New England Revolution 3 – 1 Los Angeles Galaxy: High Pressure turns the tide

In years past, the Revs have sat back, looked to absorb pressure, while hoping to catch the opposition on the counter. Coupled with the lack of overall skill on the team, this led to an endless procession of balls hoofed down the field.The Revs were starting every match off on the back foot.

This season, it has been Heaps’ habit to say that he wants to play from the front foot. I’ve been slightly critical of Heaps and his statements surrounding high-pressure, attacking soccer. It’s a great thing to say the club will play an exciting brand of soccer, the execution is something entirely different.

Due to injuries, Stephen McCarthy’s red card, and perhaps a bit of an adjustment period, the Revs never quite lived up to their manager’s billing in their first two matches. Their last two matches, both victories, have shown a team looking to keep the pressure on their opposition and win the ball in more dangerous positions.

The passing that the Revs displayed in their match up with the Los Angeles Galaxy this past weekend put a lot around the league on notice. No longer are the Revs looking to large, brutish players to make themselves difficult for the other team to get around. Instead the team has a midfield made up of technical, quick players looking to link up with their teammates constantly. The impressive Clyde Simms always puts himself in a position to be useful for his teammates and his famous 44 passes completed out of 46 passes attempted shows just that.

A bright attacking game can also be brought about through an aggressive defensive strategy. The inclusion of Ryan Guy was surprising to many who would have never considered the diminutive wing midfielder as an option up front. This move turned out to be a stroke of genius from the inexperienced Heaps. Guy’s aggressive play set the tone for the rest of the team. His constant harassment of the Galaxy’s shaky back line allowed the Revs defense to keep a high line themselves and squeeze the space that the Galaxy’s midfield was allowed to play.

Conclusion

Jay Heaps showed his ability as a tactician in LA this past weekend. Being able to spring a surprise on an opponent while still keeping your team in a shape that allows them to play their game is a talent not many rookie managers possess. Heaps has built a team capable of pressing the opposition on the pitch and they will continue to win balls in positive areas. He has also shown a great ability to build fantastic team spirit. All of the new pieces seem excited to play for him. Next up for Heaps on his coaching adventure will be to see how he deals with adversity.

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New England Revolution 0 – 3 Sporting Kansas City: Red Card shields True Squad from View

We’re now entering the third week of the MLS and no one can claim to have a clue as to what kind of squad the Revs truly have.

There was a lot of positive talk about the Revs starting line-up this past Saturday as they took on Sporting Kansas City at Livestrong Sporting Park. Following the posting of the Revs line-up the #Revs hashtag on twitter was full of positives vibes.

After the week one line-up weakened by injuries, the 4-2-3-1 that Jay Heaps was set to employ against SKC looked to be populated by what many would consider a nearly full strength squad.

One reason for this optimism was the placement of Benny Feilhaber in the center of the pitch. Despite some of his best performances coming for the US Men’s National Team occurring when he was on the left wing, Feilhaber has never looked comfortable at this spot for the Revs. Further, he rarely sees enough of the ball on the wing to influence the game in a way that you would expect from someone of his talent level.  Feilhaber was also set to share the central midfield with Shalrie Joseph and Clyde Simms, players that would allow Feilhaber the freedom roam and dictate the game.

The match was also the first that the Revs were set to have new signings Saer Sene and Lee Nguyen in the starting line-up.

Conclusion

After only 14 minutes, the match, as a spectacle for the new Revs formation, was ruined by a red card to Stephen McCarthy. Any attempted analysis of the match from this point forward was a wash due to the Revs being outnumbered. Sporting Kansas City did what good squads do to undermanned squads, they dominated the ball, created chances, and kept things fairly tight at the back. All things considered, the red card incident made for an easy day at the office for SKC.

Going by the 14 minutes that the Revs played at full-strength there is plenty to be excited about as the Revs move forward. Nguyen was again strong on the ball and looked a threat to create on the counter. Benny popped up with a decent chance from the top of the box early on as well. This type of opportunity is something to expect from Feilhaber as he settles in to his central playmaking role. Hopefully more big goals like this one will follow.

