FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Revolution’s high press has left them vulnerable to counterattack goals all season, but a new culprit has compounded the team’s defensive struggles in recent weeks.
The Revs are mired in a six-match winless streak that saw them drop out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture for the first time since Week 1 after falling to the Philadelphia Union, 3-2, on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.
The Revolution (7-8-8) have conceded eight goals in the last three games and six of them have been connected to set pieces. New England also let in a goal on a stoppage time Romain Alessandrini corner in an epic late collapse in a home loss against a 10-man LA Galaxy squad back in July.
“It’s the ugly side of the game,” Revolution coach Brad Friedel told SBI Soccer after Saturday’s defeat. “Nobody will ever go home in the car, and say, ‘Hey, I thought so and so was really good at defending set pieces.’ It’s not what people look at it, but it is a part of the game that is very important and has been very important with us as of recent times, because we’ve been playing really, really well, and I’ll not stop saying that.”
Friedel said he was otherwise pleased with his team’s performance against the Union, which leapfrogged New England in the standings. The Revs created 26 shots, although put only seven on target in the 3-2 loss.
“If you’re not a great header of the ball, we try to teach to block runners and things of that nature, good starting positions, all the above,” Friedel added. “Anyone who has come out and watched us, we leave no stone unturned and it’s just very, very disheartening to watch it unravel, because the boys work really hard and we’re usually the better team. We’ve created the better chances. That’s a part of the game that we’ve got to get better and we’ve got to get better at it very quickly, going on for the playoff push.”
Thanks to the Revolution’s set piece struggles, they’ve squandered their edge over the other Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls and have a tough path to the postseason. The Revs play seven of their final 11 games on the road, including seven games against teams currently in playoff position.
Much of the trouble lately has been the marking of defensive midfielder Wilfried Zahibo, who played a part in both of Orlando City’s late set piece goals to steal a 3-3 draw two weekends ago. Lions defender Amro Tarek got loose from Zahibo to head home in the 71st minute and then again eluded his mark to create chaos in the box on Scott Sutter’s 93rd-minute equalizer.
On Saturday, Philadelphia scored in the 14th minute after the Revs only had one player defending a short corner. The allowed Haris Medunjanin to angle in a ball from the right sideline and center back Jack Elliott — who had only scored one previous career goal — got free from Zahibo to backheel it in.
Ten minutes later, Fafa Picault sent in a shot from outside the box off another corner that bounced off the left post, off goalie Matt Turner and then dropped out in front of the goal line. Zahibo again didn’t stick with Elliott as he followed up on the rebound for a simple tap in to make it 2-0.
“If you were at training, you can see we were working all week on set pieces, how to defend and then first corner, goal, second corner, goal, and we look like a stupid team. When you train something and you do other things, I don’t really have an answer,” center back Antonio Delamea said. “We need to start to take the responsibility and I think maybe it’s time to point a finger.”
“We’re just to soft on these set pieces,” Delamea added. “We just think that the ball is going to get kicked out on itself. No. We need to be sharp. We need to hold the line. We were talking about holding the line and then one, two guys are dropping too fast, it messes the whole system up and I don’t know, this just keeps happening every game.”
Delamea shouldered the blame for allowing the go-ahead goal after reaching his arm up and handling the ball on a 75th minute corner. Picault converted the resulting penalty kick a minute later to set the final score.
“I can only say sorry to everyone and I think in a situation like this you need to take the responsibility,” Delamea said. “I messed it up. It’s my fault that we lost this game and I think everyone can be mad on me.”
In all, the Union had only five corners on Saturday, but created goals off of three of them. No matter how well the Revolution play in other facets of the game, it’s nearly impossible to win with set piece defending like that.