Photo by Andrew Katsampes/ISIphotos.com
Change is in the air in New England.
A new coach, a new system and a boatload of new players have been put in place to turn around the once-proud franchise that has fallen on hard times. The Revolution have missed the playoffs in each of the last two years and finished dead last in the Eastern Conference while tying for the second-worst goal differential in all of MLS last season.
Jay Heaps, the club's former standout fullback, has taken over for longtime manager Steve Nicol, being handed the reins for his first managerial position. Based on the club's preseason showing, the transition has been a pretty smooth one so far, but more work is to be done before the Revs can reclaim their place among the contenders in the East.
"We have to believe in what we're doing," Heaps said. "It's those small steps forward, those victories in training, and you take that onto the field. You can't expect to win MLS Cup in Week 1, but you can start to build your identity and your core group of guys."
Here is a closer look at the Revs ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 5-16-13, 28 points (last in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Kelyn Rowe, D John Lozano, F Fernando Cardenas, F Saer Sene, D Tyler Polak, M Clyde Simms, F Jose "Pepe" Moreno
KEY LOSSES: F Milton Caraglio, F Rajko Lekic, M Monsef Zerka, F Kheli Dube, D Ryan Cochrane, M Pat Phelan, D Franco Coria
The most noticeable change for the Revs under Heaps is the shift to a more possession-oriented, ball-on-the-ground style of play as opposed to the more direct style the Revs played under Nicol.
"For me, it's great the way Jay wants to play," midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. "It allows me to get involved more and get the ball at my feet. I think we have been able to understand the system and implement it on the field."
As such, the club's strength lies in its midfield. With Feilhaber and captain Shalrie Joseph pulling the strings, Rowe looking like a true gem of a draft pick thus far and newcomer Clyde Simms sitting behind them, that group will dictate whether the Revolution can get the results they couldn't a year ago.
"There's not a soul in that four guys that doesn't have a very high work rate," Heaps said. "When you see midfielders like that working as a unit, that's where we want to see things going."
So far that unit has helped turn in victorious preseason results, which count for little but definitely give a morale boost and build momentum for a younger, still-impressionable team like New England.
In those few matches, Feilhaber and Rowe have both shown to be effective while stationed as outside midfielders in a 4-4-2 even though they are central, playmaking midfielders by trade. If they tend to pinch centrally, the onus will fall on fullbacks Chris Tierney and Kevin Alston to get forward and create width.
The biggest question facing the club — aside from the health of Alston and second-year centerback A.J. Soares, who both began training in full this week after extended injury layoffs — is who will be putting the ball in the back of the net?
New England completely revamped its front line, ushering out Lekic, Caraglio, Zerka and Dube and brining in Sene, a former Bayern Munich reserve; and Colombians Cardenas and Moreno.
"Saer's a good player," Feilhaber said. "When he comes onto the field he give us that extra composure on the ball and allows the midfield to really open up."
The saga surrounding Moreno, meanwhile, has been awkward. Shortly after the club announced his signing, there were eye-opening reports from Colombia saying that the Once Caldas player was not joining the club on loan despite him communicating with the Revs front office and signing all of the necessary paperwork.
Heaps said that he fully expects Moreno to join the club, with the standard process involving his visa and international transfer certificate getting underway on Thursday.
"We're excited to have Jose Moreno," Heaps said. "We spoke with him before this all transpired, met with him face-to-face. He signed the documents when all those things started to happen. It was a little bit harder to substantiate, to find out exactly what was coming out."
Heaps does not expect Moreno, who is nursing a muscle injury, to be match fit upon joining the team, meaning that Sene and someone from the group of Cardenas, Zack Schilawski, Kenny Mansally, Ryan Kinne, Zak Boggs and 17-year-old Homegrown Player Diego Fagundez will be relied on for production.
The additions to the front line and other reinforcements brought in around the field have been aplenty, but the Revs aren't done building their roster just yet. Ten trialists remain in camp, and only 23 players are currently on the senior roster (which will grow to 24 upon Moreno's arrival), meaning even more change is in the cards.
Aside from Heaps, the one charged with tying everything together is the 33-year-old Joseph, the team's fulcrum and unquestioned leader. He is back after signing a new deal, becoming a Designated Player in the process.
"It's been hard in some aspects," Joseph said. "It's a lot of new players, new faces on the team and trying to get everybody involved takes its toll.
"With such a young team, we need a positive start, and the results in the preseason have been great for our confidence. We're definitely headed in the right direction in terms of where we're going."