Metro recently spoke 1-on-1 with New England Revolution President Brian Bilello about what to expect for the 2014 season, increased attendance at Gillette Stadium, expansion in MLS and the team's recent uniform change. The Revs open their 2014 regular season Saturday, March 8 in Houston against the Houston Dynamo (8:30 p.m., CSNNE). Their home opener is Saturday, March 22 against the Vancouver Whitecaps (2 p.m., CSNNE).
Metro: The past few years the progress in terms of wins and losses has been notable. How would you define the current state of the Revolution entering 2014?
Bilello: I think we have a lot of momentum from the second half of last season until now. What we’ve tried to look for over the past couple of years is to get those momentum vectors going, to have positive momentum on the field with our players. We had a couple of years where we were really rebuilding large parts of the team. I think we felt going into this offseason, rather than having to do a much bigger overhaul, that there were some very specific areas that we wanted to address. I think with that, we feel very strong about the players we have, the team we have and frankly at this point feel good about some of the pieces we’ve added.
Metro: Attendance figures have been on the rise. How do you view the increases you’ve seen as they relate to the organization’s standing in the community? Are you sensing a surge in popularity?
Bilello: Yes, for many years now our attendance has grown. Last year we had over a quarter of a million fans at Revolution regular season games at Gillette Stadium, which is our biggest number in over a decade. So we certainly see that momentum and growth in all categories. Our season ticket sales, which is obviously at this time of year, are up 15 percent. We expect those to land somewhere around 20 percent up versus last year, so there’s obviously a big fan reaction to the team.
And also some of the marketing programs we’re doing. We’re trying to be a little bit more engaged in the community and I think both of those things are showing right now.
Metro: What is the uniform change for this year?
Bilello: Every single year we’ll do a kit change. This year it was our primary kit, our traditional navy blue kit, and next year we will change our alternate kit, our road kit. And then the year after that it will be the home kit, and so on and so forth. [This week] we had a jersey launch event. We showed off the new kit for the first time for our fans and it was a ton of fun. It was up at Royale in Boston, had a few hundred fans there, it was a great night. It was a little fashion show for the boys, so good times.
Metro: What are the alterations specifically?
Bilello: We tried to take a holistic approach of the whole kit, not just the jersey. Obviously the fans are most interested in the jersey itself because that’s what they end up buying but we have a really cool-looking combination of the jersey, which is traditional blue, and the shorts, which we switched out to white this year so there’s some contrast. The socks are blue with white stripes, which also look very cool. I think the overall package when you look at the player is really, really cool.
Metro: Any other alterations in the overall game experience for fans this year?
Bilello: There’s always off-the-field stuff we’re trying to do in the stadium. We’ll enhance our in-stadium app, which allows fans to watch replays from different angles and interactive-type gaming stuff they can do while they’re inside the stadium. We’ll enhance that a bit.
We’re doing some cool work with the game presentation with our new LED boards we have here at Gillette Stadium. And then probably the biggest thing we’re doing is specifically for our season ticket holders. We’ve moved to a card, electronic ticketing program, so rather than getting 17 tickets they’re getting a credit card-sized card and that’s their entry pass for every game and for other events we have for them.
As the year goes on and we feel comfortable with the program as it stands, we’ll start adding functionality and some cool amenities to people with the card.
Metro: Can you discuss some of the personnel changes and how the product will differ on the field this season?
Bilello: We hope the overall style of play isn’t going to differ much. We’ve kept that core of our attacking talent, good with the ball, good passers, and really we like guys that are one, good with their feet, and two, they know where the goal is.
There’s always a focus on attackers, the desire to get to the goal and that’s something that [head coach Jay Heaps] really preaches. So while we control the ball and like to have a lot of passing, it’s also passing with the goal of getting to goal and getting goals, rather than holding the ball and possessing it just for the sake of possessing it. I think there’s an important distinction there.
The key losses, the first one is obviously Matt Reis, the goaltender. Matt is truly a club legend, with the team though all the success we had in the previous decade in terms of going to the MLS Cup, winning the Open Cup and winning the SuperLiga tournament, so we’ll miss Matt on and off the field. That’s the one guy above all else that I will call out because of how much he meant to not only the team on the field but also the Revs community.
In terms of on-the field, Juan Agudelo is probably the other key loss we had. He was our starting forward for many of the games and I think we tried to address that in a couple of different ways. We’ve got some guys ready to step up for sure, but we did an acquisition for Teal Bunbury from Kansas City, who is a very similar role to Juan, and will take over that target forward role for us in our alignment. So I think we’ve addressed that.
We wound up getting two first-round draft picks this year so we drafted a kid named Steve Neumann and a kid named Patrick Mullins and both of them are attacking type players and I think they’ll integrate nicely into our system and what we’re trying to do.
And recently we traded for Daigo Kobayashi, who was with Vancouver last year, and again an attacking kind of midfield player, good with the ball, he likes to attack. I think where we are now we have a really defined style we like to play so we know the types of players we need and want and I think those are the guys we’ve gone after this year.
Metro: Switching gears to another big-picture item. It’s hard to have an MLS discussion without mentioning expansion. How do you view the overall health of the league compared to where it was 5-10 years ago?
Bilello: Five years ago I think the league was still in very good shape. I think compared to 10 years ago the league is in a very different place. I think the expansion that we’ve had, not only have we expanded but our expansion markets have pretty much all done very, very well for us. So you see these teams drawing 19,000 people, selling out their venues. The TV deals that are coming in have been very good for us. The types of players we’ve been able to attract to the league have been great. There’s just a lot of momentum in the league. We still have a long way to go. I always look at the US World Cup ratings for the US national team as kind of our gauge, and say, that’s today where we can be. That’s the soccer interest level. And that’s quite high. It generally outrates all the other major sports championships, other than the Super Bowl, and so there’s a very large number of people interested in soccer in this country and we’re getting more and more of those every year engaged with MLS, which is fantastic.
Metro: As one of the original franchises and one nestled in perhaps the most vibrant professional sports scene in the country, do you as an organization feel a sense of purpose or pride or even responsibility in matters as they relate to MLS, almost like a leader in the clubhouse?
Bilello: I think what’s interesting about being in MLS, I look at it personally, and I think my staff would say the same thing, is you have three responsibilities. You actually have a responsibility to the sport of soccer and helping it grow. And I don’t think any of the other four major sports teams feel that way about their sport. The sport of soccer itself still has a lot of growing to do. I think all of us feel an accountability to help the sport of soccer grow in our region.
Secondarily, you’ve got the league, helping our league be successful as it compares to other leagues around the world and the other sports leagues in the U.S., and I think we all feel that responsibility as well. And then finally, and primarily, to the Revolution, to our club and helping our club grow and our team be successful. So I actually think one of the things that’s unique about our league and our teams is we feel this accountability not just to make our team bigger in our regions, but our sport and our league.
Metro: Speaking of the Boston sports scene, where do things stand on any efforts to relocate to the city, especially in light of some of the recent changes to the casino front?
Bilello: I don’t have an update right now but it is something we’re definitely working on, we’re active on and is the primary thing that we’re working on off the field. The most important thing for the club is to get that soccer stadium built for us.
Metro: Can you describe the eagerness and excitement on the part of fans when that subject comes up?
Bilello: Both the fans and our organization, we’re all anxious. It’s a really important part of the program. It’s where a lot of the growth has come for the league and it’s something that is essential for taking our club to the next level and taking our sport to the next level in our market. It’s the most important thing and probably the thing that we are the most anxious about and our fans are the most anxious about.
Follow Tony Lee on Twitter @tonylee_vt