MLS Spotlight: 'Mr. Dependable' Rowe earns USA chance with consistency and versatility

Patrick Gorski
The versatile Revs star has excelled in multiple positions this season, earning plaudits from his coach and teammates and a potential U.S. call-up

Fans of the United States national team might have a new name to learn in the near future.

They’ll also have to get used to checking the matchday XI to see where he’ll be lined up.

This season, Kelyn Rowe has been just about everywhere on the field for the New England Revolution, from the top of a midfield diamond, to the base and shuttled in between. He’s even lined up at fullback, both left and right, where he delivered one of the best assists of the season to earn his team a point at iconic Yankee Stadium.

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Far from a jack of all trades but master of none, Rowe has played each position well enough to land a spot on the USA’s 40-man provisional roster for the Gold Cup. It also earned him a nickname from teammate and club captain Lee Nguyen.

“He’s gotten more and more consistent and I’d say he’s ‘Mr. Dependable,’” Nguyen told Goal. “He’s been asked to play multiple positions this season. You plug him in and he does the job.”

Nguyen isn’t alone in his plaudits.

“Kelyn’s been excellent,” Revolution coach Jay Heaps told Goal. “He’s clearly been versatile for us. He’s played a couple of different positions, but he’s been very consistent in those performances.

“Every week he’s putting in a good shift going forward and defensively.”

Fullback isn’t where the 25-year-old Rowe started his journey in MLS and it isn’t necessarily where he’d like to finish it. The former USA Under-20 player and UCLA standout was taken No. 3 overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft to play in the midfield, where he's most comfortable. 

“If I could play anywhere it would be somewhere in the middle of the park,” Rowe told Goal. “I enjoy making tackles and finding things off the forwards when they win a turnover of some sort, so I actually enjoying being a box-to-box midfielder, no matter how much running it actually is.”

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The numbers back that up. To this point of the season, Rowe has amassed 49 tackles, the best on the team. He’s also had a success rate of just over 81.6 percent when going in for tackles, which is in the Revs’ top three.

Rowe ranks second to Nguyen in chance creation, with 24, has three assists thus far in 2016, and can deliver dangerous crosses – having connected on 32 percent of them, again good for top three on the team.

But soccer remains a numbers game, and the numbers aren't all in Rowe's favor. 

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The Revs have a lot of midfielders and attackers, and it can be a struggle to get them all on the field at the same time. Which is why Rowe will sometimes see himself pushed into the unfamiliar role of fullback.

While it’s a role he is determined to learn, playing at the back involves a different sort of preparation. Instead of focusing on how to beat opposition midfielders, he has to analyze how to defend them. Risks have to be managed in a different way, and Rowe knows he could end up the last man back and that a single mistake could result in a goal.

Rowe’s has the benefit of a strong coaching staff to help him – Heaps was a defender himself – and often looks to the bench during games for pointers on how to handle the position.

“I’ve watched a lot video of myself," Rowe said. "Chris Tierney and I’ll go even further and watch guys like Marcelo and Dani Alves. I try to learn the positional things – when do they go forward when do they not go forward – and defensively, where their positioning is.

"Just because you need to get to know each position as much as you can. In a pinch, I could be there, I might as well be prepared for it rather than scrambling.”

Kelyn Rowe playing surface

The work he puts in has impressed Nguyen.

“You see so many guys who, when put into [an unfamiliar] position, they don’t want to play it, they don’t want to learn it or they think they know it,” Nguyen said. “But he’s willing to learn it and take the good with the bad. He knows he’s not the best at it but he wants to be the best at it.”

Even if he’s not the best at it, the former Bruin has made the best of his time at the back. Two of Rowe’s three assists have come in starts there. Both games resulted in road draws for the Revolution – two of only three points the club has picked up away from home this season.

But while his success at fullback this year might make you wonder why the Revolution don’t just leave him there, a look at his June 3 performance against Toronto FC can shed light on why Heaps thinks he works best centrally.

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Lined up underneath Kei Kamara, Rowe didn’t get a goal or an assist in the 3-0 win. But he did nearly everything else, creating four chances, completing all three of the tackles he attempted and racking up seven interceptions and four recoveries. It was the type of all-around performance that can help a midfield control a game.

Those types of outings are part of the reason Rowe may finally get an opportunity with the senior national team, something Heaps said is “long overdue.”

For his part, Rowe doesn’t think his job is anywhere near complete and, rather than adding pressure, the drive to be an international player acts as a motivator.

“It’s a very big honor but I need to make the 23, then the 18, then the 11,” Rowe said. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do.

“They liked the way I played up to this [point] and if I keep playing that [way] it’s going to be a positive. For me it’s about doing the same thing I have, if not better. It pushes me forward every day to keep working.”

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Rowe is listed on the U.S. roster as a midfielder, and says he hasn’t had any conversations with the coaching staff about where he would slot in, should he make the final 23-man group for July’s tournament. But Heaps believes his versatility is a huge asset when it comes to his chances of making the team.

“[Versatility] got him back on the radar,” Heaps said. “You look at midfield, outside back and in the course of one game he can play both positions, it makes a coach’s job a lot easier, especially when you’re filling out a roster and trying to compete internationally.”

While his ability to shift around the field has helped get him a look with the national team, both Heaps and Nguyen agree that the way Rowe will stay there is through strong performances with the Revolution.

“If shows he can be ‘Mr. Consistent’ on the club level he should be able to do it on the international level,” Nguyen said, with Heaps adding that national team boss Bruce Arena always looks for players doing well for successful clubs, as “winners are contagious.”

Working to maintain that level of play is not a question for Rowe. Despite the success and plaudits from his coaches and teammates, he’s his own harshest critic, lamenting his lack of a goal this season despite often being further from the area than at any point in his career.

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“I think I’ve gotten a little better at being more consistent, both defensively and offensively – creating chances as well as getting stuck in – and making sure I’m positionally sound,” Rowe said. "I’ve improved some parts of my game defensively.

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“I’m just waiting for that offensive burst to come through.”

When it does, the beneficiaries of "Mr. Dependable" may not just be the Revolution, but the U.S. national team as well.