"Vicious" press campaign led Stapleton to quit

 

HIS team was one of only two which did not reach the play offs in Major League Soccer's inaugural, season he endured a season long battle with the club's star player and a running feud with some of its more vocal supporters. In the end, however, it was what he perceived as a "vicious" media campaign and the effect it was having on his family that led Frank Stapleton to tender his resignation as coach of the New England Revolution last week.

"I just don't need any more pressure put on my family," said Stapleton. "I'm trained to deal with this stuff, but just because you're married to a footballer doesn't mean she (wife Chris) can cope with it. Your kids and your family are not immune. I tried to keep them away from it as much as possible, but .

In a 17 year professional career at Arsenal, Manchester United, and Ajax, Stapleton thought he had endured the best the English tabloid press could dish out, but, he said this week, on a personal level, this was even worse. I don't expect not to be criticised, but this became an ongoing situation. It was as if there was a rivalry between the Boston papers to see who could be the most vicious."

Indeed, the soccer correspondents from both Boston dailies, the Herald and the Globe, had called for his head well before the season ended, and he has waged an unseemly, summer long public squabble with popular Revolution defender Alexi Lalas.

"I place a lot of the blame for this on myself," said Revolution owner Jonathan Kraft, who desperately attempted to talk Stapleton out of his decision

We put Frank in an incredibly difficult situation by hiring him just three days before the combines. By the time he came on board every other coach in the league had a say in determining his allocated players, but Frank had to play the hand he was dealt. We actually handcuffed him."

Only when his team, opened its pre season training camp in Florida last March did Stapleton discover that Italian striker Guiseppe Galderisi, supposedly his most experienced player, had not seen action since the previous September and was tar from match fit. After several unproductive games, Galderisi was placed on waivers and sent packing in early May, a move which was immediately met with a storm of protest from Lalas, Galderisi's friend and former team mate from Padova in Italy's Serie A.

Even as Lalas sulked, Galderisi was eventually claimed by the Tampa Bay Lighting, and played productively as that team finished with the best regular season record. In the meantime, the Revolution were utterly bereft of a proven goal scorer over the first half of the season, a situation which was so desperate that, at one time, there was serious talk of the 40 year old Stapleton playing himself.

In late July the gifted American international Joe Max Moore was signed from Nuremburg of the German Bundesliga, and scored 11 goals over the final 14 games.

Stapleton had also become increasingly frustrated by the level of commitment Lalas was displaying in club matches. (Those who witnessed Lalas' gritty mano a mano Foxboro duel with Niall Quinn in June's US Cup match, three days after a display of sublime indifference in a Revolution game on the same pitch, glimpsed the situation in microcosm.)

In addition to his frequent absences when called to national team duty, Lalas successfully lobbied his way onto the US Olympic team as one of the over 23 additions - against the wishes of Stapleton.

"I think (Lalas) had expected to have a say in how the team would be run, and once he saw early - on he wasn't going to be able to influence things the way he wanted, he couldn't wait to get out of town," said Stapleton. "He couldn't wait to get away to the national team, and he couldn't wait to get off to the Olympics. His attitude in training was diabolical, and he didn't work on any aspect of his game."

Matters came to a head in mid August, when Stapleton benched Lalas down for a televised game against the New York MetroStars at Giants Stadium. A television audience watched America's most visible soccer player sulk on the benefactor 90 minutes as his team lost 4-1. While Lalas was subsequently returned to the line up (after some gentle nudging from the front office, Stapleton later revealed), apologised for his behaviour ("I've been acting like a jerk," he admitted), and did perform with renewed vigour thereafter, two days after the season ended he had lunch with the Herald and Globe soccer writers and informed them that if Stapleton returned to the Revolution next year, he, Lalas, would not.

The Revolution proceeded to stumble to the wire, losing their last three games outright to finish with a 15-17 record. In the end, the club could have reached the play offs by winning its last game against the Columbus Crew. They lost 1-0, on a goal, ironically enough, conceded when a cross slipped underneath Lalas' foot.

A crowd of over 38,000 turned out for the finale. Despite its shortcomings on the field, the Revolution finished third in MLS attendance.

Inevitably, Stapleton's resignation has been interpreted elsewhere as a victory for Lalas, although the player himself declined to gloat afterwards. In Stapleton's own view, it had more to do with his young sons being taunted at school over what they were reading in the papers.

"If I have a regret, it's that we didn't give the fans what they wanted and deserved," said Stapleton as she took his leave. "There were times when they could have come down on us, but they stuck behind us. I've played all over the world, and without a doubt the (Foxboro) crowd was the best I've ever been involved with."

Asked where the search for a successor might lead, Kraft said, "I'd like to find a guy with all the qualities of Frank Stapleton."