By Kevin Koczwara
Clyde Simms does more work than it sometimes appears for the New England Revolution. The former D.C. United holding midfielder sits just in front of the Revolution defense and behind Shalrie Joseph and the rest of the midfield. He’s the anchor, the player who picks up the scraps and fills the void left between the midfield and defense, the area where forwards thrive. But left ankle tendonitis kept him out of Saturday’s game against the Houston Dynamo. That meant New England needed to find another heartbeat in the midfield to work with Joseph, who has abandoned his defensive midfield role for a more box-to-box approach in recent seasons.
Step up Ryan Guy.
New England coach Jay Heaps pulled Guy aside earlier in the week to see if the midfielder would be comfortable sitting in the hole for the Revolution this week, according to the player. And Guy, who grew up playing in that position, said yes. The team worked all week to get the midfield five comfortable with Guy as the anchor.
“Jay brought me and asked me if i would be comfortable and I definitely had no problem. I think it’s definitely a change in mindset for me. It’s just using a different mindset than normally out wide,” said Guy after the game, talking about his new role on the inside of the midfield. “I think today it probably showed in the first half my inexperience. We had a chat at half time and we made some changes and I think it did go much better. Unfortunately, I think towards the end when we did go up we were maybe a little bit satisfied and stopped playing a bit, and sat back a little bit.”
The experiment went well enough for parts of the game. While Houston dominated possession — 62 percent for the Dynamo to 38 percent for the Revs — New England held a slim 2-1 lead going into the final minutes of the game. But in the 87th minute it all fell apart.
Houston got the equalizing goal it had worked for when Brian Ching found space and time outside the New England box and chipped a pass over the Revolution defense to Luiz Camargo, who slotted home a half-volley, beating New England goalkeeper Matt Reis to the near-post from a tight angle and tying the game. It was a moment when the understanding between midfield and defense seemed to click off, no one picked up Ching and he found the pass to unlock what was tight unit in the back all game for New England.
Heaps was pleased with Guy’s performance, but he’ll look back at the tape and see just how much his team missed Simms.
“I thought Ryan Guy had a very good night plugging away holes. Losing Clyde Simms, that’s a tough one because he’s so good for us clogging up spaces,” said Heaps after the game. “I always go back and watch Clyde Simms and I always say he had a great game and then I go back and look and I go ‘Wow, he really did have a great game.’ I think Ryan did some good things tonight and I like him for that role. Clyde moves so much that you’ve got to have guys that move like that and Ryan did a very good job.”
Simms injury could be the biggest injury the Revs have to deal with if it lingers. Simms has become the anchor in the side and adapted quickly to his new surroundings. The veteran midfielder has given a calmness to the passing game Heaps wants to instill in the team. He positions himself well and is always there when a teammate needs to get out of pressure. Guy isn’t the long-term solution, but at times against Houston it worked.
But the signs are there that New England needs better cover for Simms. The story is in the stats from the Houston game. The Dynamo completed 557 passes on Saturday night to New England’s 340. Houston was better than 82 percent at connecting those passes while New England completed an abysmal 66.2 percent, a mark not good enough in Major League Soccer, especially at home.
“I think [Clyde Simms’ absence] hurt us in the sense of a comfort level. We never really seemed comfortable with it,” said Heaps. “When you’ve got guys like Benny Feilhaber, Shalrie Joseph, Lee Nguyen, they need to know there’s cover. Ryan did a good job, but they’re still learning where each other are going to be. We trained hard in that set so they were comfortable, but they never really got to understand each other there.”
The understanding was missing. The Dynamo play a compact midfield diamond with Adam Moffat as the holder and Brad Davis as the wide playermaker — wide as in he’s just left of center. Houston doesn’t bring in traditional wingers, instead, it plays slow and methodical through the midfield, and if you can’t cope with that, Houston wears you down. That’s what happened to New England. With Benny Feilhaber on one wing and Lee Nguyen on the other, Heaps employed inverted wingers and a false-nine as the team’s forward, Saer Sene. So space was clogged in the midfield as New England had essentially six players all in a tight space. Houston didn’t worry about the numbers, instead, knowing there was a lack of width — especially with New England right back Kevin Alston’s continued surges through the middle instead of out-wide — the Dynamo clogged the midfield and held a high line, forcing New England to play short and compact, something it doesn’t do well without Simms. Houston left with one point, which was a good result as the team was at the end of its grueling four games in 10 day schedule.
For New England, it needs to find a way to play without its anchor. There needs to be a conscious understanding that Simms won’t be there every week and the players need to adapt. Guy might not be the answer in that role — he really excelled playing through the middle just behind the forward earlier in the season against the Los Angeles Galaxy — so Heaps needs to identify what will happen if and when Simms needs a rest. Or the game could be another grueling affair where the Revolution can’t seem to hold on to or get the ball back.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.