. But when a team stagnates after a long history of winning, sometimes a new perspective is just what the doctor ordered.
That’s all fine and good in Revs camp, where players say Heaps’ optimism and work ethic have rubbed off immediately. And Heaps is off to a flying start this preseason, which will conclude in Saturday’s championship match at the Desert Diamond Cup against the reigning MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy.
WATCH: Revs talk Heaps' influence
But with the 2012 season a week away, the truth of the matter is that the former New England defender may have the most difficult challenge of any head coach in MLS history.
The 35-year-old Heaps is just the third player ever to be named head coach of his former team without any experience as an assistant. Walter Zenga was the first, serving as a player-coach of those same Revolution in 1999. And Kreis is, of course, the most recent example, retiring in May of 2007 and immediately taking to the RSL sideline.
Heaps’ challenge may be bigger than both of theirs. Sure, it starts with the immediate task of injecting life into a team that finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference in 2011, tied with Vancouver for the worst record in the league. The Revs also were tied with the expansion ‘Caps for the second-worst goal differential, at minus-20.
But it’s more than that. He’ll have to improve a team by convincing his former peers – many of whom are still key players – that he’s the guy to lead them. That’s no small task.
“I know I wasn’t the greatest player,” the former fullback told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “But the one thing I did do was train hard and, whatever ability I had, I was going to give that up no matter if it was an MLS Cup final or a practice on a Tuesday.”
Heaps’ roster includes eight guys who played alongside him in New England during his final season as a player, including starters Shalrie Joseph, Matt Reis and Kevin Alston. And he knows he’ll have to make sure those guys follow his lead no matter what. He’s hoping his work ethic is what will give him credibility.
“I think that those guys appreciate that,” he said, “so they know that when I ask for it, that kind of energy, they know that I’m not full of [it], they know that I’m really asking for it.”
Kreis feels for his fellow player-turned-coach. He believes that Heaps’ time away from the game – two years as both a TV analyst for the Revs as well as a fulltime job in the financial world – will serve him well, and that he won’t have some of the immediate agony he felt when he took over at Salt Lake.
But where Heaps is really going to be challenged is when the difficult decisions need to be made. And lowering the boom – if necessary – on your former colleagues is a tough burden to bear.
“It’s easy when things are good and things are going right,” Kreis said, pointing out that it’s still preseason. “Sometimes things don’t go right, and you’ve got to make difficult choices and disappoint some people that haven’t been disappointed under him yet.”
What could that include? Let’s say, for instance, Reis misses time due to injury, which he’s done plenty of during his last few seasons. If backup Bobby Shuttleworth comes in and is lights out in the veteran’s absence, does that make for instant awkwardness when Reis recuperates and is ready to reclaim the No. 1 role?
“That obviously is the very difficult part,” Heaps said, admitting that he’s pondered that very scenario, among a litany of others. “It pains me. Those are the things that keep me up at night because there are going to be tough decisions that have to be made this season, going into the next season.”
Heaps promises that his No. 1 goal is to be a straight shooter at all times and to be up front with every situation from the beginning – “a straight conversation, it’s a look in the eye, it’s the truth no matter what,” he explained.
It all sounds good in theory. Zenga had it easy – the former Italy ‘keeper was a free-spirited coach and a player at the same time, an experiment that was unprecedented in league history. Kreis, on the other hand, agonized over every decision (as he still does), but was also working with a blank canvas, a third-year team with no history of success.
Heaps, meanwhile, has been entrusted with the keys to a team that has been close to the top of the mountain multiple times. But the Revs have been on the outside of the MLS Cup Playoffs looking in for two straight seasons – perhaps coincidentally, the two years immediately following Heaps’ retirement.
For a New England native and a Revs guy through and through, that’s a burden Heaps is happy to take on.
“I took two years off with an investment bank,” he reiterated, “and I think that gives you some pretty good perspective. It was a progression to get back to what I love doing. I found out I like this a lot better. So I can smile for that reason.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.