What Are They All About? New England Revolution
Dare they believe? This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated Columbus Crew SC 1-0 on the back of a Nemanja Nikolic goal and what appeared to be a strong tactical display. A formation change, organizational fortitude, and an air of confidence saw them across the line in more ways than one with Chicago finding themselves in fourth place at the end of the week’s matches. They’re just two points from the summit of the Eastern Conference and should other results go their way this weekend they could find themselves ahead of the pack after Saturday’s home match against New England (CSN Chicago 4:00 CT).
While not many supporters or pundits thought that such am immediate turnaround was possible, the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger solidified an already impressive midfield and has seemingly led to a change of attitude at the club. Injuries, suspensions, and Schweinsteiger’s play over the past two weeks have squelched even the most pessimistic of critics about his signature as blue skies and rays of sunshine emanate from the lovable German. Every touch seemed to be applauded by the Toyota Park crowd at the weekend and had his free kick been converted, the pandemonium would have erupted into an Oktoberfest-like parade through the streets of Chicago ending in a Ring of Fire induction.
Too much? Ok. Let’s be realistic. There are only three points separating ninth from first in the East and we are only entering week six. When you add to this that Chicago barely snuck by an injury depleted Columbus side at home after some ludicrously naïve moments from Bava, the daunting schedule ahead of the Fire, continuing issues with putting away chances, and the ever-present mediocrity of most of the teams in the East, the scene looks a bit bleaker. Now, that’s not to say that there should be a sense of doom and gloom surrounding Chicago. The positives are clear and a schizophrenic New England could help solidify those positives into constants. Will the Fire deliver once again, or will the Revolution drum up some doubt about the success exuding from the Process? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
New England Form Guide: W-D-W-L-L
Previous Match: A 2-0 home victory over Houston.
Formation: 4-4-2: Cropper; Farrell, Smith, Delamea; Koussai, Caldwell, Fagundez, Nguyen; Agudelo, Kamara
Strengths: New England find themselves just one point adrift of Chicago and after a slow start are on a three-match unbeaten streak against some impressive sides. Jay Heaps has often been criticized for a lack of tactical awareness and an overreliance on emotional motivation but if the Revs win this one he won’t bebothered one bit. Let’s see where they might succeed.
Ola Kamara? No, the Other One: Jokes aside, Kei Kamara seems to be back. After the overblown aftermath of his Columbus departure the original Kamara struggled at his new club, scoring just seven times for the Revolution last season. Doubts have always swirled around the man from Sierra Leone and the tension associated with the controversial figure has been palpable, but the last two matches have reflected the positive aspects of the forward. The typical arrogance and selfishness has been replaced by a budding partnership with Juan Agudelo this season. Heaps has lined them up in a way that allows for the pair to stretch opposing defenses in a number of ways.
Typically, Kamara leads the line and is charged with getting in behind the opposition, most clearly illustrated in his goal against Houston (he was put in a one v. one situation by Nguyen and slotted home on the second time of asking after a parry from Deric). Agudelo’s role in situations like that is to pull defenders out wide or force them into two minds by delaying his own run, which allows space for Kamara to go forward on his own. Agudelo also uses these opportunities to get on the ball and serve as a provider for Kamara from the touch line, evidenced in both the Houston match and the match against Portland. Lest we relegate Agudelo to a secondary role, Heaps also asks Kamara to hold up play and provide through passes to him at times. There were occasions in both the recent matches where Kamara attempted to flick passes on for the speedier of the pair. Both of them have also been charged with leading a high press against backlines, a tactic that should be worrisome for Fire supporters if Harrington and Meira start.
The Work Horse: Last season New England splashed some cash to sign Ivorian DP Xavier Koussai from Swiss side FC Sion. The defensive midfielder captained the Swiss side for two seasons and gained a wealth of experience that included UEFA Europa League appearances and an international call up for Ivory Coast. After tearing his ACL and spending the entirety of last season watching from the stands, Koussai made his debut against FC Dallas earlier this season. The Ivorian provides a physical presence that New England has been lacking since the departure of Goncalves and his tactical ability on the defensive side of the ball is impeccable. He can be seen commanding the box on defensive set pieces and has been given the go ahead to go forward when New England is over a dead ball, virtually eliminating any threat that Chicago may have had in the air (however slim it already was).
