Although still technically only midway through his first season coaching at the professional level, Brad Friedel has been building toward this for while.
The New England Revolution boss starting pursuing his UEFA coaching license in 2011, when he was still playing goalkeeper for Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. Even before then, he had a hunch he wanted to coach once his playing days were over, and so watched those in charge with a critical eye.
“I was fortunate enough to have been coached by some very bright minds,” Friedel told ESPN FC this week in a phone interview, naming the likes of Graeme Souness and Mark Hughes at Blackburn Rovers and Martin O’Neill at Aston Villa. Mauricio Pochettino, now one of the hottest commodities in the game and who took over Spurs before Friedel’s last season as a player in 2015, “was an incredible influence on me.”
The distillation of lessons from all of those mentors is evident already in this Revolution team. Having missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, New England heads into Saturday’s home match against the LA Galaxy (7:30 p.m. ET; stream on ESPN+ via the ESPN app) four points above the cutoff line with a game in hand. The Revs boast the fourth-best goal differential in the loaded Eastern Conference of MLS, and are one win away from being in line to host a knockout-round game.
Whereas its opponent on Saturday night shuffled around a bunch of expensive pieces for only marginal improvement, New England has taken off despite maintaining much of the same core that underwhelmed in 2016 and ’17. Midfielder Wilfried Zahibo and forward Cristian Penilla have been savvy additions, and there was a decent amount of turnover around the edges, but this turnaround has come without any splashy, game-changing signings.
The changes Friedel has implemented have been subtle but impactful.
Shifting Diego Fagundez more into the middle has emboldened his playmaking tendencies. Teal Bunbury, the much-maligned former Next Big Thing with the U.S. national team, has gotten an extended chance at center-forward and responded with the most productive scoring run of his career. Matt Turner, a 24-year-old goalkeeper playing under the tutelage of one of the best Americans to ever man the posts, has been a revelation.
More than anything tactical, though, Friedel should be lauded for toughening up New England’s mentality. That isn’t to pile on former coach Jay Heaps, who led the Revs to the 2014 MLS Cup final and probably even overachieved at a club with limited investment and ambition. But it is to suggest that a fresh voice and perspective is sometimes necessary.
Whereas Heaps spent his entire playing career in the United States, Friedel was shaped by his nearly two decades in England. The two men necessarily see the sport, and the world, differently. Friedel described the Premier League as “ruthless” and “cutthroat”.
“If you won, you had a good week,” Friedel said. “If you lost, you had a terrible week. The players have to have that mentality, and we do. We are developing a sense of urgency here that losing is not acceptable.”
Complacency is always a threat in Foxborough. Gillette Stadium, less than a third full even on good days, is one of the least atmospheric venues in MLS. Even when the Revs are playing well (and especially when they’re not), this is a franchise that flies under the radar nationally. Under Friedel, who was focused and intense as a player and gives off a similar vibe as a coach, wavering commitment is less of a risk.
“I think it’s important that everyone’s style reflects on their own personality,” Friedel said when asked to define his style of coaching, “as well as the personality of your staff.”
One piece of advice he heard from his mentors has stuck with him: “Don’t try to be like anybody else. Be your own person.” All of them had been tested in the crucible of top-flight English soccer, where job security for coaches is practically nonexistent, but he says they all stayed true to themselves and to their values.
“When you look at styles and philosophy, the most important thing is having a committed group of players,” Friedel said.
It sounds so simple, but to this point in his tenure, such minutiae has made a big difference.