When Mike Burns surveyed what had happened to the New England Revolution during the 2011 season, he knew major changes would need to take place.
The team had failed to reach the playoffs for the second year in a row, compiling just five wins in 34 games. The squad needed off-season reinforcements if it hoped to play the fast, attacking soccer MLS demanded and turn the club into a winning, championship-caliber team.
Burns, a native of Marlborough who played for the Revolution from 1996 to 2000, inherited much of the blame for the team’s performance in 2011, plus its inability to also make the playoffs in 2010 and 2012. As the former vice president of player personnel and current general manager, he has been tasked with managing the roster and player salaries and, in a league where few teams have scouting departments, help replenish and enhance the product on the field.
The lowest points for player quality were in 2010 and 2011, when the Revolution struggled weekly to control games; they set records for most goals allowed and least goals scored. Talent that left the Revolution like Jeff Larentowicz accused the club of undervaluing its players. Burns signed off on deals to bring in players like Joseph Niouky, who were completely outclassed in MLS, and let go of talents like Seth Sinovic, now one of the league’s best left backs, for nothing.
“You try to get more right than wrong,’’ said Burns in an interview at Gillette Stadium when asked about some of the controversial transactions during his tenure. “If you look at any GM in MLS or any GM in any sport, there’s going to be some trades or acquisitions that you say ‘maybe that one that wasn’t so smart.’ Then you have other ones that work out pretty well.
“I’m not naïve enough to think that every single trade I’ve signed off on has been perfect, but you try to get more right than wrong and you live with it. When they work out well, there’s no time to pat yourself on the back. When they don’t, you have to continue to move on.’’
Shortly before Jay Heaps was named coach in November 2012, Burns was promoted to general manager. But some Revolution supporters weren’t as enthusiastic about the change. A Facebook group called “Fire Mike Burns’’ was started in 2011 while another movement, “Boycott the Revs,’’ was founded in 2012 and has Burns in its crosshairs, asking the club to remove him from the front office in a press release. Members of both groups are small in number, though they foster a long-running narrative of being critical of the organization as a whole.
Burns is no stranger to criticism. He’s been steering clear of detractors since his playing days. At the 1998 World Cup, Burns failed to clear a header by Germany’s Thomas Muller that was hit almost directly at him off the goal line, the first of many scores and mistakes against the US in that tournament. He was benched at halftime and was sharply criticized by the media in the aftermath of the game. There’s even a YouTube clip of a soccer fan heckling Burns as he walks off the field at a game many months later, bringing up the World Cup gaffe. Burns’ error set the US back in the match, but he continued to earn the respect and praise from his coaches and teammates.
“He was a player coaches loved,’’ said Alexi Lalas, now an analyst for ESPN and a former teammate of Burns with the Revolution and at the 1998 World Cup, in a phone interview. “He was consistent. You knew what you were going to get. He was going to run through a brick wall for you.’’
In talking to Burns, one gets the sense that he doesn’t get distracted by things he can’t control. This was true in 1998, too. Rather than allow his mistake against Germany to influence his game, Burns returned to the starting lineup in the US’ third group game against Czechoslovakia, playing the full 90 minutes. And though the US played poorly in the tournament and suffered from internal team drama, it became clear that Burns was resilient and capable of bouncing back.
“He’s never tried to be something he isn’t, he’s been himself,’’ said Lalas. “I can’t say the same about myself, to be honest. He knows who he is.’’
The Revolution made the playoffs for the first time since 2009 last year and are in the midst of a Renaissance, thanks in part to their GM. Now in his third year at the helm, Burns has made a slew of key, worthwhile transactions. The way in which Burns and the Revolution have gone after new players has changed, with some of the moves he’s been able to pull off being a reason for the Revolution’s recent success.
Trading up in the 2013 Superdraft to take Andrew Farrell with the first pick has worked out, giving the Revolution defensive versatility and physicality. The signing of Juan Agudelo last May changed the trajectory of last season, adding a forward who could both hold the ball and score goals. And while the deal was a seemingly simple exchange of allocation money with Chivas USA, it would have been a dream for most general managers to accomplish, according to a league source.
“Mike is disciplined in regards to decision making,’’ said Ali Curtis, MLS’ Senior Director of Player Relations and Competition, who converses with Burns multiple times per week regarding potential trades and the roster in general. “Some general managers feel pressured on a daily basis to win on Saturday. If a GM is consumed by that pressure, you lose sight of other aspects of your business.’’
The turning point for the entire organization was in 2011 when the club essentially started from scratch, re-shuffling the front office and bringing in Heaps. In his introductory press conference, Heaps highlighted that he would use every mechanism at his disposal to acquire new players. Burns has helped him live up to that promise.
“They’re not going to get huge names,’’ Lalas said. “The way Mike has gone about signing players recently is interesting in and of itself. The team he’s gotten together and Heaps leading that is exciting. He’s done if differently and it’s out of necessity. It’s that ingenuity of being able to adjust and adapt even with limitations.’’
The Revolution are a creative team put together with mostly young players. Just five of their players are over 28. The veterans either have years of valuable league experience like Chris Tierney and Shalrie Joseph, or have competed against sophisticated international soccer like Jose Goncalves and Andy Dorman. The remainder is a group of dynamic, youthful players that should be part of the team’s core for a while.
“If you’re a young player, [you’re] given a chance here,’’ said Burns. “They’re given a chance to succeed. That’s all you can ask for ask as a player.’’
The Revolution’s identity as a young team has no doubt shaped the way they play and their success. They are, perhaps, the team in MLS that gets the most out of such an inexperienced group of players. There is outcry from some for the Kraft family to spend on the Revolution like they do for the New England Patriots, especially supplementing the skill of their players with a big name signing. But going after the David Beckhams isn’t the Krafts’ strategy and Burns has had to find new talent elsewhere.
“The Revs make us scratch our heads weekly,’’ said Lalas, referring to himself and Taylor Twellman, another former MLS player and ESPN analyst.
“The Revolution have a business plan they believe in. It has its fair share of critics. Part of being a good executive is recognizing what you need to do, picking and choosing your battles, and balancing what ownership wants to do with putting in moments of yourself. He’ll meet the challenges, but it will be within the framework of Kraft Soccer.’’
Both Burns and Heaps often tell the media that roster management is a 12-month long process and that they never stop looking for ways to better the Revolution. Meanwhile, Burns is aware of the critics, but chooses to focus instead on improving his hometown team.
“The critics are what they are, they’re always going to be there,’’ Burns said. “Sometimes I’m told what’s said, other times I’m not told what’s said. But I can’t do my job by spending too much time worrying or thinking about what other people are saying about me or the organization. Otherwise, I’m doing myself a disservice and I’m doing a disservice to the club.
“When the league started it was really important for me to be allocated here. To play here, to have my roots here, to work in the front office for 10 years…now as the GM, it’s meant a lot to me. I try to give it everything I have because it’s meant so much to me. It probably means too much, at times, to be honest. I take it very seriously and I want this organization to be as successful as possible.’’