After just barely missing out on the postseason for a second straight year, the New England Revolution decided a coaching change, not a roster overhaul, was their best path to getting over the hump in the Eastern Conference.
The Revs replaced franchise stalwart Jay Heaps – who had been connected to the organization as a player, color commentator and then coach since 2001 – with former U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Friedel. Although the 46-year-old Friedel is light on coaching experience, he brings with him a professional approach learned over 18 years in the English Premier League.
“Everything he’s done to change the staff, the team and little nuances in the club has all been very professional and all in a positive way,” midfielder Kelyn Rowe told SBI Soccer. “He gives you everything you need to understand beforehand to go out and do the training and he’s done that before (preseason) games as well. He organizes things out, has a great game plan and it’s easy to follow.”
New England will hope that Friedel is the answer to overcoming a rollercoaster six years under Heaps, who guided the Revs to three playoffs berths and a 2014 MLS Cup final appearance before getting sacked with five games left last year.
Recently, the Revs have come up short, missing the 2016 playoffs by tiebreaker and then finishing seventh in the East again last season. Both times, the Revolution rallied in September and October, collecting five wins across those two months each of the last two years, but in both cases it was too little, too late.
The bigger concern with the Revs’ performance in recent years has been a manic home-road split. At Gillette Stadium, which the team has dubbed “Fortress Foxboro,” the Revolution consistently perform like a playoff squad, going 12-2-3 at home in 2017. However, the Revs didn’t win on the road until the final match of the season – a meaningless game up in Montreal – and have combined for just three wins in 34 road fixtures during their current two-year playoff drought.
Now, the pressure is on Friedel to squeeze the most out of a roster that should again be in the bottom half of MLS in payroll, as the Revolution shed as much talent as they brought in this offseason, and that’s without factoring in the ongoing Lee Nguyen situation. Nguyen held out to start training camp and told ESPN FC in January that he requested a trade on three separate occasions.
Nguyen is still the Revs’ best player and the team has taken a hardline approach with him. It’s hard to predict whether the two sides can resolve their differences or if Nguyen will eventually leave the team. However, it’s understandable why the Revs didn’t want to give up on one of the top central attacking midfielders in the league, coming off a season in which he tallied 11 goals and 15 assists.
“Lee, with his holdout, he opted not to come in – which is something that I’m not sure many people can do in the work environment – but because of that he finds himself 3-1/2 to 4 weeks behind in fitness,” Friedel said. “If you ask any of the players, the amount of work we’re doing, especially with (head of fitness) Anton (McElhone), who we brought over from Tottenham, is a little bit different. He has a lot of ways to come on the fitness ranks before we see him on the field.”
The bigger area of concern, however, is the defensive side. The Revolution gave up the third-most goals (61) in MLS last season, thanks to a mistake-prone back line and a first-year starting goalkeeper in Cody Cropper.
Slovenian enter back Antonio Delamea proved reliable, but his partner, Benjamin Angoua, a loanee from French Ligue 1 side Guincamp was a flop. Despite playing the most minutes on the team, right back Andrew Farrell still hasn’t lived up to expectations, meanwhile Rowe played several games out of position at left back as longtime starter Chris Tierney finally started to show his age.
“Some of it’s going to be down to mentality, style of play,” Friedel said. “However, when you want to be a team that goes forward and scores goals, at times you will be exposed in the back and we’re doing a lot of work with trying to eliminate chances at our goal… It’s an area that we have looked at, but we also don’t want to take away anything from the wealth of talent going forward that we have.”
