April 23, 2019

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Robert Kraft’s Other Problem: Soccer

Robert Kraft’s Other Problem: Soccer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Robert K. Kraft’s New England Patriots are a very good football team, having won six Super Bowl championships the past 19 years. They are 33-5 against the A.F.C. East division rival Buffalo Bills during that span.

In a cruel twist of fate, Robert Kraft’s other team that plays at Gillette Stadium, the New England Revolution, might as well be the Buffalo Bills of Major League Soccer. There was a run of dominance — four M.L.S. Cup Finals appearances in six years — without a championship, and a mostly fallow period now going on a decade. The team is below .500 (125-148-89) since 2008, the year after it went to its third straight M.L.S. Cup Finals.

Kraft has bigger concerns at the moment than the Revolution. He is facing two misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution at a massage parlor in Jupiter, Fla. (Kraft denies illegal activity.) Kraft most likely won’t face jail time, but the charges could result in a fine or a suspension or both from the National Football League, where he has become one of the most powerful owners, and from Major League Soccer, where he also enjoys a long, close relationship with the commissioner.

If his attention turns back to his soccer team, he is likely to find a house in the middle of a major overhaul.

“One of our strategies last year was to instill a new culture at the club,” said Brad Friedel, the former United States national team goalkeeper hired to turn around the team last year. He said a tear-down had been necessary. “We felt that there needed to be a completely different work ethic.”

Friedel spoke before the Revolution’s home opener last weekend, a 2-0 loss to the Columbus Crew. He praised his team’s recent signings, but he didn’t hesitate to criticize the team he took over. “We needed leaders,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of leaders last year.”

There is no Tom Brady here.

The Revolution began play in 1996, as one of Major League Soccer’s 10 original teams. Kraft, alongside Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz, recruited Don Garber from the N.F.L. to be the league’s commissioner, and that tight group helped keep M.L.S. afloat in the early 2000s, when it was on the verge of collapse.

But while Kraft has been able to master the N.F.L., the soccer revolution in America has mostly passed him by.

The Revolution are one of three M.L.S. teams that still play in cavernous football stadiums. The others, Atlanta United and the Seattle Sounders, justify it by drawing the largest average attendance figures in the league, but only 13,808 fans showed up for the Revolution’s home opener last weekend. The Revolution will draw better when there isn’t snow on the ground, of course, but last year’s average attendance ranked 16th in the league.

The team has been trying to build a soccer-specific stadium somewhere in the Boston area since 2006. In the 13 years since, sites have been proposed, millions have been spent on architectural renderings, and plots of land have almost been purchased, all to eventually collapse for one reason or another. A new multimillion-dollar training center will open this season, but that too will be in Foxborough, even as the Boston stadium search goes on.

“It’s about getting into a stadium that will transform soccer in our region,” the team president, Brian Bilello, said. “With that in mind, we have been patient, probably to a fault, to try and get the right project done.”

In Garber’s mind, most of the Revolution’s problems would be fixed by a new stadium. “My view is their economic model is challenging in Gillette,” he said. “It has not been able to tap into the young, millennial sports fan in the Boston metropolitan area because it is further away.”

The couple hundred die-hard Revolution fans tailgating in the parking lot before the home opener weren’t so sure. The stadium search has gone on for so long that they rarely get their hopes up anymore. A number of them said that it feels as if the Revolution are a distant priority for the Krafts.

Bilello and Garber deny that is the case. Still, the N.F.L. is a $15 billion-a-year league, and a social, financial and cultural presence far bigger than M.L.S. Kraft sits on some of the N.F.L.’s most powerful committees. His son, Jonathan Kraft, holds those roles on M.L.S. committees and seems to handle most of the team’s day-to-day business.

Last year, the Krafts spent $20 million to buy their third team, the Boston Uprising, an e-sports team that competes in the Overwatch League. The sardonic joke among some Revolution supporters is that now they’re not even the neglected second child, but something even worse: the ignored middle child.

The team declined to make either Robert or Jonathan Kraft available for this article.

Over the years, the Revolution have dabbled in signing higher-priced players, but none has proved a particularly large draw or game-changing addition on the field. The team now wants to give young homegrown players, like Isaac Angking, Nicolas Firmino and Justin Rennicks, a real pathway to first team minutes and success.

This off-season, the team also acquired Carles Gil, a Spanish midfielder Friedel hopes will jump-start the attack, along with other players who figure to make an impact, like Edgar Castillo and Juan Fernando Caicedo. Bilello said that the team’s spending on players had been ramping up and that the Krafts were giving the team all the money it needed to compete; both Bilello and Friedel promised that another designated player — the league’s highest salary classification — would arrive in either May or July, once contractual issues could be worked out. They would not reveal the player’s identity.

The team is also building a new $35 million training center adjacent to Gillette Stadium that will house both the first team and the academy. The center will feature a number of grass and artificial turf training pitches — the team’s current training pitch is covered in snow, so it has been practicing at Gillette Stadium — and the state-of-the-art facilities that, team officials hope, will help persuade new players to join.

Soccer is soccer, though, and building a winning team is mostly the same the world over. The thing that makes M.L.S. unique, according to Friedel, who spent nearly two decades playing in England and other top European leagues, is that it is constantly evolving.

“Whether there is a new rule, a new stadium, a new training ground, other new designated players, a new club, a new franchise, a new second division, a new third division,” he said, ticking off the list of possibilities, “all these things happened in this country because the league is growing.”

The last four M.L.S. Cups have been won by teams that weren’t original league members, and the last few years have witnessed a steady expansion of the league. When M.L.S. fans think of the most exciting teams now, they are often thinking of bright new teams with bright new stadiums with bright young stars, clubs like Atlanta United and Los Angeles F.C.

“At times it is easier to be new, and it is easier to be a new and improved, than it is to be a legacy business,” Garber said.

In New England, they know how true this is.



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