Jay Heaps wants his players and team to be so much better than he was

The 2014 New England Revolution are a fun, skillful, reckless team that like to score goals. It’s led by a classic No. 10 in Lee Nguyen, and anchored by Jermaine Jones, an all-action midfielder who personifies the soccer context of the term “swashbuckling.”

The Revs don’t much mind getting dragged into shootouts, and – if we’re really being honest – they don’t defend all that well. But despite that, they’ve conquered half of Major League Soccer and are set to meet the fearsome LA Galaxy in Sunday’s MLS Cup final.

That a group with those characteristics is coached by Jay Heaps is a bit of a contradiction, though it takes a bit of MLS history to understand the dissonance held in those four sentences.

Heaps was a dependable performer over his 11-year pro career, one whose teams usually contended for trophies. A two-sport athlete and Hermann Trophy winner (the annual award given to college soccer’s best player) at Duke University, he played for legendary Blue Devils basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski before moving on to MLS, where he became the archetype of a “lunchbox guy” – a solid but unspectacular defender at the professional level.

Someone with grit and resolve who made the utmost of his natural abilities, Heaps didn’t hesitate to grab a jersey or land a sly kick to slow down opposing attackers. He was functional, not the type you’d expect to someday orchestrate a wide-open maelstrom like this current Revs vintage.

Heaps takes down Beasley

“I’m completely offended by that comment!” Heaps deadpanned when I asked him about that dissonance. “I’ve said it a million times: I want players to be [many] times better than I ever was. What I brought to the game was a workmanlike attitude. I’d give everything I could to the game, which I still think you need in players. But I want that player, plus the technical ability that we have.

“In MLS, the game is getting so much better than it was five, 10, 15 years ago. I saw that progression … I want my teams to be better than the teams I was on, because I think we can be. We have better players.”

After he called time on his playing career in 2009, Heaps put that Duke education to use by going to work for Morgan Stanley, managing the portfolios of highly wealthy investors. Though he did a bit of color commentary on Revs TV broadcasts, he appeared to be a natural in the white-collar world. So it was surprising to some when he swung his career arc back towards soccer by tossing his hat in the ring for the Revolution’s vacant head coaching position in 2011.

“I didn’t have a ton of head coaching experience and didn’t have any professional-level experience,” said Heaps, who was just 35 at the time. “So they took a risk, and I was happy they saw beyond experience. They saw what my vision was, what I was trying to go for.”

Heaps set about revamping a team that had stagnated after the salad days of four Eastern Conference championships in six years from 2002-07. He believed he could use unsexy mechanisms like the SuperDraft, trades and the Revs youth academy to build a contender without splashing the cash like the MLS heavyweights in Seattle, New York and LA.

“I knew the current team so well, I’d done TV for three years. I was a big believer that there were pieces of that team that were really strong,” he said, recounting his pitch to the Kraft family, the Revolution’s cost-conscious ownership. “I’m not coming in here just to blow it up. I’m coming here to enhance and work with what’s here.

“Those players can make the jump to what I wanted to do.”

New England Revolution v D.C. United

His players describe him as an intense, well-prepared leader who runs “sharp and short” training sessions demanding both mental and physical diligence.

“One day last year in practice, we were doing set pieces the day before [a game] and someone was not focusing,” recalled defender Andrew Farrell. “Jay kind of freaked out. We didn’t even know who had done it. I think someone was just talking while he was talking, in the background. He’s very focused in trying to get his message across and when one person doesn’t listen, he doesn’t like that.”

The midseason signing of Jones as a Designated Player is widely credited with pushing the Revs over the top. But the foundation for this year’s championship-hunting squad was largely built with local products and castoffs, players who’d been underrated or fallen out of favor elsewhere.

Exhibit A: Nguyen, a marquee offseason acquisition for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2012 who found himself exiting British Columbia as quickly as he arrived after his fleeting but regrettable use of a homophobic slur on Twitter compounded doubts about his place within the team.

Heaps knew of Nguyen’s abilities via his old Revs colleague Pat Noonan, a college teammate of Nguyen’s at Indiana, and soon the playmaker was in New England colors via the MLS “waiver draft.”

“I just jumped on it … knowing there was value there,” said Heaps of Nguyen, who finished in third place in the 2014 MLS MVP vote. “So he wasn’t a surprise to me, that he was going to be as good as he is. I knew he had a talent – I think he just had to find the right home.”

Heaps’ diverse mixture of coaching influences, combined with the nature of the players at his disposal, led to the Revs’ evolution into an incisive, forward-leaning team – one that won games in a variety of ways this year, but always seemed most comfortable with the throttle wide open.

“I’m an observer by nature,” he said. “I’ve seen other professional teams do it with different systems. It’s taking what you see, things that you’ve learned, spending time with certain coaches – not just soccer coaches.

“One of the most important things I learned at Duke basketball is the patterns – motion offense when I was playing college basketball was fluid as heck. It was knowing when to screen, when to move off the ball. Those things came by continuing to work on patterns, on spacing. And those things are really important in the game of soccer. You put all that together and try to get the player you know can do it. And that’s kind of where we are.”

Chris Snitko #1

Heaps says he’s learned from Krzyzewski, but also from Steve Nicol, the Revs’ longtime Scottish coach, and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, the NFL team that shares a stadium and ownership with the Revs. He also cites a more obscure influence: Ivo Wortmann, the globetrotting Brazilian who tutored him during his first two pro seasons at now-defunct Miami Fusion FC.

“I came from college, where you don’t spend a ton of time on movement, shape, those kinds of things, in soccer,” said Heaps. “He really broadened my perspective about the different styles of the world.

“His influence on me was, you can’t just say ‘We’re going to play like this.’ You’ve got to take the players you have and try to build a system around that. And I think that was huge.”

Now, barely three years into his own head coaching career, Heaps has steered his youngish team to within reach of a league championship without filing down too many of the rough edges that make them one of MLS’s most interesting teams. The Revs will be the underdogs on Sunday, but they’ll stand toe to toe with LA superstars Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan to give it a go.

“I really wanted to upgrade the technical ability of the team, the ability to play out of tough situations, where you can rely on two or three good passes, a good touch to take yourself away from pressure,” he said. “It wasn’t really a huge risk, but I felt it like was calculated in that we knew, for us to be as good as we can, we have to play a certain way.

“We put ideas in play, but the players are the ones that are creating it.”

Photo credits, top to bottom: DaMarcus Beasley of the Chicago Fire is taken down by Heaps during the MLS Eastern Conference Final game on Nov. 14, 2003 (Jonathan Daniel/MLS via Getty Images); Heaps watches play against D.C. United op Sept. 15, 2012 (Ned Dishman/Getty Images); Chris Snitko misses from Heapsat Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., June 10, 2000 (Eliot J. Schechter /Allsport)