Here’s a closer look at the 2018 Revs:
New England Revolution Season Preview
2017 FINISH: 13-15-6, 7th in Eastern Conference
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Gabriel Somi, Cristian Penilla, Wilfried Zahibo
KEY LOSSES: Kei Kamara, Gershon Koffie, Xavier Kouassi, Benjamin Angoua, Je-Vaughn Watson, Daigo Kobayashi
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Gabriel Somi
The Revolution’s most important newcomer is all in the eye of the beholder, as Somi, Penilla and Zahibo are all candidates to slot into starting roles, although none of them necessarily profile as star players. Penilla, who is most likely to be utilized as an attack-minded outside midfielder, will have to compete for minutes in a deep group of offensive players, while Zahibo should slot into the unheralded defensive midfield role that Koffie and Kouassi filled last season. Tierney has always been an interesting player because of his great service in, but it’s been a while since the Revolution had an athletic outside back capable of making overlapping runs forward. That alone makes Somi an intriguing player to follow.
PRESSURE IS ON: Lee Nguyen
Nguyen tried to shoot his way out of town over the offseason, but Friedel and the Revolution front office called his bluff and are openly challenging him. The Revs reportedly did not even entertain offers for the 31-year-old and it will be interesting to watch whether Nguyen’s state of mine affects his play. Meanwhile, Friedel has indicated he has not one, but two replacements in the form of Rowe and Diego Fagundez, who has predominantly played as a winger. At this point, it’s unclear whether Nguyen’s starting spot is safe or if he’ll have to earn it back.
The Revolution’s offseason was underwhelming, but the outlook becomes a little rosier if you consider the additions of forward Krisztian Nemeth and Designated Player Claude Dielna. Both joined the team in the final third of the 2017 season and can be expected to make a bigger impact on the team this year.
Despite trading Kamara and a potential regression or subtraction of Nguyen, adding Nemeth and Penilla into a mix that already includes USMNT players like Juan Agudelo and Rowe, along with Fagundez and Teal Bunbury should ensure that the offensive side of the ball is again the strength of the team.
Agudelo and Fagundez are both seasoned veterans with untapped potential to be double-digit goal scorers and take the Revs offense from good to great. Meanwhile, Friedel told SBI Soccer that the Rowe left back experiment is over.
“He’ll be played more centrally this season. That’s not to say you wouldn’t see him on one of the wings, but in an attacking scenario,” Friedel said. “As right or left back is not a place where we’ll be looking to play him.”
Defensively, the Revolution should be more athletic and skilled with Dielna and Somi on the back line, although the biggest unknown is whether the 25-year-old Cropper can take the next step and put himself in better positions to succeed. At 6-foot-4 he has the size and athletic ability to succeed, but is still a bit light on experience and should benefit from Friedel’s presence.
“I think last year was a learning curve for me,” Cropper said. “At the same time, I know that I can do better. Last year, not only for myself, but as a team it was very difficult because we conceded so many goals. We got to a point last season where mentally we didn’t bounce back. For myself and as a defensive unit we have to be able to do that this year, to react to it and not concede again.”
Even if the defense improves, however, the Revs’ lack of depth on the roster is a red flag and a key injury or two could easily derail their season. That might be part of the reason the organization has been so steadfast about keeping Nguyen.
The Revolution are dangerously thin in central defense and could also benefit from adding another defensive-minded midfielder. If Nguyen eventually exits and Friedel shifts Fagundez to the center of the field, as he’s been toying with this preseason, that then leaves the Revs lacking in depth out wide.
Per usual, the New England is trying to thread the needle and make the postseason while acting, in terms of investment, like a smaller market team. The front office has typically accumulated that comes at a good value even when it led to the team looking something like an island of misfit toys. Sometimes that strategy has paid off big (see: Nguyen) and other times it hasn’t.
Friedel’s input seems to have led to an offseason focused on making the Revs more athletic, but they likely didn’t do enough to separate themselves from the pack in the Eastern Conference playoff race. That means there will be a lot of pressure on a first-time professional coach to push all the right buttons.
“We have brought some pace and as you’ll see, most of our signings, when they do come, speed is one of the attributes,” Friedel said. “Hopefully with the way that we train and the way that the players have been applying themselves we’ll have an exciting team to watch that has a very good tempo to it.”