Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.
No. 8 in the East is the New England Revolution:
Significant additions and subtractions: Even with some high-profile MLS offseason signings from abroad, one of the truly interesting figures to watch this year is Andrew Farrell, the wise-beyond-his-years No. 1 overall draft pick.
Malian midfielder Kalifa Cissé looks like a Revolution upgrade at the holding midfield spot. Or, he gives Heaps the option of using tandem screeners (along with Clyde Simms), which could further free up attackers on the flanks.
Midfielder Andy Dorman is back for a second spell with New England, where he launched a professional career a few years back. As a two-way midfielder Dorman will more or less replace Benny Feilhaber, the talented passer who didn’t quite fit at Gillette Stadium and now resides in Kansas City. Feilhaber was the only player with significant minutes in 2012 not brought back.
Strengths: A midfield with Lee Nguyen, Juan Toja (assuming the Colombian now on his second MLS tour is healthy and gets his fitness in order) and the promising Kelyn Rowe is not one that most sides care to face.
With a full season as a head coach behind him, Heaps is now better equipped to steer the team where it needs to go. He acknowledges the steep learning curve in 2012.
Honduran international Jerry Bengtson should benefit from a full preseason and from the MLS grounding his got last year, coming into the season late, with his team already on the ropes (and still sorting out some chemistry). His transition didn’t exactly go smoothly, but that doesn’t matter now.
Pressure points: Start with the ongoing spiral, which Heaps was unable to arrest last year. The Revs, who made three MLS Cup finals through the middle of the last decade, haven’t been to the playoffs in the last three seasons.
Between the younger and lesser tested Bobby Shuttleworth and increasingly pressed incumbent Matt Reis, the Revs have a tough choice in goal.
Left back Chris Tierney was having a wonderful preseason before an injury (and an unfortunate, unnecessary incident) against Seattle.
Difference maker: Hard to imagine that fleet and skillful left-sided operator Nguyen was released by Vancouver about this time last year. He’s more or less the focal point of New England’s offense this year, at least until Toja gets his fitness in order. A big emphasis of Heaps’ preseason plan is finding ways to get Nguyen (pictured left) on the ball in better places, making him the second pass out of the back rather than the first, thus giving him a less cluttered look at things, with more time to create from wide areas and little less opportunity to get whacked by bigger defenders and midfielders. With ability to run at opponents and audacious on the shot, Nguyen is still brimming with potential.
Potential breakout player: I see big things in Farrell, who still doesn’t have an assigned spot at Gillette Stadium, able to man the right back, center back or holding midfield spots. Wherever he lines up, the big fellow just looks like a guy who has played the game professionally for years. And I’m not the only one expecting big things from the former University of Louisville standout.
Diego Fagundez, the club’s 18-year-old striker (and teen heartthrob, apparently) is another potential breakout figure.
Bottom line: The back line still seems less settled than it needs to be, the goalkeeping must improve and a striker simply has to emerge who can reliably supply 12-14 goals this year. (We are looking at you, Bengtson.) The elements seem to be there – but the proof will be in better results.