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March 23. 2012 11:02PM

Nashua native Heaps ready to put Revs put on the map


Nashua native Jay Heaps, shown playing for the U.S. team during the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2009 in Foxborough, Mass., is the New England Revolution's new coach. The Revs play their home opener today. (US PRESSWIRE)

The New England Revolution make their 2012 home debut today at Gillette Stadium against the Portland Timbers, and coach Jay Heaps said he wants to make sure the attention of his players is on the game, not all the pomp and circumstance and excitement that typically surround home openers.

Heaps said he has been stressing to his players during their last few practices to focus their energy on the game and their opponent. He may want to remember his own advice.

You can understand if Heaps gets a little caught up with everything that will go into today's game (4 p.m., Comcast Sportsnet) in Foxborough, Mass. After all, this is his first game back at Gillette Stadium as head coach, a New England native (he was born in Nashua) leading New England's team during a time he acknowledges the Revolution need to re-energize a waning fan base.

The team's success on the field has been reflected in its attendance. The Revolution failed to make the MLS playoffs the past two years and the average attendance — which peaked at 17,580 in 2008 after the team's third straight trip to the MLS Cup — dropped under 13,000 in 2010 and was not much better last year.

“There's a certain group that is disgruntled right now,” Heaps said. “They're upset and it's our job to get it back to where it's been.”

To get it back, the Revolution turned to Heaps, who was as identifiable with the team as any player they had.

Heaps, who was introduced to the game by following his sister around to her youth soccer games in Nashua (he started playing after his family moved to Longmeadow, Mass., when he was 4), was a defender who spent the final nine years of his 11-year MLS career with the Revolution, retiring in 2009. No player has more years with the team.

He spent the past two years working in financial services and serving as an analyst for team broadcasts. He said there was always a desire to get back into the game, but he wasn't sure it would come so soon.

But when Steve Nicol was let go after 10 years as coach, Heaps was hired. He has never been a head coach before and his overall body of work as a coach is limited to a few brief stints as a college assistant and an internship with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (Heaps played soccer and basketball at Duke).

At 35, Heaps is also the second-youngest coach in the league. None of that stopped the Kraft family from turning to him.

MLS is at a relatively healthy point, having rebounded from a few down seasons shortly after the turn of the millennium.

“Over the last five years, I have seen this league explode,” Heaps said. “There was contraction, now there's expansion. It's pretty exciting.”

Turning to a person so closely associated with the team's past success is certainly good for public relations, but with such little experience, the decision to hire Heaps may turn out to be a boon or bust move for the Krafts.

The Revolution was 6-0-1 during the preseason, but started off the regular season with losses of 1-0 to San Jose and 3-0 to Sporting KC. Portland comes into today's match at 1-0-1.

The team tried other moves during the offseason, including the possibility of bringing in striker Charlie Davies of Manchester, who ultimately returned to his French club Sochaux of Ligue 1. Heaps said there was a much bigger move considered when the team pursued a high-profile international player along the lines of David Beckham or Thierry Henry. He wouldn't say who the player was, but he said the talks were serious.

That no such splash was made leaves Heaps as the club's biggest name. It's a challenge he said he's ready to take on.

Email Jim Fennell at jfennell@unionleader.com.


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