Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: New England Revolution


No one will begrudge Jay Heaps a learning curve. Being a first-year head coach is challenging enough – and doing so last year at rebuilding New England was always going to be a tough climb.

But it’s fair to ask for progress this year following a deflated 2012 campaign, one where playoff aspirations were drifting from view by August.

The attacking elements are all there. But Heaps, a former defender, and his staff have some ground to make up in that wobbly defense if they want to avoid missing the playoffs a fourth consecutive season.

Considering that this time last year Heaps (right, with Saer Sene) was running his first professional practices – Ever! – he’s presumably better equipped to answer the burning questions heading into preseason camp in 2013:

  • Where is the defensive leadership?

A lot of that depends on an important sub-set of that question: who is in goal?

Matt Reis remains the longtime incumbent, and he seemed to kick the game up a notch after a mid-season benching in 2012. On the other hand, Bobby Shuttleworth has always been a bright understudy, so the position may not be exactly “up for grabs,” but it’s no lead pipe lock for Reis, either.

Some of the Revs’ defensive frailty in 2012 could be pinned on lack of communication and leadership in the back. No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Farrell has the physical tools to be a central defensive force at Gillette Stadium, but is he ready mentally?

Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston (and perhaps even third-year man A.J. Soares) are getting to places in their careers where they can’t just be “players,” where they need to reliably be voices, instructors on the field.

Someone has to take command back there.

  • Where do all the fascinating midfield parts fit it?

Andy Dorman is back for his second Revolution “go round,” and there are lots of ways Heaps can use the midfield veteran, coming off a moderately productive five-year stay in Scotland and England.

What of Lee Nguyen, who was so effective after being claimed on the cheap 11 months ago from Vancouver that U.S. international Benny Feilhaber was deemed surplus at Gillette? (Yes, it was surely more complicated than that with Feilhaber, but same difference as it relates to Nguyen and the bigger personnel puzzle going into 2013.)

And then there’s lefty specialist Juan Toja, one of the truly intriguing figures in MLS going into this 18th season. We know the guy can play. The questions with Toja have always been along the lines of “Where’s his head at?”

Dorman and Nguyen are fairly versatile, willing and able to play centrally or out wide. Toja tends to drift inside, even when stationed ostensibly on the left, so perhaps a little less so on his end. With all that, there are talented, younger men to factor in, too.

Of course, it’s not all about attacking. Somebody’s got to screen and support that iffy back line – and Clyde Simms or Stephen McCarthy can’t do it all themselves.

  • What does the forward depth chart look like?

If you can’t find a quality forward around the Revs’ ongoing training camp in Casa Grande, Ariz., you aren’t looking very hard. It’s on Heaps and staff to make some order within the stack-up of striking ability.

Saer Sene is coming off knee surgery, but team officials say it’s “so far, so good” on his rehab. The club’s first double-digit goal scorer since Taylor Twellman (Sene had 11 last year) probably won’t be at top speed by the club’s March 9 opener, but he seems on pace to be there soon after.

He and Honduran international Jerry Bengtson, who had his moments after last year’s late-summer signing, seem like options Nos. 1 and 2.

But Diego Fagundez is a bright young prospect, and Dimitry Imbongo might be as well. Plus, the team’s first two draft picks, Donnie Smith and Luke Spencer, may have something to say about it.

And let’s not forget that Heaps could use Dorman, Nguyen or Toja somewhere along a front line, depending on the formation.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: New York Red Bulls

Pique finds solidarity with criticized NBA players

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There have been a number f outstanding pieces in The Players’ Tribune since its launch, but few as colorful and entertaining as Thursday’s entry from Gerard Pique.

The Barcelona star center back spilled the beans on any number of funny stories in his post, from Roy Keane’s cell phone anger and Sir Alex Ferguson‘s guiding hand to Lionel Messi’s greatness and more.

[ MORE: Zlatan in MLS an auto success ]

But perhaps most interesting was his take on the grief he’s received for supporting the vote for Catalan independence. Pique points out that he’s been proud to represent the Spanish national team, but won’t veer from his democratic beliefs.

And guess what? Even in Spain, athletes rightly bristle at the “Stick to Sports” crowd.

It’s funny, I noticed some people in America have started telling the NBA players to “just shut up and dribble” when they express their opinions on real problems in society.

It’s ridiculous, no?

It’s the same here in Spain. They say, “Just shut up and play football. It’s all you know.”

Sorry, but I will not just shut up and play. It’s not all I know. There’s a lot more depth to footballers than most people realize, and I think it’s important that we express ourselves and our views.

Given relative health, Zlatan’s success MLS is close to automatic

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The only question is his knee at his age.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is coming to Major League Soccer. Having confirmed his departure from Manchester United, the announcement that the living Swedish legend is joining the LA Galaxy is expecting next week.

[ MORE: MLS Weekend Preview ]

Some have asked whether he’ll cut muster in the league, to which we point to the lead: Few players have arrived to MLS with as dominant a career as Ibrahimovic, and the Swede would need his knee to fall apart in order to fail in California.

