What Are They All About? New England Revolution Preview
Onwards! Another complete performance in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup saw the Chicago Fire advance to the semifinal of the competition by beating Fort Lauderdale 3-0. Veljko Paunovic and the players reinforced calls for success with on field results and dominant play. The semi will be played against the New England Revolution in Foxborough on August 9th but not before the two sides meet this Saturday in league play.
Quick turnarounds have become the norm for Chicago and this weekend will be no different as the second MLS meeting between these two sides this season is once again in Massachusetts. The Revs had an Open Cup match of their own on Wednesday night which went 120 minutes and needed to be decided by PKs. Their lineup was made up of regular starters, meaning that theoretically they will have the heavier legs of the two sides.
While Jay Heaps praised his team’s performance in the Cup victory he also commented on the fact that Saturday’s match was always the main priority for his side. New England currently occupies the last playoff qualification spot in the East, just one point ahead of D.C and Orlando, and has set a deep postseason run as their objective for the season. The second half of the season is usually when the Revs flip a switch and string together performances. Will Chicago end THE streak where it all began over two years ago, or will New England start to build steam down the stretch?
New England Form Guide (Last 5 Competitive Matches): W-D-W-L-L
Previous match: A penalty shootout victory over Philadelphia in the U.S. Open Cup (4-2)
Formation in the last match: 4-2-3-1: Knighton; Farrell, Samba, Goncalves, Watson; Kobayashi, Caldwell; Neumann, Rowe, Fagundez; Kamara
Strengths: The last time we previewed this New England side we focused on the following: their grit and determination under Jay Heaps, an attacking style of play that has paid dividends at home, and the acquisition of Kei Kamara. Some of these remain true and some have morphed into weaknesses. Let’s take a closer look at where the Revs may succeed on Saturday.
Dominance on the Wing: The Revs’ attack minded mentality has been consistent throughout the season. They are not a team that prides themselves on a possession based style (they’ve been on the wrong end of the possession stats in all three of their most recent MLS matches) but rather they pick their attacking moments carefully. They play on the counter in a way that is typical of MLS sides, on the wing and with numbers, but to arguably better effect than most other teams.
Je-Vaughn Watson has been a staple at right back for the Revs and the left back position has alternated between Chris Tierney and Andrew Farrell. Teal Bunbury, Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe have alternated in the outside mid roles of New England’s 4-2-3-1 depending on whether they are looking to go with pace and finishing ability (Fagundez) or someone who is strong on the ball and is dangerous in the box (Bunbury). No matter who features they know their responsibility is to help flood the wings when the Revs have momentum and put good crosses into the box or get the ball to the feet of the lone striker early.
A look at the heat maps and passing instances over the last three league matches reveals a staggering statistic. Over the course of those matches New England has put just two successful penetrating ground passes into the box. Not because they lack passing accuracy (77% average in those matches) but because their strategy is so reliant on crosses from wide positions and distribution before the box that they simply don’t attempt them.
The focus for Chicago is going to need to be stopping flow through the wings. Yes, shooting threats from Kamara, Nguyen and Kobayashi come from central positions but most of the Revs’ build up starts with passes out wide or the wingbacks dribbling up field.
Enforcers in the Middle: With so much pressure going forward on the wings, the natural way to counter that tactic is for opposition to put the ball into the empty space created in the middle of the pitch. For New England that’s where Daigo Kobayashi and Scott Caldwell have come in handy over the course of the season.
One thing evident in all three of their most recent matches is that Caldwell is not afraid to take one for the team in any number of ways. Whether it means taking a yellow or putting his body into dangerous positions to stop buildup he will make it happen. Turn and pass is an understatement when it comes to Caldwell as well. He has missed just fifteen pass attempts in the last three MLS matches (out of 103 attempts) and has not registered a single dribble attempt. Kobayashi serves more as a pivot than Caldwell but his positioning and vision make attackers weary to lose the ball, making Daigo an enforcer in his own way.
Game Changer: Lee Nguyen usually makes it somewhere into our strengths section but this season he is by far the best player on this Revs squad. His five goals, 7 assists, 41 shots and 17 SOG take the lead in all of those categories. He can create opportunities out of nothing and his chest take down volley into the upper corner of the net against Columbus two weeks ago might not even be his prettiest goal on the season. Some of Chicago’s errant back passes, positioning without purpose and extensive gaps between the midfield and the back line will need to tighten up on Saturday or Nguyen will feature in MLS’ weekly highlights again.
