One of the original MLS franchises when the league began play in 1996, the New England Revolution suffered for years from strong regular seasons and underachieving postseason performances. From 2002 to 2007, the Revolution reached the Eastern Conference finals all six years and the MLS Cup final four times — in 2002 and three consecutive years from 2005-2007. They would lose all four chances at the championship, and the only trophy in team history remains the 2007 U.S. Open Cup.
The past five seasons have been a case of diminishing returns for the Revolution. New England has been buried in the basement of the Eastern Conference each of the past two seasons, in last place in 2011 and ahead of only Toronto FC in 2012. Jay Heaps, the defender who spent nine years playing in New England before taking over last season for his former head coach Steve Nicol, has a tall task ahead of him in 2013 as he tries to right the ship and restore a modicum of respectability to the Revolution.
Heaps brought more wins and greater discipline to New England in 2012. He understands the team culture after spending over a decade with the franchise as a player, broadcaster and now manager. But while he has an intimate knowledge of his working environment, will that familiarity stunt his ability to affect the changes necessary for the Revolution to turn the corner? At this point most Revolution fans would be happy to experience those close calls of Heaps’ glory days as a player, and now it is up to Heaps the coach to deliver on that dream.
The Revolution played six preseason matches during two trips to Arizona. Their first training camp was held in Casa Grande, where New England had the opportunity to scrimmage against several other MLS sides in the area. Their first challenge, against Sporting Kansas City on Jan. 25, ended in a scoreless draw. Four days later, Darren Mattocks had a hat trick for the Vancouver Whitecaps in a 4-1 rout of the Revolution.
After returning to Massachusetts for a week, the Revs arrived back in Arizona for the Desert Diamond Cup in Tucson. Their first match of the four-team round robin stage, against the Seattle Sounders, was a mismatch as the Cascadia side scored two in the first half and kept the Revolution off the scoreboard. New England finally tasted victory in 2013 in their next match, rebounding from a 1-0 halftime deficit to score three in the second half of a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls. Real Salt Lake ended the dream of a rematch against Seattle, scoring two late goals for a 3-2 stunner — when New England needed just a draw to advance to a championship shot against the Sounders.
They took out their frustrations in another victory over the Red Bulls, earning their first clean sheet in a month in a 2-0 victory that gave New England third-place honors in Tucson. The win concluded a preseason where the Revs finished 2-2-2, scoring 8 goals and conceding 10.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
After spending his first five seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, goalkeeper Matt Reis has been anchored at the back for the Revs. The first choice keeper entering his 11th season in New England, Reis is still among the best in the MLS at his position at 37 years old. His backup, Bobby Shuttleworth, might finally push Reis for more playing time after joining the Revolution four years ago. The 25-year-old went 3-3-1 in 2012, with three shutouts and only five goals against, showing that he could be the next evolution in net for the Revolution.
The oldest player on the New England defense is also one of the newest. Jose Gonçalves, the Portuguese international who has spent time in Italy, Switzerland and Scotland, now comes over to MLS at 27 years old in a January deal signed with the Revolution. He will challenge A.J. Soares and Stephen McCarthy for starting time in the center of the back four. The fullback positions feature a strong mix of depth and talent. 2012 SuperDraft selection Tyler Polak could challenge incumbent starter Kevin Alston for the starting role at left back. If he does, Alston has spent most of his professional career at right back, a natural shift in the roster. Darrius Barnes can play at all four positions on the back line as well. And this is before mentioning the first overall selection in the 2013 SuperDraft, Andrew Farrell from Louisville, who is an attacking defender who could quickly take over at either flank.
Chris Tierney anchors the central midfield, a defensive mid who can also move onto the back line if necessary. But he enters the season with an ankle injury from the team’s preseason match against the Sounders, leaving a major hole in midfield. It will likely fall to offseason acquisition Kalifa Cisse and/or league veteran Clyde Simms to try to fill that void, the Malian international joining the squad last November and Simms joining the Revs last year after seven years with D.C. United. The wings will likely be occupied by Lee Nguyen and either Sainey Nyassi (who has struggled with fitness since injuring his hamstring last season), Kelyn Rowe or uber-versatile Ryan Guy. Juan Toja and Andy Dorman, added last year and this offseason respectively, could present attacking mid options for Heaps.
Honduran international Jerry Bengston, New England’s Designated Player, leads an attack that averaged just 1.15 goals per game last year. Saër Sène saw significant starts at striker last season after joining the club from Bayern Munich’s reserves, scoring 11 goals, and could be the primary selection alongside Bengston in 2013. MLS veteran Chad Barrett rejoins the league with the Revs after a loan period with Valerenga in Norway and could grab some time as a super-sub. Homegrown Player Diego Fagundez, Congolese striker Dimitry Imbongo and offseason NASL call-up Matthew Horth will have their chances for playing time as well.
A tall task awaits the Revolution in 2013. Integrating a slew of new starters will prove a challenge, especially without Tierney to anchor the back half of the pitch. A lot of question marks await New England as the season nears, but if Heaps can get his team to gel quickly as a unit the Revs could at least contend for their first playoff spot in four seasons.