The man’s game isn’t based on speed, but it does require his abnormal power and grace. He scored just once for United in very limited time this season, but don’t forget how dangerous he was against Premier League and Europa League defenses last season.

He scored 28 goals with 10 assists last season, with 17 and 5 coming in league play. He was suspended for three matches and injured for seven, meaning this is a 20-goal Premier League scorer arriving in MLS within a calendar year of doing so.

Try putting his resume in perspective: Didier Drogba was extremely good for Montreal but a half-decade removed from his last double-digit goal PL season (Don’t forget that Drogba bagged 11 in 11 to start life on our shores). Robbie Keane was about the same time removed from his run of 10-plus goal seasons in the Premier League. He was good for LA.

The only risk here is that Ibrahimovic never gets healthy and LA takes a bit of a loss on his salary (one which is at least partially negated by the sheer number of Ibrahimovic Galaxy jerseys sold).

Entering this season, Ibrahimovic had failed to score 15 goals once since 2006. He’a also had a fairly religious assist output (10+ most years). With names like Alessandrini, Kamara, and dos Dos Santos, this should be a stand-up double if not a homer for LA and for MLS.

Plus the vicious looks after teammates miss him badly with a pass, let alone the press conferences and paparazzi hits: This should be a lot of fun.

MLS Weekend Preview: Friedel’s Revs get NYCFC test

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It’s an international break, and Major League Soccer is only sorta observing it.

More than half of the league’s clubs will participate on Saturday match days, with several shorthanded by national team duty.

[ MORE: Southgate on racism in football]

Columbus won’t have Zack Steffen and Wil Trapp for a visit from DC United — who is missing Zoltan Steiber, Bruno Miranda, and Oniel Fisher — while the Red Bulls will be without Tyler Adams, Kemar Lawrence, and Michael Murillo for Minnesota United’s visit.

NYCFC won’t have Alexander Ring, Ronald Matarrita, and Rodney Wallace, Portland’s without David Guzman and Andy Polo, and Sporting KC loses Daniel Salloi.

The Whitecaps won’t have center back Kendall Waston, while opponents LA Galaxt are without Ola Kamara.

New England Revolution vs. New York City FC — 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Brad Friedel‘s New England revolution, purposely lower case, is making believers out of its players. It would take a giant step if it could slow the NYCFC juggernaut. The visitors have allowed just one goal in their 3-0 start.

As for the hosts, Friedel has made his mark in a way that mostly makes you wonder what in the world Jay Heaps was doing:.

(Bunbury) pointed to a fine system in the locker room, increased accountability, how Friedel posts the starting XI on game day, and occasional two-a-day training sessions, which never occurred in the forward’s four years under Heaps.

“I think it unifies the team,” Bunbury said. “The broad sense of professionalism, it’s about having respect for each other and making sure you are held accountable in every part of this club.”

Never occurred under Heaps? Woof.

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers — 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

FCD had an uninspiring ending to their CONCACAF Champions League dreams, but that’s little compared to the Timbers’ 0-2 start under Gio Savarese. A trip down South isn’t a surefire way to right the ship.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. LA Galaxy — 10 p.m. ET Saturday

A long trip up North is only made worse by a laundry list of injuries for Sigi Schmid’s Galaxy. We’re only listing it amongst our Top Three because an LA win would be wildly impressive given the ‘Caps strong start.


Columbus Crew vs. DC United — 6 p.m. ET Saturday
New York Red Bulls vs. Minnesota United — 7 p.m. ET Saturday
Colorado Rapids vs. Sporting KC — 9 p.m. ET Saturday

Mourinho: “People with brains” understand Man Utd in transition

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Jose Mourinho’s been having a little fun on his international break, “managing” a team of superstars including Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in a charity match.

[ MORE: Southgate talks racism in football ]

Speaking CNN as part of a publicity run, Mourinho was asked about Manchester United’s second place campaign and disappointment after dropping out of the UEFA Champions League.

Mourinho reiterated his position that United is a team in transition, and that the season is going along at an acceptable clip.

“I understand the frustration, I understand the sadness of being knocked out in the Champions League, but I don’t understand anything more than that,” Mourinho said to CNN’s Amanda Davies.

United has scored the third-most goals in the Premier League, and allowed the fourth-fewest. It’s drastically reduced its propensity to draw matches, which hurt its table position last season, and has already surpassed last season’s goal total.

Two more wins, 10 goals better differential, and the list goes on but unfortunately also includes crosstown rivals running away with the league and still alive in the UCL.

“Of course in the future we want to have 19 clubs behind us but this is the reality,” said Mourinho. “And the reality is for people with brain, with sense, with common sense, with knowledge of what sports is, we are in a moment of transition. Being in a moment of transition and still manage to do what he did last season and win trophies and to do what we are trying to do this season, which is still trying to win a trophy, and try to be second, because in this moment it’s the only top position that is possible for us to get. I think we are in a good position.”