Easy Points: The match against Chicago is the first of five Eastern Conference clashes awaiting New England over the course of the next three weeks. The Revs will look to springboard themselves into a solid position at Chicago’s expense. After the last two years opposing teams assume that they’ll get at least a point against the Fire at home. When you add the fact that Chicago should seriously consider benching some starters due to short rest, turf and travel, then New England might have this one jotted down as a W already.
Weaknesses: Despite the plaudits above New England is barely holding on in the playoff race. Their one point lead over their closest competition is diminished even more when you realize that they have played at least one more match than every team below them. Last time out we highlighted that New England struggled with consistency, couldn’t increase leads in matches and was woeful defensively.
Those issues have largely remained the same and when you add the fact that their home dominance and undefeated streak has gone out the window (two losses and a win since the Fire visited) and that their signing of Kei Kamara hasn’t exactly panned out, you’re left with a unique opportunity for the Fire.
Still Leaky at the Back: New England’s goal differential currently sits at a league low -7. Yes, Chicago also currently sits at -7 but that is due to a lack of goal scoring rather than because of conceding. New England has allowed 33 goals in 20 matches, a stat bested only by Vancouver and NYCFC with 35 conceded. Jay Heaps has to be scratching his head as to how he can remedy the problem because unlike the first meeting he has had a consistently healthy and not suspended back line. Woodberry and Goncalves just seem all out of sorts way too frequently and the outside backs look absolutely gassed at times.
The match against RSL ended scoreless but time and time again Joao Plata and Burrito Martinez blew past Watson and Farrell with the ball or collected passes behind the back line. Yura Movsisyan at 6’0” and 180 lbs of muscle was apparently too allusive for the center backs as well. No one on this Revs side feels like closing down which is reflected in the fact that they have been outshot and allowed double digit opportunities in all three of their most recent MLS matches.
While they ultimately triumphed over Columbus the goal they conceded came off of a needless free kick that was played into the path of Ola Kamara who obliged with a tidy finish. Again, picking up one of the league’s hottest goals scorers might have been a good option. The defeat against NYCFC was only 1-0 but a crossbar, a post and a few near misses could have turned it into an embarrassing margin. Simple balls over the top, hopeful meandering runs and lobbed crosses all turn into dangerous opportunities against this New England side. If we’re Jay Heaps we’re making phone calls to Bundesliga 2 and Serie B in this window looking for center backs…
Ultimately the Rev’s strategy can’t be to score more than they concede if they plan on being contenders. While we wouldn’t risk David Accam in this match, if he does feature he should get a few looks on goal and plenty of opportunities to provide service to Michael de Leeuw.
The Kei Dilemma: We are by no means sports psychologists but Kei Kamara’s time in New England has been anything but good for his psyche. The emotional outburst that led to his departure from Columbus needed to be backed up with on field production and it hasn’t been. Three goals in nine starts and 810 minutes is nothing to write home about much less justify a DP contract. When you add the fact that one of those goals came against Columbus in an emotionally charged match and under strange circumstances you’re left with a lot of shoulder shrugging from even the most ardent Kei supporters.
His stats reflect his first stint with Columbus and his troubled time in Houston more than they do his Kansas City “stardom” and near MVP performance of last season. 30 shots and 14 attempts on target mean that he’s trying but he can’t quite find his shooting boots. It all cuts the figure of a frustrated man and begs several questions.
First, what’s wrong? He’s had time to gel with his teammates and yet they don’t seem to be on the same page. Inside passes when he cuts out wide, balls over the top when he wants it to feet, etc. have Kamara visibly frustrated. This leads to the more important question. Does Heaps bench a DP player for the good of the team? Juan Agudelo and Charlie Davies are both natural replacements but are currently injured. Femi is the only other out- and-out target forward in the squad but his two goals and one assist haul are impressive for the rookie. Heaps could also utilize Bunbury or Fagundez in a more advanced role.
If Kamara does get the nod Campbell and Kappelhof should get in his ear a bit. He isn’t doing his DP status any favors and the longer he goes without scoring the more that doubt and pressure will grow.
MLS Voodoo: It’s officially past the two calendar year mark for Chicago’s winless road streak and you have to think that it can’t go on forever. What more apropos way to end the streak than where it began? This league can surprise you when you least expect it and amid all of the cynical reality there has to be at least a glimmer of hope for the Fire.
Prediction: Hope gets Chicago a point. The streak continues but Chicago climbs the table: Fire 2-2 Revolution. De Leeuw and Igboananike notch goals for the Men in Red. Chicago will save the victory for August.