New England, Seattle rely on their cores to target MLS Cup

MLS Cup contenders Seattle and New England will complete Opening Weekend with a potential championship preview at CenturyLink Field (9:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go)

Trevor Ruszkowski

SEATTLE

The plans started from the moment New England coach Jay Heaps took charge of the Revolution three seasons ago.

Heaps knew it would take some time to build the team he wanted and needed. Constructing a core of players isn’t easy. It requires the right blend of personality and talent to create a team capable of winning consistently in MLS.

Those tenets were once commonplace in Foxborough back in the days when Heaps played under Steve Nicol and started regularly in a team led by a host of veteran figures. That group understood how to compete every week and how to slide into a position to win matches when it counted. The run of three consecutive MLS Cup appearances from 2005 to 2007 and triumphs in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga represented the considerable, if not entirely satisfying, payoff.

Slowly but surely, Heaps and the Revs assembled a team capable of meeting those standards once more. Steady, incremental progress followed until the arrival of Jermaine Jones last summer shifted everything into overdrive. The appearance in MLS Cup last December affirmed the success of those endeavors and underscored the strength of the fabric constructed.

The enduring value of that core is reflected in the expectations heading into this season. New England starts the campaign in Seattle on Sunday night (9:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go) as one of the favorites to lift MLS Cup as a result of the foundation now in place.

 “I think it’s huge [to have that foundation],” Heaps said before his team left for the Pacific Northwest on Thursday. “It’s something I talked about from Day One: building a core group of guys that you can rally behind and rely on from week to week. And then you add the pieces after that. Our core is really good. And our core is growing. I think we have an excellent core of 8, 9, 10 guys we rely on and then we’re adding pieces around it.”

As Seattle has shown with its consistent level of success under Sigi Schmid, there is a need to amend and tweak the composition to ensure freshness. Heaps followed suit this winter by adding Juan Agudelo back into the mix after a year in Europe and shifting Andrew Farrell into central defense to compensate for the departure of A.J. Soares.

Those alterations altered the dynamic without destroying the familiarity within the ranks. The covenant established by the stirring run to close last season (include a run of one defeat in the final 12 matches before entering the playoffs) persists through the relatively stability in the group. There is a keen appreciation for the tenets used to procure results by a side willing to close earnestly in the attacking half, obtain possession in good areas and punish the opposition with tidy combination play.

“There’s a confidence there,” Heaps said. “There’s a level of trust within our group of guys knowing that, in must-win situations, we can do those things to close out games and win games. But this year, it’s a longer season, and we’ve had a little bit of a different offseason in terms of it being shorter and a lot of elements that are factoring in. It’s important for us to maintain our focus.”

Sounders FC grasps the lesson all too well in its consistent and prolonged pursuit of a first MLS Cup appearance. The integral pieces of the team remain firmly in place heading into this season after winning the Supporters’ Shield and the Open Cup a year ago. So do the demands. The consistent brilliance of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, the potent impact of that streamlined attack capable of slicing teams apart in the middle of the field and the recurring playoff failures all ramp up the expectations in a market craving the ultimate success after four Open Cup titles since 2009.

“It’s a group of veteran guys and you know there’s no excuse to not do the same thing that we did last year and we hope to achieve even more,” Seattle captain Brad Evans said in an open letter to his supporters in the buildup to the opener. “With not much change, the first game is always the chance to establish the tone of the season and tomorrow we have a chance to do that.”

It is an opening both teams hope to take to start the campaign in the proper fashion. There is enough experience and nous to place the appropriate value on this glamorous fixture, a potential MLS Cup preview. The faces will change as the season progresses (New England will hope to welcome back Jermaine Jones sooner rather than later, for instance), but the principles remain the same. It is now down to the bedrock in both camps to ensure the carefully laid plans end with the ultimate success.