Unfortunately for the Revs and their fans, they may need to wait another week before they can expect to see the Revs for what they truly are. With McCarthy set to miss the home opener this Saturday at Gillette Stadium with his suspension and Sene and Soares both laboring heavily towards the end of the last match the Revs could very well be delving deep into their reserves just to field a full eleven.

San Jose Earthquakes 1 – 0 New England Revolution: Revs far from finished product

“…we’re going to go forward and we’re going to attack.” – Jay Heaps in his introduction Q&A.

With the recent high profile success of Barcelona and Spain it’s no surprise that this has become the trendy thing to say among managers. You want to attack, you want to keep the ball, you want to out-possess your opponent. The idea being that if you have the ball there is no way for your opponent to score.

There is, of course, one issue with this tactic. It takes a certain kind of team, made up of a certain kind of player that allows you to keep the ball for the majority of a professional soccer match.  The line-up the Revs trotted out to the pitch on Saturday was not well-designed to keep the ball. To be fair, neither were the Quakes. The difference was in their application.

The Revs did try to play the ball out of the back but ultimately resorted to the “hoofing” down the field that was en vogue with this club in 2010 and 2011.  The full backs were particularly disappointing in this regard. Kevin Alston has yet to take the next step as an MLS caliber defender. He has great speed and shows best when he is recovering. He does not show the awareness or confidence on the ball to provide a reliable outlet. AJ Soares also struggled as the makeshift left back. You can hardly blame him for having to play a position at which he has no professional experience at, but he looked completely uncomfortable and out of sorts.

The center backs, Lozano and McCarthy, faired better on the ball but they often found themselves in tough situations thanks to the relentless pursuit of Lenhart. Lenhart is the classic player who you love to have on your club but hate to play against.  He is an integral part of what San Jose does. His effort, coupled with the determination of Baca, Cronin, and Salinas, means that the Earthquakes will never be easy to beat this year.  This works perfectly for an offense predicated on allowing Wondolowski freedom to roam and find positions to finish chances created on the counter attack.

The Revs also suffered from very poor forward play. The same issues that dogged them in the Desert Diamond Cup final were on display again. Brettschneider was unable to provide any sort of hold up play which meant that when the Revs finally worked the ball out of their half Brettschneider inevitably lost it. Cardenas showed a lot of good effort but rarely found himself in useful spots.

Also providing some disappointing play was the midfield which, as a whole, left much to be desired. Shalrie Joseph’s first match as a DP was quite possibly his worst match for the Revs. His sloppy passing led to one SJ goal and then nearly a second. Benny Feilhaber, much like Cardenas, worked hard to provide an outlet for his teammates but often ran himself out of position. He spent far too much time in the center of the field, where he is most comfortable, and never really checked back out to the left side of the midfield to provide an option for Soares.

Compared to Feilhaber, Rowe was more positionally sound and put together a more consistent body of work because of it. He was where his teammates expected him to be and was able to string together some decent moves.

Simms impressed in a tough spot for the Revs. He did his best to recycle possession and clean up any lose balls. He was often put under pressure thanks to the poor play up front and, surprisingly, by Feilhaber and Joseph. Considering the circumstances, he did well.

Conclusion

In a match where both teams looked like they could have used a little more off-season work, the San Jose Earthquakes defeated the New England Revolution 1-0 at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, California.  As he is apt to do, Chris Wondolowski netted the match’s only goal.  In fact, his goal was the the only shot on net by the Quakes. Going in the other direction, the Revs only managed one shot on goal themselves.

Jeff Causey, who has received less than glowing reviews for his first match as color commentator for the Revs home broadcast, put it best when he said that “there should probably be a third column in this game for when no one had the ball,” when addressing the possession percentages. Both teams were sloppy, and the ball rarely stuck for either team. When it came down to it, the Quakes put together the winning strategy.

Simply saying  you want to keep the ball does not mean that you will turn up and look like Barcelona (or even Swansea). A positive philosophy is a great thing to have, but you also need the players to apply it. If the Revs can get a left back who can provide width going forward (to allow more freedom for Feilhaber) and a striker who can hold the ball up, they can start thinking about employing a more attacking style of play. Until then, they may want to considering putting themselves in the best possible position to win.

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2011: The Revs were nobody’s equal.

