When the word "construction" gets tossed around New England Revolution supporter circles, it’s usually in regards to the club’s longstanding search for a stadium of their own somewhere in greater Boston’s urban core, a process that quietly appears to have picked up some measure of momentum behind the scenes in recent years.
It has another context entirely for technical director Curt Onalfo. While he’s as enthusiastic about a future new home as anyone on the Revs’ staff, he is presently in charge of a different sort of infrastructure project – one that could well wind up being just as important for the club’s long-term success on the pitch, amid a period of surging investment and ambition at the founding MLS side.
“There definitely has been an increase in spending, there’s no two ways about it,” Onalfo told MLSsoccer.com. “But the important thing is that the structure just keeps getting enhanced. It takes time and effort. So a big part of my responsibility as technical director is the pathway, and our developmental system.”
The former Kansas City, D.C. United and LA Galaxy head coach arrived at Gillette Stadium just under a year ago to work alongside his former coach and longtime colleague Bruce Arena, and promptly dived into the work of standing up Revolution II, their new USL League One affiliate team, which was set to debut this year before the suspension of both the MLS and USL calendars amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
For all the chatter about hopes of someday moving into the city for matchdays, New England are digging firm roots into Foxborough. They recently cut the ribbon on an impressive new training complex near Gillette and are making tweaks to an academy that most observers would say hasn’t fully harnessed the area’s talent pool over the years, but is pushing through a couple of promising age groups and holds tremendous upside.
“Priority number one was starting the second team, bridging that gap between the academy to the first team. And then enhancing the academy,” explained Onalfo. “Obviously that’s stopped because of the coronavirus. But we've made some really good progress with the academy and I spend a lot of time evaluating that and working with our academy director, Bryan Scales, [to] just continually push forward and just make sure that we're getting better on a daily basis.
“You hear things and people say things and then you’ve got to go in and really make an evaluation, you’ve got to look at things closely. And there was a lot of things that I was quite pleased with,” he added in regards to his early analysis of the Revs’ academy.
“Do we need to get better? Yeah, absolutely. I do think that we rolled out a very, very good U-14 team and that team went to the ICC [Futures] tournament down in Florida, and won the second group there … They played against some of the top teams in the world and competed extremely well, and won the second bracket of that, which I thought was great.”
Onalfo also points to a promising U-19 group that produced their newest Homegrown signing, 17-year-old midfielder Damian Rivera, and stands to be early beneficiaries of the opportunities provided by the new USL squad.
Meanwhile the academy has worked to strike up closer relationships with area youth clubs, launched its own regional U-12 development league last year after the U.S. Soccer Development Academy pulled out of that age group and has acquired additional residential housing to host prospects hailing from a broader geographic range.
Onalfo was at the heart of constructing one of MLS’s pioneers in this space when he led the launch of LA Galaxy II, aka “Los Dos,” during Arena’s time in Los Angeles. Back then he was a coach; he’s ascended into more of an executive-level post in New England, which represents a homecoming of sorts for the Connecticut native.
“Bruce’s teams are always extremely well-coached, well-prepared and they know exactly what their roles are,” he said. “And the same goes in terms of off the field with the soccer side of the organization.”
The Revs have ratcheted up their investment in the first team, signing Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa as Designated Players off the international market. If that can be smoothly dovetailed with the efforts to build a pipeline for Homegrown talent and make the club an attractive destination for free agents, it comprises a three-pronged path to a better and more sustainable competitive product in a rapidly-evolving league.
Given the financial resources of the Kraft ownership group, Arena’s reputation and the size and fervor of their region’s soccer scene, it bears watching. With the first team storming back dramatically from a woeful start to the 2019 campaign and earning a playoff berth under Arena’s tutelage, Onalfo believes the early returns are promising.
“We have really good owners – I would actually say great owners, and we have an incredible training complex, and just a lot of great facilities,” he said.
“It’s easier with Bruce at the helm, because of his proven track record. That always helps … Bruce has done an incredible job of coming in, setting the tone, turning this team that was not having the greatest season into a team that made the playoffs. We turned things around pretty quickly last season and now it's just a matter of continuing on that pathway … It becomes an attractive opportunity for good players.”