By MICHAEL KLINE
The New England Revolution will attempt to push last year’s rocky season to the back of their memory, as the second year of their rebuilding phase begins.
Manager Jay Heaps’ first season with New England saw few tangible improvements, as the Revs started 2012 promisingly, but finished with only three wins in their last 17 matches to close out the season.
The season did have some positives, however, especially with the breakout of midfielder Lee Nguyen, who emerged as one of the best acquisitions in the league in 2012. Nguyen became one of the Revolution’s key players last year, being the only New England player to appear in the first 30 matches of the season and adding five goals and two assists to his short Major League Soccer resume.
Ultimately, 2012 was the beginning of the Jay Heaps era, and laying a foundation for the future was always going to be more important than immediate success, especially since the playoffs were never really within reach. The fans will feel last season was wasted, but if the 2013 season shows the team take a significant step forward, then 2012 will have been a valuable stepping stone for Heaps and his players.
Here is a closer look at the New England Revolution heading into the 2013 MLS season:
2012 FINISH: (9-17-8, ninth in the Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: D Jose Goncalves, D Andrew Farrell, D Bilal Ducket, M Andy Dorman, M Kalifa Cisse, M Scott Caldwell, F Chad Barrett, F Matt Horth
KEY LOSSES: GK Tim Murray, D Flo Lechner, M Alec Purdie, M Michael Roach, M Fernando Cardenas, M Blair Gavin, M Benny Feilhaber, F Blake Brettschneider
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: D Andrew Farrell – The number one pick of the 2013 MLS SuperDraft will naturally carry the heavy expectations that the top pick comes with, something Farrell will have to deal with for the duration of his domestic career. Farrell will feature in a revamped New England defense, which was clearly a focal point of the Revolution’s offseason. A physical defender, capable of playing right back or center back, with good speed and passing skills, Farrell has the potential to make a big impact for the Revolution this season.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: F Jerry Bengtson – New England fans will be hoping Bengtson’s second season in a Revolution shirt will be the one where he discovers the form he has had for club and country in Honduras. Bengtson’s debut season in the league was not a pretty one, with the striker only finding the net two times in 13 appearances. Even more troubling, the Honduran was only able to put eight total shots on target during those matches. Some of that can be chalked up to poor service, but a shot on goal every 117 minutes is a very disturbing statistic for an out-and-out striker.
OUTLOOK: Jay Heaps and the New England organization have done a good job bringing in new faces to the squad this offseason, but the moment of truth is upon them, and the beginning of the season could be make or break for the Revolution. Within the first six matches of the season, the Revolution have to play four playoff teams, three of them away. If the Revolution hit the ground running, find a good bit of cohesion and survive their initial handful of matches, they will look primed to make their case for playoff contention, but if they get off to a slow start and struggle to score goals like they have the past couple of seasons, it will be another long year for Rev fans.
One clear priority in the offseason for the Revolution was defensive personnel. Not that New England had a terrible defense in 2012 (tied for fifth in the East), but Heaps clearly fancied upgrading the back-line with the additions of Andrew Farrell and José Gonçalves. Gonçalves immediately became the most experienced defender when he joined the Revolution on loan from Swiss club FC Sion, and New England will hope his European experience will bring stability to the back-line. A concern for Heaps will be the overall inexperience his defenders have, with the average age of the starting lineup destined to be in the early 20s.
Jay Heaps favors a 4-4-2 formation, but the arrival of defensive midfielder Kalifa Cissé will likely morph that into more of a 4-1-3-2 with a diamond in the midfield. With Cissé and Nguyen likely guaranteed starters, Heaps will be faced with the difficult task of choosing who will occupy the other two midfield positions. With little natural width or creative options, the manager will likely opt for more experienced players like Clyde Simms or Andy Dorman.
The big question mark on this New England side is where the goals will come from. With a lack of quality options in attack, fans will wonder why there is a massive imbalance on the squad between the midfield and the forwards. Last season the Revolution went out and acquired Saer Sène and Jerry Bengtson in an attempt to fix the goalscoring woes. The French striker had good production with 11 goals in 25 appearances on the season, but a torn ACL cut his season short and the partnership between Sène and Bengtson hasn’t taken off like the Revolution thought it would.
Diego Fagúndez, the Revolution’s first-ever Homegrown player, looks poised to have a breakout season with the Revs, but an 18-year-old can only be asked to do so much, and Heaps may need to rely on the Uruguayan more than he should.
The 2013 season should see the Revolution take major strides for the future. At the peak of their potential, they can compete for a playoff spot. More realistically, however, New England just needs to focus on squad cohesion, giving valuable experience to a few younger players and growing as a team.
Missing the playoffs would be disappointing, but if the Revs show some real progress in year two of the Heaps era, they could be poised for a serious run at a playoff spot in 2014.