The next few months offer a multitude of possibilities for Jerry Bengtson. Honduras is preparing for the World Cup. New England is searching for a striker to lead the line. He remains a candidate to play critical roles in both journeys.
Those enticing opportunities come with a catch: Bengtson will feature only if he can find a way to produce the goals his country has come to expect and his club so desperately wants to see after one-and-a-half frustrating seasons. He is a goalscorer first and foremost. His success or failure depends on his ability to convert in the final third. Without those precious goals, his dreams of a first World Cup appearance may disappear.
“It’s not pressure,” Bengtson told Inside MLS through a translator. “It’s more of a responsibility to do things right here and with the national team. If I do the right things here with New England and play minutes, then I’ll have a chance to get a spot with the national team.”
If only the paradigm were flipped the other way. Bengtson reveals his poaching abilities every time he dons the jersey with the large H on its chest. He owes his strike rate of roughly a goal in every other appearance to his own ability and the familiarity within a team well attuned to his strengths (creating and locating space inside the penalty area) and weaknesses (functioning deftly in the buildup).
Bengtson has struggled for the better part of two-and-a-half years to find the same cadence with the Revolution. His performances in MLS lack the same coherence and consistency, as if he is two different players when suiting up for club and country. His return of just three goals in 29 league appearances reflects the severity of the problems and shows why Revolution coach Jay Heaps used him sparingly during the season half of the season.
“It’s clear that he plays better for his country,” Heaps said. “We haven’t found the right rhythm for him. We’ve found our best way to attack, our best way to play. Jerry has to adapt to that, as we have to adapt to Jerry. Where does he get his goals from? When he’s in the game, how do we get service to him that he likes and that he feels are his strengths?”
Bengtson spent much of last season trying to improve his work in the buildup to earn more time in the Revolution’s fluid attacking setup.
The answers remain somewhat elusive. Bengtson spent much of last season trying to adjust his game to fit within the Revolution’s 4-1-4-1 setup. The approach – complete with two hybrid winger/forwards on either flank – encourages fluid attacking movement out of midfield, but its reliance on one central striker piles a significant burden on the lone forward to facilitate the play and hold the ball up accordingly.
Neither of those traits falls squarely within Bengtson’s previously cultivated abilities. He worked diligently on improving in those areas last season, but the results did not necessarily yield the intended benefits. His lack of production ushered him out of the team as Heaps preferred more effective all-around players – Juan Agudelo for his combination work and predatory instincts, Dimitry Imbongo for his robust target work – instead. Bengtson knows he must find a way to contribute in the buildup and convert when presented with opportunities in front of goals to rectify the situation this season.
“My main focus right now is trying to get better, not only with scoring goals but playing well with my team,” Bengtson said. “Things haven’t gone my way since I’ve been here, but I will give everything I have and work hard this season to help the team.”
Heaps said he believes Bengtson and his teammates must tweak their preferences accordingly when he steps on the field to ensure collective success. Bengtson, however, shoulders the greater burden to display his ability to coexist productively in the buildup and supply the finishing touch to those sweeping moves into the final third. Anything less could see him slip onto the periphery once again.
The importance of figuring out how to make it work isn’t lost on Bengtson. His preparations for the World Cup hinge on his ability to achieve a long-awaited measure of success with the Revolution. His place in the squad isn’t really in question barring another strop with coach Luis Fernando Suárez, but his spot in the lineup remains in some doubt.
Only the necessary sharpness for his club will guarantee his continued inclusion for his country. It is a paradigm Bengtson accepts and embraces as he strives to meet his objectives on both fronts over the next few months.
“Right now, I’m just working really hard to get a spot,” Bengtson said. “That’s the important part. I’m hoping that comes along with what I’m doing in New England. I have to work hard and do well here to get called back into the national team.”