The New England Revolution’s 2013 season may not be as bad as many are predicting. They will not win MLS Cup or ever top the League in 2013, but it is possible the Revolution will make a respectable run for the playoffs, although whether they make the cut is uncertain.
It’s also possible that the team will repeat the past and implode early in the season, blaming everything on “an injury bug” and referees, but there is cause to expect otherwise.
After three years of ugly play and poor results under formerly successful head coach Steve Nicol, in 2012, former defender/color analyst/financial analyst Jay Heaps took the reins. Expectations were not high, largely because he had never coached before and was yet another recycled Revolution employee in an organization that seems to reward failure.
But Heaps’ first public move was solid and that was to hire former U.S. Youth National Team coach Jay Miller as assistant coach.
“I wanted to bring a highly-experienced, tactically-minded coach, and in Jay, he’s a coach who’s coached at – and succeeded at – every level of the game with a wide range of players," said Heaps.
By the numbers, last season was a failure. New England finished with a 9-17-8 record and only 35 points, which put them 16th out of the 19 MLS teams, ahead only of hapless Toronto FC and Chivas USA and newcomer Portland Timbers. The Revolution scored only 39 goals all season, fifth fewest in MLS and only half as many as the San Jose Earthquakes.
But although the Revolution couldn't win, the 2012 play on the field was a completely different animal than the brutish, clumsy and impotent legacy of 2011. Heaps and Miller left the stamp of clean and more technical play, a distinct improvement. The Revolution caused only 360 fouls, the second lowest in MLS, and won the 2012 Fair Play Award – an 180 degree turn from previous tactics. Lee Nguyen, Saer Sene and Benny Feilhaber played creative, entertaining soccer and young Kelyn Rowe had a strong rookie season (three goals, five assists). It was a more intellectual game with a different aesthetic. That radical style-change took discipline and extensive training to effect and to eliminate habits of previous seasons. The game on the field has to change in order to get different results and that takes time.
Shades of Real Salt Lake?
The Revolution’s intense focus on playing to that form can be compared to that of Real Salt Lake in 2009, the year they won MLS Cup. Note that this is not comparing New England to Salt Lake, who had a more talented and experienced roster at that time and still does. But 2009 was a season of losing for RSL and they were thoroughly mocked for poor results. But they cleaved to their system of play - a diamond formation with all players defending and attacking and supporting each other rather than relying on individual stars. Salt Lake did not break form for a lucky chance or short tempers. Their dedication to style triumphed as they honed their tactics over the season to win the Championship and even today, Real Salt Lake’s style is probably the purest and most recognizable, most beautiful and consistently successful in MLS.
The Revolution will not be able to achieve what RSL did simply because they do not have the roster, but fans can expect more ties and fewer losses, just as Bruce Arena achieved when the Los Angeles Galaxy fought back from the dreadful 2008 season.
1. The Revolution will build around Lee Nguyen, a unique, creative forward who fell into the Revolution fold by accident in 2012. U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Feilhaber jumped shipped for Sporting Kansas City in the offseason, so the pressure is on Nguyen.
2. The Revolution’s new international signings cannot be depended upon for anything. New England has a very poor record with internationals, who consistently turn up lame early in the season, fade away and disappear.
3. College rookies can only do so much. These kids are making a huge transition from a coddled, short-seasoned college life to the pro game working alongside veterans looking to support families and extend their playing careers. A rookie in the starting line-up should be the exception rather than the rule because they are simply not qualified to be cornerstone players in the U.S. first division at this point in their careers.
4. Saer Sene and Jerry Bengtson are big X factors. Both are highly qualified players and Sene’s performance and team-high 11 goals prove he can play in MLS, which is not something every proven international can do. Sene has a special child-like quality to his game that makes him fun to watch and dangerous on the field. He’s genuinely amused by playing - even in the heat of action - which makes him highly unpredictable and a real threat. But Sene had ACL surgery in September and will not be game-ready until April, although he’s training now. When he returns, Heaps needs to use him right. Sene is happiest with the ball at his feet, not just planted in the box, and he’s most effective in the run of play.
Bengtson’s striking ability and success with the Honduran national team is well-known, but he actually showed very little with the Revolution last year and only scored two goals. It’s possible Bengtson was in culture shock, as many new internationals are, so it's unclear whether he’ll contribute or not. Bengtson will also be absent for long periods during World Cup Qualifiers, which will contribute to inconsistent performance.
5. Matt Reis is still quality, but obviously on the way out. Whether Bobby Shuttleworth has the goods is unclear.
6. The back line needs work. Not one of last year’s starters is as good as Heaps in his playing days. Not one. A.J. Soares, Stephen McCarthy and Kevin Alston were outstanding coming out of college, but they’ve been over-played and not received the pro training they needed. The back line needs to be more fluid and engaged in the run of play for the entire team to be more successful.
7. Jay Heaps must remain in the technical area and stop yapping at the fourth official. Referees are taking a harder line on these infractions in 2013 and coaching suspensions and fines will do nothing to improve performance of a borderline squad. Heaps needs results this season because New England fans deserve a better team than what they have and should settle for nothing less.