In the space of 48 hours, two events demonstrated what appears to be part of coach and sporting director Bruce Arena’s long-term vision for the Revolution.
The first came on July 3 when the Revolution’s U-19 academy side made a remarkable run through the MLS NEXT Cup with a 1-0 win over the San Francisco Glens in the final, the first national academy history title.
The second happened on July 5 when New England officially announced the signing of striker Giacomo Vrioni from Italian club Juventus on a Designated Player contract.
Both events hint at a next-level strategy that Arena and Revolution technical director Curt Onalfo has been considering – and working to implement – since his arrival three years ago.
Essentially, the club’s goal is to create an endless cycle of player development. With the academy victory and the signing of Vrioni, a promising 23-year-old European goalscorer, it looks like the strategy is starting to come together.
Of course, Arena and his team have been developing young players since their first takeover. The most experienced coach in league history received a list three seasons ago that included an array of former MLS draft picks, the most experienced coach in league history showed that he could coax the best of players who had previously only shown their potential.
Winger Tajon Buchanan has gone from a fringe player – selected ninth overall in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft as a gifted but raw prospect – to one of the most dynamic talents in the league.
The problem for Arena and the Revolution, who face New York City FC on Saturday, is that just as Buchanan became a game-changer, the larger forces of the global football economy began to take effect. Sure enough, halfway through New England’s historic regular season in 2021, it was announced that the Canadian winger had agreed to join Belgian Club Brugge from 2022.
Buchanan’s story has shown that it’s not enough to just develop a single wave of players. The other half of the process is that New England must constantly be on the lookout for the next Buchanan, whether in the draft, the academy or elsewhere.
Speaking to the media earlier this week, Onalfo explained the team’s development philosophy citing 19-year-old Rhode Island native Damian Rivera, an academy graduate who made his first-team debut last season. and scored his first MLS goal in April.
“At his age, if he comes from Uruguay or Argentina, he is a player who would be bought into our league for three to five million dollars,” Onalfo said. “It’s just the reality of the situation and it’s someone who has come through our system. So we just want to keep pushing the bar so that there are more of these types of players who can come into the first team, achieve success and help win games.
“And in the process, if the players are sold, they’re sold,” Onalfo added, “but we want to make sure that we’re robust enough that when that happens we have the next player that’s here, because every Once you sell a player, you have to replace that player and that’s not always an easy task.
Player substitution has been a defining feature of the Revolution season so far. The departures of Buchanan, forward Adam Buksa and goalkeeper Matt Turner generated $24 million in transfer revenue, but no guarantee of future success for the club.
In response, Arena signed young players like 20-year-old winger Dylan Borrero, 22-year-old goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic and now Vrioni. Both Borrero and Petrovic have already contributed, a stark contrast to veteran offseason rookies like centre-back Omar Gonzalez or striker Jozy Altidore, who haven’t been particularly productive.
Arena denied wanting to build a team exclusively made up of promising young players. He remains determined to try to win in the short term as well, explaining at a recent press conference that “I don’t believe having three U-22s [Designated Players] is the way forward for our club at the moment.
But Arena said the club’s recent success in helping promising players reach their potential has helped its recruitment pitch.
“We can sell them the fact that we now have a history as a club where we develop players and transfer players to Europe if that is their ambition,” he said.
Still, the long game remains to be played as far as academy players are concerned. Despite recent MLS NEXT Cup success, the Revolution has only four homegrown players on the senior team roster (none of whom are regular starters). For Arena’s vision to truly become a reality, it will take more time, more investment, and a lot more development.