Robert Kraft is renowned as a successful industrialist, generous philanthropist, staunch supporter of Israel and first and foremost, the proud owner of the New England Patriots, a club which has garnered six Super Bowl trophies in the past 18 years, thereby establishing itself as one of the most enduring dynasties in NFL history.
It is with his beloved Patriots that Kraft and his son Jonathan have invested their energy, football acumen and financial resources to ride the golden arm of Tom Brady to sustained greatness.
That said, the key role of head coach Bill Belichick, the hard-nosed, relentless pursuer of supremacy and disciplinarian par excellence in catapulting the Pats to the top of the NFL ladder cannot be minimized.
While the Krafts can bathe in the glory of their Patriots’ rings, it is a stark irony that the other team owned by the Krafts – the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer – has never captured the MLS Cup in the league’s 23-year history, although it has reached the finals five times, the last time in 2014.
Soccer in the US is considered, at best, the fifth most popular sport, well behind professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey in terms of fan attendance, TV ratings, gross revenues and media coverage. These factors all impact the market value of every MLS club.
In a practical sense, it is a given that the Krafts have spent a disproportionately small amount of their attention and financial resources on the Revs, and are noted for their trust in delegation of authority and responsibility for club management in the hands of the club’s longtime general manager, Mike Burns.
(In a dramatic turn of events, and with the Revs mired in last place of the MLS Eastern Conference, the Krafts fired coach Bart Friedel as well as the embattled Burns. Also, in a desperate effort to rekindle the team and reclaim its many thousands of long-suffering supporters who have stayed away from games, the Krafts signed veteran MLS, college and US national team coach Bruce Arena to fill both roles for the Revolution.)
Several weeks prior to Burns’s entry as the Revs’ technical director, in 2005, the team brought in Shalev Menashe, a young and promising Israeli midfielder deemed to be a major talent and destined for a great future, for a trial. Unfortunately, Steve Nicol, the Revs’ then head coach and a former teammate of the late Avi Cohen in Liverpool, released Shalev after several days of training on the basis that the team had a surplus of talented midfielders and could not accommodate Shalev.
In the weeks that followed, Burns remarked that although Shalev looked “pretty good,” his gut feeling was that Israeli soccer is “substandard” when compared with other European leagues and its players were not a good fit for the MLS.
While it is true that no Israeli football player has the requisite talent to play in the NFL with the Patriots, the same case cannot be made when it comes to Israeli soccer players and the Revolution.
Over the next several years, Burns was presented several of the most celebrated icons who have ever played Israeli soccer. Among those were Idan Tal, Arik Benado, Gal Alberman, Tal Ben Haim, Elyaniv Barda and Yossi Benayoun. In each instance Burns summarily rejected the player, commenting in a sardonic tone that the candidate was either too old, overpriced or was not a good fit for the Revolution. Considering the fact that these players collectively garnered more than 500 caps for the Israel national team and some have had successful stints in some of the top European leagues, Burns’s attitude can only be viewed as reflective of a covert bias which he held toward Israeli players.
The blanket exclusion of Israeli players by the Revs rested solely with Burns. It is mind-boggling to suggest that either Robert or Jonathan Kraft, whose ties to Israel and support of Israeli sports growth are unassailable, were consulted by Burns when the Israeli players were presented to the club, or that they acquiesced in his decisions. The only plausible conclusion is that the Krafts had ceded unbridled control to Burns to run the club’s soccer operations.
(Notably, at the co-impetus of Robert Kraft and Chelsea FC’s Jewish owner Roman Abramovich, who each donated $1 million to fight against the rising global spread of antisemitism, the Revolution hosted Chelsea last week in a ‘Final Whistle on Hate’ friendly as part of British soccer’s ‘Say No To Antisemitism’ campaign.)
Additionally, the Revs have been unduly stingy by seldom invoking MLS’s Designated Player Rule and its benefits, and this has left the club at a competitive disadvantage against some other teams, which have signed the maximum number of three designated players permitted under league rules.
Designated players can earn any amount and are not subjected to the maximum individual salary of approximately $500,000 which is allotted by the league to players who are not so designated.
The long dry spell of the Revs and its failure to win the coveted MLS Cup can be readily likened to that of the fabled Boston Red Sox, the baseball behemoth which dominated the sport in the first two decades of the 20th century with its capture of several World Series titles prior to the 1920 season, when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to their bitter rivals, the New York Yankees.
The move spelled a reversal of fortunes, whereby the Yankees soared to the zenith of the baseball world with numerous World Series championships, while the Red Sox endured a dry spell of 86 years until finally capturing a World Series title in 200 (they have since won three more World Series, including in 2018).
The lengthy drought and futility of the Red Sox over the barren 86-year period was dubbed “the curse of the Bambino” referring to the colloquial name of Babe Ruth. In a similar albeit exaggerated vein, one may cite the Revs’ failure to capture the MLS Cup since the inception of the league over 20 years ago as the “Burns curse,” arising out of his closed-door policy toward Israeli players.
Considered as one of the most successful coaches in US soccer history, it remains to be seen whether Arena can reverse the team’s fortune and finally capture the elusive MLS Cup, perhaps even by signing some of Israel’s top prospects.
The Krafts can only hope that someday soon their “other team” (the Revs) will join its sister Patriots as true champions, and at last bring New England some measure of soccer pride after two decades of sheer frustration.
Donald Barnett is an Israel Football Association player agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US, coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and has written a sports column for several Jewish publications.