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Times are changing

Revolution no longer setting MLS standards but are still swept up in leaving 2010 behind

There were more down moments than positive ones for the Revolution last season, though a goal by Shalrie Joseph (celebrating with Chris Tierney) was a highlight last October. There were more down moments than positive ones for the Revolution last season, though a goal by Shalrie Joseph (celebrating with Chris Tierney) was a highlight last October. (Getty Images)
By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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Designated players, expansion, soccer-specific stadia. Those are Major League Soccer’s points of emphasis as it starts its 16th season tonight.

Unfortunately for the Revolution, none of those themes relate directly to them this season. Though the Revolution have been among the league’s elite — eight successive playoff appearances from 2002-09 — they no longer are setting standards.

In fact, they appear to be falling behind, as new teams from the Pacific Northwest ride a wave of enthusiastic fan support and elsewhere MLS teams construct state-of-the-art stadia and sign high-profile, million-dollar-plus DPs.

A designated player — performers paid above the league’s maximum salary of $400,000 — does not guarantee success. In fact, Revolution vice president of player personnel Michael Burns notes no team has won the MLS Cup with a DP on its roster. Several DPs have failed to meet expectations, and the salary discrepancy created by their presence can create locker room tension.

But soccer-specific stadiums are providing advantages, as supporters focus energy onto the home team and prospective players are attracted to the atmosphere. The Los Angeles Galaxy led the way on these fronts, bringing in David Beckham to play at The Home Depot Center in 2007, and the New York Red Bulls followed with former Barcelona FC stars Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry performing in Red Bull Arena last season.

The Galaxy and Red Bulls generated global attention with those moves, but both fell short of a championship season.

Then there is corporate backing. The expansion Vancouver Whitecaps became the league’s leader in sponsorships, and also met their season-ticket cap (16,500) before playing an MLS game. The Whitecaps are expected to be part of a revived rivalry involving another newly admitted team, the Portland Timbers (who capped out at 12,000 season tickets), and the Seattle Sounders, who have sold out every regular-season match at Qwest Field (36,000 capacity) since joining the MLS in 2009.

“We had a lot of years with a lot of consistency making the playoffs,’’ Burns said recently. “Last year was a big disappointment for everyone — players, coaches, fans. Obviously, we want to play well and have a good season this year and compete for the championship. That’s our goal and it’s always been the case.

“If you look at any team in any sport, it’s extremely difficult — especially in a salary cap league — to remain on top and be consistent for decades upon decades. We fell off last year. But if you told us we would be guaranteed of making the playoffs eight out of nine years, we would have signed up for that, because making the playoffs gives you a chance of winning the championship.’’

A harder task Burns has been involved first-hand as MLS evolved from a 10-team start-up in 1996, performing for the Revolution as a defender, then becoming an administrator in 2005.

“When we started, 80 percent of the teams made the playoffs,’’ Burns said. “It was more difficult not to make it in than it was to miss the playoffs. Now, it’s gone the other way and it’s more challenging to make the playoffs.’’

The Revolution, who play their first game at Los Angeles Sunday, have gone from a roster overflowing with talent to one that was passed over during the expansion draft.

Last season, the Revolution slumped to a 9-16-5 record. It was a struggle, as all-time leading scorer Taylor Twellman failed to recover from a 2008 concussion, announcing his retirement after the season, and captain Shalrie Joseph missed five games while participating in the league’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.

Joseph, among the more consistent and dynamic performers in MLS history, had missed key stretches of the season during previous Revolution runs, but until recently the team always had enough depth to compensate. And coach Steve Nicol not only had been able to develop relatively unknown performers such as Joseph and Clint Dempsey, but he also guided the team to peak performances heading into the postseason.

None of the Revolution’s formulas for success worked last year. An attrition rate caused by losing players to expansion, injury, retirement, unproductive trades, and transfers to European clubs finally caught up to the Revolution.

A bit short? During the offseason, personnel moves were made that could return the team to playoff contention. But the Revolution appear to be a couple of players short of matching the achievements of 2002-07, when they reached the MLS Cup final four times.

“It’s a disappointing year if we don’t make the playoffs,’’ Joseph said. “The whole year went down the drain and you feel like the whole season was a waste of time. This year, we can’t afford that. We expect to be in the MLS Cup every year. We put in the work, go through ups and downs, and somehow find our way into the playoffs. Last year, we fell short, but we are putting in the work to get back in.’’

But Joseph said “some days you smile because you have great players around you and some days are a headache.’’

The Revolution’s hope of adding a DP apparently has been postponed until the next transfer window, following the end of the European seasons in June. Meanwhile, Joseph and goalkeeper Matt Reis remain the strongest on-field links to past success, both with the team since 2003.

The hope is for players such as Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, both 21, who joined the team for the playoff run in 2007, to reach their potential and for the emergence of young defenders Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes, and newcomers Ryan Cochrane, Franco Coria, and AJ Soares. Versatile performers such as Zak Boggs, Pat Phelan, and Chris Tierney provide dependability. But for the Revolution to avoid mediocrity, big years will be needed from foreign veterans Ousmane Dabo, Didier Domi, Marko Perovic, and Ilija Stolica.

Commitment there Yet, the Revolution’s fortunes also are being determined by off-field activities — and non-activities. The search is on for a building site and an international star — the Kraft family has committed to constructing a soccer-specific stadium, likely in the Boston area, and also has approved a budget that will include designated players.

But, for now, the Revolution will present a roster worth about $3 million in salary, compared with the $15 million payrolls of the Galaxy and Red Bulls. And, while businesses race to pour funds into other MLS teams, the Revolution still are seeking a shirt sponsor.

“Boston is similar to New York, it’s a very mature market as it relates to development, and there’s just not that many places that you can build a stadium,’’ MLS commissioner Don Garber said last week.

“And if you are going to build it, there is little to no public money available. It was pretty easy in Kansas City when they were presented with a $150 million check to build LiveStrong Sporting Park.

“I do believe, long term, that the Krafts are very committed to getting a stadium done. I do believe it’s not an if, it’s a when, and I look forward to it happening.

“I’ve told the Krafts on numerous occasions that if they were able to build a downtown stadium in Boston it would be Seattle in terms of its excitement and its success.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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