By Kevin Koczwara
For all the hard work and promising displays on the field, the New England Revolution don’t have much to show in the way of wins or points this season (3-6-0 9 pts.). First year coach Jay Heaps has brought a new attitude to the team — a high-pressure, ball possession and attack-minded approach — but its lead to a few positive results. Instead, New England has loss games it should have won or drew (the 1-0 loss to New York; the 1-0 loss to FC Dallas; the 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake).
Games aren’t being lost the same way they were in the past few seasons — in the dying moments of the game, or because of a lack of attacking power. This team is losing games because there is something missing right now: that unknown winner’s trademark of being able to gut out a victory.
On the flip side of New England is Saturday’s opponent the Vancouver Whitecaps (5-2-2 17 pts.). First year coach Martin Rennie has come in and instilled a defensive approach to a team that leaked in goals last year at an alarming rate. Even with an attack full of high-octane players — Sébastien Le Toux, Eric Hassli, Darren Mattocks, Omar Salgado, Etiba Harris and Long Tan — the Whitecaps have found goals hard to come by. Vancouver, right now, is the complete opposite of New England. The Whitecaps are eking out wins and have a winning swagger that comes with holding off opponents and beating top-tier teams.
1. Where will the goals come from?
New England has scored eight goals this season — the sixth worst scoring record in Major League Soccer — and Vancouver has scored just nine goals. Both of these teams have plenty of players who can score goals and create chances, but neither team is lighting up the back of the net (to use a hockey term) like they should. It will be interesting to see who scores first because that team is in the driver’s seat with the poor finishing both of these teams have displayed this season.
2. Which team will exploit the wings?
The Revolution have played a narrow 4-2-2-2 formation for the majority of the season — except the game in Los Angeles where it played a fluid 4-2-3-1 — and when the Revs have been at their best the full backs have gotten forward and exploited the space on the wings. With a narrow formation and inverted wingers, New England needs players to get out wide and spread the field to create space for Benny Feilhaber, Kelyn Rowe, Saer Sene and Lee Nguyen to operate in. Usually those players are the full backs.
Expect Martin Rennie’s team to try to exploit this weakness in New England’s game by pressing his outside wingers — expect a modified 4-2-3-1 formation with the three playing narrow and high — into the space vacated by Chris Tierney and Kevin Alston.
Tierney has been one of New England’s most consistent players and is often the outlet from the back for the Revolution. The New York Red Bulls did a good job a few weeks ago of pressing him while he was on the ball and he turned the ball over on more than one occasion. The pressure also forced him deeper into defense, which is not where he wants to be. By putting the speedy Dane Richards out on Tierney’s wing, New York forced New England into a more route one approach and reaped the benefits with an early goal.
Rennie will more than likely try to do the same with Le Toux or Mattocks out there on that wing.
Heaps will need to find a way to get around this, maybe by dropping Shalrie Joseph deeper to play alongside Clyde Simms more to provide the necessary cover.
The Revs had a busy week last week. The team played three games against top-tier (maybe I’m reaching with the Rapids as a “top-tier team”, but they’re close) teams and made a trip to the Mountain time zone. There was plenty of travel and work involved. The week off between the games is important, but the travel and games played, especially the up-and-down nature of the Real Salt Lake game over the weekend, will have left some bumps and bruises on players.
Vancouver will have similar worries. The Whitecaps have to make the long trip to Foxborough after playing a midweek game against Edmonton FC in the Amway Canadian Championship and will be a tired group.
Whoever can win the battle in the midfield and whatever coach can win the substitution battle, which will surely happen as both coaches try to keep players fresh, will come away with the better result.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at email@example.com.