John Kerr’s trade to Revolution sparks key Boston soccer role
NE Soccer Journal April 23, 2020
By the time MLS launched in 1996,
was already a decade removed from winning the MAC Hermann Trophy during his senior season at Duke.
Kerr, now entering his 13th year as the Blue Devils’ head coach, was also a decade into his professional playing career, one that was mostly spent in England, with brief stints also in France and Northern Ireland. The original North American Soccer League had folded in 1985, and well-paying, outdoor opportunities were hard to come by in the United States.
As the inaugural MLS season neared – America hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup came with the league as a pre-conditional requirement – Kerr recalls a conversation that accelerated his eagerness.
Then a midfielder with the U.S. men’s national team, Kerr was playing in England’s top flight for Millwall alongside American goalkeeper Kasey Keller and fellow ex-college star Bruce Murray. They all met Sunil Gulati (Cheshire, Conn.), long before his lengthy term as U.S. Soccer president, at the Hard Rock Cafe in London.
“Sunil was asking if we’re interested in the project, the start,” Kerr said. “All three of us said absolutely – maybe not as much Kasey because he was just starting his career and was a younger guy. But for us at the twilight of our careers, coming back to play in our home country was something we never got to do. When we were coming out, there was no outdoor league.”
What Kerr didn’t expect, however, was to be selected in the ninth round (83rd overall) by the Dallas Burn in the 1996 MLS Inaugural Player Draft.
“I didn’t realize it until after, and it made total sense once I figured it out, was the draft was different than the normal NBA or MLB or NFL draft,” Kerr said. “There were already price tags, meaning players were signed and they were all entered into a draft. It wasn’t just a draft from round one through whatever as based on ability. It was also based on the salary that was attached to you.
“I was perplexed and asking, ‘How could I be picked in the ninth round? Am I really that bad?’ It was because I was making more money as a veteran than someone coming out as a rookie.”
The Burn, now known as FC Dallas, were a solid team, one that made the Western Conference Playoff and U.S. Open Cup semifinals in 1996. Only Kerr wasn’t around for too long, and even requested a trade after learning that Hugo Sanchez would be joining the team. Sanchez, a Mexico national team all-time great, is seventh all-time in goals scored for Spanish super club Real Madrid.
“I was doing the math and was like, ‘I’m not going to get to play here,’” Kerr, 31 at the time, recalled. “At that stage, I talked to my wife about it and I said, ‘I only have a few years left and need to be playing. If I’m doing the odds, Sanchez is going to play.’ I didn’t want to be a bit-part player.”
So, Kerr became part of the first in-season MLS trade. The New England Revolution sent Zak Ibsen, a former UCLA defender, to Dallas, and Kerr shipped up to Foxboro, Mass. The setting was an ideal fit, since his wife’s parents are from Rhode Island and he fancied playing USMNT games at the old Foxboro Stadium.
There were also some friendly faces, with USMNT center back Alexi Lalas a marquee piece of those early Revolution teams. Lalas even picked him up from the airport that June.
“I think Alexi told the [general manager] I’ll go pick him up because he’s my teammate and I want to show him around,” Kerr said. “It was great. He gave me a big tour of Back Bay and where he was living at the time.”
Kerr’s first season with New England started well, and USMNT forward Joe-Max Moore arrived shortly after. But that partnership was derailed when Kerr tore his groin and needed surgery. Ultimately, his 1996 season with the Revolution included two goals and one assist in seven games.
Despite the setback, Kerr will always remember playing under head coach Frank Stapleton. One of Ireland’s best-ever forwards, Stapleton was close with Mick McCarthy, Kerr’s old manager at Millwall. That relationship worked in his favor, given their common backgrounds.
“It was fun to almost be an assistant coach to Frank,” Kerr said. “Coming from his environment to MLS with trades and waivers and draft picks, it was a lot to understand for someone who never arrived in America beforehand.”
Kerr enjoyed a better 1997 campaign with two goals and four assists in 19 games, and was appointed player-coach of the USL A-League’s Worcester Wildfire (later known as the Boston Bulldogs) in 1998 before retiring a year later. At the time, little did Kerr know that he was starting a defining decade in New England soccer.
He coached the men’s team at Harvard from 1999-2007, leading the Crimson to an Ivy League title in 2006. Kerr also served as the director of coaching of the Boston Bolts, succeeding former Boston College head coach Ed Kelly in that role. All the while, Kerr’s wife, Tracy, coached at Providence and Harvard.
“We still have tons of friends from there who we talk to regularly,” Kerr said of Boston. “It’s a place close to my heart, it’s a place where my three children were born and my wife played, coached some. I brought Steve Nicol to New England when I played and coached the Boston Bulldogs. I also brought Paul Mariner to Boston after playing with him in England at Portsmouth. He was in Arizona at the time and I brought him to be my Harvard assistant. I’ve got so many great friends and memories there.”
Nicol and Mariner, of course, coached the Revolution during their run of four MLS Cup trips from 2002-07. They also helped New England win the 2007 U.S. Open Cup title.
Nowadays, the Bolts are well-established as one of New England’s strongest clubs and are run by
, Kerr’s good friend. He even always has a Bolts player on his Duke teams, including former MLS midfielder
(Milford, Mass.) and current captain
(West Roxbury, Mass.).
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