Earlier this offseason, Kelyn Rowe was catching up with a good friend.
The pair were speaking on the phone about life, soccer and anything else two buddies choose to fill time with together. It was familiar. Familiarity is welcomed by Rowe who, after seven seasons with the New England Revolution to kick off his MLS career, spent 2019 between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, struggling to find regular minutes at either club.
At this point in time, Rowe is a free agent, pondering his next move. That friend he was speaking with is former teammate Chris Tierney, who was in New England with Rowe for each of those seven seasons before retiring. Now, Tierney is New England's player recruitment manager and the conversation between two friends suddenly changed tone.
"He just kind of goes ‘Uh, any interest in coming back?’ I didn’t think about it," Rowe told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. "I was like ‘I don’t know, maybe.' A few days later I got a call from [head coach] Bruce [Arena]. They were feelin’ me out a little bit."
Rowe didn't take much convincing once Arena called and before long, the 28-year-old signed with the Revolution, returning to his first club after a year away and reuniting with the manager that gave him his US national team debut.
It's a stark contrast from where the club was when he departed.
Rowe was traded to SKC after a 2018 season that he called his "rock-bottom," in which he played much fewer minutes than expected, all too often out of position. In May, after a disappointing start to the season, Brad Friedel was let go by the club and Arena shortly appointed. Immediately the former national team coach turned the franchise around and guided them to the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“It was tough for me to break it apart, but it’s like going to two different clubs," Rowe said. "I had a great time in my first five or six years, but the last year wasn’t great. So I had to change. But this is like going to a new club. I’m going back to the same fans and players, but it’s not going back to the same club. So I’m happy to see that change.”
Rowe set then-career lows in games started, minutes, goals and assists, sparking the need for a change. Returning to New England is a professional homecoming, but one that was facilitated by the organizational change that saw Arena inserted and a new era ushered in.
“He was excited to have me, he gave me the spiel about the club and players he’s really excited about," Rowe said. "In typical Bruce fashion, he gave me the ‘You’re a good player, these are your strengths but this is what you need to work on.’ He wants me to get to the level I was when I was with him at the national team, that confidence and swagger, but he wants me to get even better. That’s something a guy wants, right? I want to get to my best. And he says ‘I can get you there.’”
Now that his future is settled, Rowe has a few details to work out. The No. 11 shirt he wore for seven seasons is now taken by second-year attacker Tajon Buchanan and Rowe admits that is low on his priorities.
There's also Kelyn's NEGU (Never, Ever Give Up) Crew, which the player started in partnership with the Jessie Rees Foundation, creating a matchday experience for childhood cancer patients and their families. When he left the Revs, teammate and friend Matt Turner took over to ensure Kelyn's NEGU Crew continued on and would be thriving.
With Rowe back in town, what happens now?
“I think we’ll combine the two," Rowe said happily. "Matt did a very good job.”