BY KEVIN KOCZWARA
There was no sophomore slump for Jay Heaps.
Instead, in his second year as the coach of the New England Revolution, the former Revs defender ushered the franchise to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. And, to his credit, Heaps did it with a collection of young and exciting players who weren’t expected to begin really producing until this season.
So what next for the Revolution? Is getting the No. 3 seed in the playoffs enough again? Is taking the eventual MLS Cup champions to the final moments in a playoff series enough? Or is more expected?
When Heaps came into New England as the team’s first coach since moving on from longtime stalwart Steve Nicol ahead of the 2012 season, the first item on the agenda was a roster rebuild. Heaps and general manager Mike Burns — who was formally given the title of general manager and given more control of signings at the same time — constructed almost an entirely different team from the one they inherited.
Last year, there was less revamping but still some major tweaking. This year, the core is there for Heaps to build on the 2012 season and get his team on the right path from the start.
The glaring omission from the team is a proven goalscorer. After Juan Agudelo left after one impressive year with the club for a European adventure. To combat that the team has brought in a pair of rookies who lit up the college game (Patrick Mullins and Steve Neumann) and acquired Teal Bunbury from Sporting Kansas City in the hopes of rejuvenating his career.
The former Akron standout has had trouble with injuries in the past few seasons and finding a place in the plethora of attacking options in Kansas City. Could Bunbury be this year’s Agudelo for the Revs? Is he a player, formerly seen as surplus to requirements, who has a chip on his shoulder and the kind of skill Heaps desires from his center forwards? Time will tell. But if Bunbury doesn’t work out, the team is short of options when it comes to an out-and-out center forward to lead the line.
Another hole Heaps and Burns have had to cover up is the loss of long-time goalkeeper Matt Reis, who retired after suffering a serious knee injury in last year’s second-leg playoff loss to Kansas City. Burns made a move quickly to bring in Brad Knighton from the Vancouver Whitecaps to compete with Reis’ long-time backup Bobby Shuttleowrth.
Last year, Heaps’ side played with a fluidity and devastating pace that often caught teams off guard. Opposition will be ready for the Revs this year, but don’t put it past Heaps to get his team up before games and fighting this year. There is no doubt he wants another crack at the postseason.
Here is a closer look at the 2014 New England Revolution:
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 14-11-9, 51 pts. (Third in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Teal Bunbury, Brad Knighton, Paolo DelPiccolo, Daigo Kobayashi, Patrick Mullins, Steve Neumann, Jossimar Sanchez, Alec Sundly
KEY LOSSES: Matt Reis, Juan Agudelo, Chad Barrett, Ryan Guy, Juan Toja, Clyde Simms, Kalifa Cisse, Bilal Duckett, Matt Horth, Gabe Latigue, Tyler Polak
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Teal Bunbury. Burns has been excellent at executing intraleague trades, getting players viewed as surplus requirements somewhere else and seeing the potential they have to succeed if put in the right place and right situation. He and Heaps are hoping Bunbury can return to the form that saw him called up the the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past if given a desired role and opportunity.
PRESSURE IS ON: Diego Fagundez. The now 19-year-old is a grizzled veteran in Major League Soccer. He’s going into his fourth season after arguably the most successful year for a teenager in MLS — 13 goals and seven assists — and the pressure will be on him to do it again with the Revs losing Agudelo in the offseason. If Fagundez can repeat and grow on his form from 2013, New England will be in good shape.
The Revolution didn’t clinch their playoff spot until the final week of the regular season last year. Everything had to go their way. They had to win games down the stretch and hope the teams around them didn’t. It happened, and somehow the Revolution snuck into the third seed. That run of form can’t be duplicated this year, though. Playing with luck is dangerous and New England needs to come out of the gate quickly and set themselves up for an easier run-in at the end of the season if they want to compete in a much improved Eastern Conference.
While Heaps has brought a fluid attacking style to New England, it’s been New England’s acquisitions in defense that have changed the club’s fortunes. Jose Goncalves, last year’s MLS defender of the year, returns to lead the Revolution back line again after the team picked up his option, and he will again be joined by a combination of A.J. Soares and Stephen McCarthy in the middle with Chris Tierney on the left and the promising second-year player Andrew Farrell on the right. That back line combination, with the platoon of Reis and Shuttleworth in net, was one of the stingiest in MLS for much of the season. For the Revs to attack on the break and at the kind of breakneck speed they made their modus operandi last year, Goncalves needs to put his contract troubles behind him and the team needs to have a solid rotation.
Important to all of this is the development of Scott Caldwell. The local product worked his chops at Akron and fought his way into the Revolution’s starting XI early in the season, pushing out more established players along the way. He’s not a sexy player. He isn’t flashy and isn’t going to change the game with a goal or a pass. Instead, the 23-year-old midfielder breaks up the opposition’s play with good positioning, solid tackling and retains possession with solid distribution. He’s the glue that holds everything together.
When Caldwell struggles the Revs often need to change their shape, bring on Andy Dorman to do his job while pulling in Lee Nguyen a bit more and handcuffing his freedom. And New England needs Nguyen to have freedom to stretch play and shift play from side to side to break down opposing defenses. This isn’t a team that is going to whip crosses into the box and try to win that fight. This is a team that wants to play the ball on the deck, to break teams down through quick movement and by pulling opponents out of space. So the central midfield pairings and rotations are vital and everything starts with whoever occupies the No. 6 holding role.
If all of that can work out, if Caldwell, Fagundez and bright Kelyn Rowe can continue to grow as a dynamic group for the future and if Bunbury can become the focal point of the team’s attack, then New England should be in the hunt for the playoffs again this season despite the teams around them making major improvements. If New England does make it to the playoffs, they’re a team that can surprise people with their young core.