By Kevin Koczwara
A.J. Soares and Stephen McCarthy sat at their lockers with old-school snap-back hats straight out of the 90’s on their heads. It was media day for the New England Revolution, and the second year players sat next to each other in front of their lockers dressed and ready to go. I decided to approach them and talk about their second seasons in Major League Soccer and their second year with the Revolution.
Before I could even finish a sentence, Soares declared he and McCarthy were part of the “beefcake, snap-back crew”. And McCarthy jumped inn declaring that they are part of the center back snap-back crew, which includes all the center backs on New England’s roster — Soares, McCarthy, Darrius Barnes and John Lozano. The snap-back crew is the new nickname the two have dubbed the group of players, at least for that day. But the snap-back crew is thin right now
This weekend against Sporting Kansas City, the best team in the Eastern Conference last year, Soares and McCarthy will be the only members of the snap-back crew playing in the center of the Revolution defense because the rest of the members are listed as out with injuries. Soares was recently lifted from this week’s injury report — he reportedly had a sprained knee. Making even his ability to play questionable.
Injuries in the defense cost the Revolution last season. The team spent much of the season without a true left back. Barnes did his best to fill in, but he was never the answer. Soares needed late season ankle surgery, which made him miss time. Ryan Cochrane suffered from concussions and never looked right because of the head injuries. And Franco Coria couldn’t seem to keep himself in the starting XI because of injuries.
The injuries and the rotation of players showed that the Revolution were weak at the back and in need of major improvements. The team drafted a left back, Tylar Polak, in the second round of the SuperDraft and signed Lozano to fill in for the loss of Coria and Cochrane, both were let go in the offseason. And the team recently announced the signing of versatile German defender Florian “Flo” Lechner, who can play all along the back line, giving the team some versatility. But the biggest changes come from moving Chris Tierney and McCarthy from the midfield into the defense.
Tierney moved into the left back position, giving Polak time to be groomed into an everyday professional, from the left midfield position he has mostly played over the course of his career. The left-footed player missed the season opener because of a suspension carry over from last season, but looks like he is ready to slot in the defense or wherever coach Jay Heaps decides to put him in the line up.
“For the time being I’m at left back, but we’ll see,” said Tierney at the team’s Media Day on March 6. “You never know with injuries and guys going in and out of form. I’m always willing to be a guy who can plug in anywhere and help the team fill the gaps. At the same time, I’m comfortable playing left back in Jay’s system.”
Tierney was missed in the first game of the season at San Jose, which the Revs lost, 1-0. Soares was forced out to the left side of the defense and didn’t look like a player who could or would get up and down the flank. Soares is a central defender. His skill set puts him in the middle of the field, but he was the only left-footed player outside of Polak in the defense, so he was slotted there to give the Revs the movement and distribution the team needed.
Some good news for the Revs is that Tierney will be available for Saturday’s game with Kansas City, which should go towards solidifying the defense. Another positive is the progression of Stephen McCarthy into the center of the defense.
McCarthy came out of college as a central midfielder, and played there last season under Steve Nicol, but Heaps saw something from the North Carolina product that inspired him to make McCarthy a defender. Against San Jose, McCarthy showed it’s still a learning process, but he also displayed that he can play there and he can be successful there if given the chance. He has the passing ability and the size to work out of the back, it’s a matter of getting him acclimated tot he role.
Last season at times it looked like McCarthy wasn’t comfortable playing with Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber in the center of the midfield. McCarthy looked nervous on the ball and unsure of his role. But in the center of the defense, with specific tasks, McCarthy looks more sure of himself. He seems more comfortable working with someone like Soares. And he has a swagger about him that went missing at times last season.
Right now, New England needs McCarthy to carry that swagger from the locker room to the field against a very good Kansas City team. Kansas City may be without Teal Bunbury, who is on international duty with the Olympic Qualifying team, but that doesn’t mean it is short on goal scorers.
Sporting boasts last year’s Rookie of the year, C. J. Sapong, as well as Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi, rookies Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer, and a player who has scored two goals against New England before, Birahim Diop. The snap-back crew is short-staffed right now, so it’s up to McCarthy and Soares to pick up their game and hold down the center of the defense.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at email@example.com.