With the 2012 season set to kick off for the Revs tomorrow I figured it would be a good time to quickly check back on last season and see what went so horribly wrong.

Tactics in soccer are something employed by a coach or manager in an attempt to give his team the best chance of winning. There is no one tactic that can trump all. There are things like the skill of the players, the weather, field conditions, the officials, and the motivation of the squads that can ultimately decide the direction that a match goes. The idea is, that with all things being equal, the coach who puts his squad in the best positions with the best direction will ultimately succeed.

The Revs of 2011 could not claim to be anyone’s equal. They had a severe problem in the player skill department and no matter how many times manager Steve Nicol or player czar Mike Burns tried to go to the well and fix this problem the results never really improved. French imports Didier Domi and Osmane Dabo were expected to make a major impact but neither made it until the end of the season. Injury ended Marko Perovic’s season (and subsequently his Revs career). And the Revs ended the season with a roster that had only five natural defenders. Expectations were never high.

That does not mean that the tactics employed by Nicol can not be examined. In general, the season can be split up into two halves.  The way the Revs took the field was very different before and after midfielder Benny Feilhaber joined the club through the infamy of Major League Soccer’s allocation process.

Pre-Feilhaber (PF) – April 09, 2011 vs RSL

Revs v RSL, 04/09/2011

Above is how the Revs lined up when they took on Real Salt Lake on April 9, 2011. RSL trotted out their second string in this match after having taken on Saprissa in Costa Rica the previous Tuesday and still defeated the Revs 2-0. 7,090 apparently willing observers witnessed a Revs squad determined to sit deep when not in possession and look to bypass the midfield when the had the ball.

The line-up, featuring three defensive midfielders (Joseph, Phelan, and McCarthy) was as negative in practice as it is here in graphic form. Coupled with a forward who struggles to hold the ball and connect with teammates and full backs who’s ability to join the attack is inconsistent at best, the Revs rarely saw the ball.

Any line-up that sports three defensive midfielders protecting the back four deserves to be maligned but in reality, when considering the large talent discrepancy, the Revs had gotten results (four matches without a loss) with this formation. It can be argued that Nicol’s tactics were giving the Revs the best chance they could to win with the players they had.

The Benny Feilhaber Era begins

Revs v Portland, 09/16/2011

Thanks to Major League Soccer’s Allocation Process the Revs were able to add cultured US midfielder Benny Feilhaber into the fold. This move was well received in New England, and with good reason, Feilhaber is the rare player capable of something special. 

With his addition, Nicol began to use a 4-4-2 formation in an attempt to get Shalrie Joseph and Feilhaber to partner in the middle and win the midfield battle. In theory, Feilhaber, a more creative player, partnered with Joseph, the more combative, should have led to increased possession of the ball and better results.

As seen above, when the Revs took on the Portland Timbers on September 16, 2011, the Revs came out in a 4-4-2, attempting to match the formation of their opponents and win the possession battle. Certainly, players like Feilhaber and Joseph are players you want in a possession oriented side, however, having a center back at left back in Barnes, a right back who struggles going forward in Alston, a striker who can’t play with back to goal in Lekic and the other striker limited in his mobility due to size and fitness, the Revs hardly had the recipe to go on the road, keep the ball, and win the match.

The Revs really struggled at holding the ball once they got it all season. Their strikers were often isolated. When the midfield and full backs would look to join the attack it was often too late, leaving them out of position and susceptible to the counter attack. With Joseph and Feilhaber looking to get forward and create goals the Revs midfield was often vacated. The space in front of the Revs backline was exploited constantly leaving players like Ryan Cochrane completely overwhelmed.

Conclusion

The Revs were certainly better to watch once Feilhaber joined the club (Zerka, Lekic, and Caraglio helped as well). They were not more effective though. In the six matches before Benny Feilhaber the Revs had a record of 1 win, 3 draws, and 2 losses. They allowed only one goal per game while earning one point per game. In the 28 matches after Feilhaber the team allowed 1.82 goals per game and only earned .79 points per game.

The Revs were never going to be successful due to a weak overall squad. Nicol’s hand was forced to play negative tactics in an attempt to get something out of every match. When the Revs attempted to match their opponents and out possess them they were caught out time and again.

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