Inside MLS season preview: New England Revolution
Last year in a nutshell: This engaging, youthful side rode a miserly defense and neat work in possession to the club's first playoff berth since 2009.
(as of February 27)
Incoming: GK: Brad Knighton (Vancouver); DF: Jossimar Sanchez (UConn); MF: Paolo DelPiccolo (Montréal), Daigo Kobayashi (Vancouver), Steve Neumann (Georgetown), Alec Sundly (California); FW: Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), Charlie Davies (Randers/Denmark), Patrick Mullins (Maryland)
Outgoing: GK: Matt Reis (retired); DF: Bilal Duckett (Charlotte Eagles), Tyler Polak (unattached); MF: Ryan Guy (unattached), Clyde Simms (retired), Juan Toja (unattached); FW: Juan Agudelo (FC Utrecht/Netherlands via Stoke City/England), Chad Barrett (Seattle), Matt Horth (Leiknir Reykjavik/Iceland)
Key Player: No Revolution player exerts his impact on and off the field quite like José Gonçalves does. The reigning Defender of the Year played every minute of every MLS match last season for a team in desperate need of a consistent, veteran presence in its back four. Gonçalves provided that steady rock and then stamped his imprint on the team with his imposing displays in the middle of the back four. His influence extended off the field as he assumed an important role in the locker room and quickly earned the captaincy. The former Portuguese youth international found himself embroiled in a contractual wrangle during the offseason, but he cannot afford to let those concerns affect his concentration.
Strengths: Revolution coach Jay Heaps has carefully constructed a coherent and cohesive team from back to front. Gonçalves leads one of the better defensive groups in the league. The back four blends physical and technical attributes well with Gonçalves covering up any missteps with his superior anticipation, closing speed and strength on the ball. Most of the midfield work – and this is a nominal 4-1-4-1 setup with the wide players operating in a hybrid winger/forward role – is deft and technical in nature. Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe keep the ball well and move it intricately toward the front. Rowe, in particular, also offers a threat to score from distance. Diego Fagundez flourished last season because he found space in wider areas and tested opposing defenders one-versus-one. The positioning of those wider players allows for tidy combination play in the attacking half. Teal Bunbury – the expected starter in the center forward role, at least at the outset – can link the play well enough to ensure those sequences do not fritter out in the final third.
Weaknesses: Most of the focus during the offseason fell on the uncertainty up top. Bunbury's arrival during training camp provided a viable option, but Jerry Bengtson (not a fit for the system) and Dimitry Imbongo (not prolific enough) aren't long-term solutions if he doesn't pan out. The midfield group lacks a bit of bite and presence on the whole, a problem against more robust sides capable of breaking up the game and stopping them from playing. Any injury to Gonçalves would impact the defensive area significantly. And the goalkeeping position is a bit uncertain heading into the season with two capable starters – Brad Knighton and Bobby Shuttleworth – vying for the chance to replace Matt Reis. If neither player can keep the shirt for an extended period of time, then the defensive efforts could suffer accordingly.
PROSPECTS FOR 2014
● Will it take one or two goalkeepers to replace Matt Reis?: The veteran Revolution number one retired after last season and left former backups Knighton (after a trade from Vancouver) and Shuttleworth to vie for the job. Both men boast enough of a track record to lay claim to the number one job. Heaps said he knows how he wants to go with the position entering the final stages of preseason, but he also noted that the initial starter isn't guaranteed the berth for the entire season. One of the two candidates will need to emerge as the choice over the long-term to ensure any rotation policy does not lead to instability in the defense.
● Who will fill the number six role?: Scott Caldwell earned most of the reps in the wake of Kalifa Cisse's hasty exit earlier last year, but Andy Dorman emerged as the first choice in time for the postseason. Neither player quite constitutes the ideal solution in that department, though. New England searched for an alternative during the winter to reinforce the options in this department without actually landing one. The inability to supplement the existing choices leaves Caldwell as the front-runner to operate from the deep-lying position, but his presence in that spot places an onus on others to assert a more combative approach when required.
● Is Bunbury capable of leading the line?: New England benefited from the domestic last season by snatching impending free agent Juan Agudelo from Chivas USA. Agudelo played a critical role in the Revolution's postseason chase with his clever work in combination and his precision inside the penalty area. Heaps will expect a similar contribution from Bunbury after freeing him from a likely reserve role with Sporting Kansas City. Bunbury isn't quite as polished as Agudelo, but he must show he can function as a number nine in a system that places considerable demands on its center forward to participate in the buildup play and then finish it off accordingly. Expect further competition to eventually arrive to provide an alternative.
Best case scenario: The growth curve continues its upward trend. The young players all benefit from the playoff chase a year ago and produce accordingly. Fagundez and Rowe transform into genuine stars. Gonçalves proves worthy of every cent paid out on his deal. And the Revs make a sustained charge toward the top of the Eastern Conference and a place in MLS Cup.
Worst case scenario: Last year looks more and more like a mirage as this season progresses. The goalkeeping battle produces few answers, Gonçalves drops off from a year ago and the defense starts to crack accordingly. The deft sequences through midfield are harder and harder to find as opposing teams prevent the Revs from playing. No one in house can replace Agudelo or supply the necessary goals to lead the line. All of those factors lead the Revs to miss out on the postseason and wonder how their progression deviated so far from its expected track.
2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS