By Kevin Koczwara
The scoreline in the New England Revolution’s friendly against Manchester United on Wednesday night is misleading, a 4-1 win for United. The Revolution hung in and played some quality soccer against the reigning English Premier League champions, even if in the end the team was undone by United’s dynamic attack.
For the most part, the positives for the Revolution came in the first half — the Revs held United scoreless through the first 45 minutes — when Benny Feilhaber, Shalire Joseph and Pat Phelan were marauding in the center midfield. The three players finally looked comfortable with one another, and Feilhaber finally looked like the kind of player the Revolution were hoping they were signing back in April.
Feilhaber signed with Major League Soccer in April and was picked up by the Revolution. He immediately became a beacon of hope for Revs’ fans because of pedigree as a U.S. International and his success at the Confederations Cup in 2009. The skilled midfielder posses a passing range, vision, and attacking instinct that’s been missing in the Revolution midfield for sometime, and those skills made fans see him as a savior of sorts. But things haven’t worked out for Feilhaber or the Revolution so far. ()
The MLS is a tough league to adapt to. It’s a pacey league that doesn’t rely on skill, rather, it is a league that depends on pace, power, and hustle. The referees aren’t very good, and until a player learns to give in to inexperience and ineptitude of the referees, it can wear a player thin and take them out of games.
“Wherever you go it’s very difficult to fit in right away. Whether it’s going from here to Europe or Europe to here, whether it’s an easy league or a harder league, it doesn’t matter. It’s always going to be tough,” said Feilhaber after the Revolution’s loss to Manchester United. “It’s tough getting adapted to everything. The MLS is a tough league and I think I’m settling in.”
Feilhaber looked at ease in the midfield triangle with Phelan and Joseph. He looked confident on the ball, moving, popping up in space, finding space and spraying passes out wide. In the first half, when Joseph, Phelan and Feilhaber were playing, the Revolution midfield was able to string passes together and looked like a reborn team. The three played the simple pass instead of the direct ones over the top, which has been the Revs preferred play for much of the past two seasons, and moved without the ball. Part of this also has to do with how well Feilhaber is beginning to understand the type of game MLS teams play and just who his teammates are.
“I kind of got the speed of play down a little more, and knowing when I have to get the ball off of my feet, and the kind of run the players on our team are going to make. I feel good, but now the thing is having the confidence within ourselves and within the team to play that ball into a guy and know he’s going to keep it and make a run. It comes with winning games, and right now that’s not happening,” said Feilhaber.
The movement and interplay in the midfield between Joseph and Feilhaber has to be especially encouraging for the Revolution because its the first time in a few seasons that Joseph looked comfortable working with another player. The two midfielders read the game in a similar fashion and have the kind of skill necessary to control play and tempo. The Revolution’s movement in the midfield came through the two players as they instinctively decided to switch their positions to get Feilhaber on the ball more so he could create chances for his teammates and so Joseph could play in-between the midfield and attack lines. All of a sudden it clicked because two soccer minds worked together.
That’s a positive sign for the Revolution because a lot of what happens in the MLS depends on a team’s playmakers, which would be Joseph and Feilhaber for the Revolution, and a team’s ability to control the midfield, which is more than physical. The move by Feilhaber to drop deeper showed that he is willing to make moves on the fly to get on the ball more and to try and help his team win. It was a clever move that in past seasons wouldn’t have been made by someone other than Joseph.
“(Benny Feilhaber) again used his brain. We hoped to have him playing in front of Shalrie and Pat (Phelan), but he wasn’t getting on the ball and he made the adjustment himself to get on the ball,” said Revolution manager Steve Nicol afterwards. “It certainly paid (off) for us, as whenever he had it, he was picking people out and picking our players out. So that adjustment was his own, but that shows you what a talented player he is.”
That talent turned up against Manchester United. Feilhaber missed a few key balls as he tried to spread the field and open play from a deeper playmaker position, the Italian regista. Feilahber is more suited, usually, to play higher up the field, and that was the intention at the outset for the Revolution. But Feilhaber took it on himself to drop deeper to try and open play from the back and give his teammates, specifically Sainey Nysassi on the right side of the midfield and Zak Boggs on the left, the kind of delivery they need to break in behind the opponent’s defense. With the move, New England started playing tidier passes and moving with more freedom. In short, the Revolution started playing soccer instead of kick-and-chase.
While Feilhaber admits that the game was a friendly and isn’t a good barometer as to whether the team is ready for Sunday’s important league game against the Philadelphia Union, it does prove that the Revolution are on the right track in the re-building process. The team came out of the game with the EPL champs noticing that it can play better soccer and not just try and kick and chase. With Feilhaber making smart moves and getting more comfortable by the game, things can only look up for the Revolution.
Game Notes v Manchester United :
- Revolution left back Didier Domi not named to the official game day roster.
- Ashley Young started in a game for the first time for Manchester United since making his move to the club from Aston Villa.
- Attendance of 51,523 is the highest attendance in Gillette Stadium for a club friendly.
- The New England Revolution made nine substitutions during the game, only Shalrie Joseph and Zak Boggs played the entire 90 minutes.
- Matt Reis made two saves in the first half and kept United scoreless. He was substituted at half time along with the Revolutions entire defense. Bobby Shuttleworth played the second half in goal for the Revolution.
- The Revolution had zero corner kicks and offside called on them for the entire 90 minutes.
- Manchester United committed 10 fouls to the Revolution’s four.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.