Since getting into the rhythm, Koussai has been a standout over the Revolution’s previous two matches. Heaps credited Houston’s inability to counter (a tactic that they have thrived on all season) to Koussai’s ability to break up play in the middle of the pitch. In that match alone, Koussai made twenty successful defensive plays (tackles, blocked shots, recoveries, interceptions, clearances) and had an 82% passing rate. Although those numbers were not as impressive against Portland, New England managed to escape from the Rose City with a point and Koussai had a few key interventions against Blanco and Valeri to keep the Revs within touching distance. He even offers somewhat of an offensive threat having registered a shot in each match–both off of late-undetected runs to the top of the box. Juninho, McCarty, and Schweinsteiger might have their hands full on Saturday.
Shoot on Sight: New England has average roughly fourteen shots per match over the last three undefeated encounters. Kamara and Agudelo are responsible for 34% of those shots, a number that might surprise some… This means that the Revs are dangerous from multiple avenues with Nguyen, Fagundez, Caldwell, and Rowe chipping in from their varying positions. If we were coaching this Revs side we would be showing them film of Bava’s inability to deal with shots.
Weaknesses: While New England may be hitting a nice run of form, they have already shown signs of struggle this season. The victory over an out of sorts Houston–most noticeable by Cubo’s inability to finish on turf–was the first clean sheet of the season for the Revs and it never felt completely out of reach for the Texan outfit. Equally, the draw in Portland was one that was perhaps a bit harsh on the hosts. With those results in the back of your mind, you’re left with a victory against a Minnesota side that has butt of most MLS jokes this season. Ultimately, this Revs side has a lot of problems and there will be plenty of weaknesses for Chicago to exploit. Let’s take a look.
Defensive Cohesion and Chemistry: The Revolution started the season on the back of two losses against Colorado and FC Dallas. Although road losses to Western Conference powerhouses is nothing to worry about, Heaps did have specific regrets coming out of those encounters. Both post-match press conferences included discussion of mental lapses at the back and a lack of covering for teammates after they had made mistakes. The former New England defender was not particularly thrilled with his side’s marking on Urruti or Barrios against Dallas or the way in which Badji and Hairston overran the flanks in Denver. Part of the problem stems from a lack of personnel and a curious case of inconsistency. New England has trotted out three different center back partnerships in five matches and even repurposed Kelyn Rowe as a left back against Houston. In addition to this, the first few matches of implementing a high press resulted in a clear lack of fitness and a unique vulnerability on the break.
These deficiencies were evident even against Minnesota where a comedy of errors allowed Collen Warner to finish from distance and ludicrous set piece defending allowed Brent Kallman to tap in from five yards out. Against Portland, schoolboy defending was visible as Tierney headed a Timbers’ cross across the goal and back into Valeri’s path. The match against Houston gives them hope on paper, but even that contesth had a few close calls as the typically lethal Dynamo attackers missed some clear-cut chances. It becomes apparent that New England hasn’t fully addressed the central issue that led to their fifty-four conceded goals last season. When Accam, DeLeeuw, and Nikolic look at this trend and see Schweinsteiger, McCarty, and Juninho serving balls in from midfield, they’ll be all smiles.
Green Gloves: In addition to the lack of cohesion and chemistry on the backline, the Revs seem to have given second year keeper Cody Cropper their full confidence. After playing just one match last season, the youngster seems to have beaten Brad Knighton out for the permanent starting spot. Cropper has started all five of the Revs matches and hasn’t exactly turned any heads. The lone clean sheet mentioned above was counterbalanced by uncertainty in the other encounters. The man responsible for marshalling the defense has to take responsibility for the lack of decisiveness in the team. Again, the more diagonal drifting runs Nikolic makes, the more confusion present for an already discombobulated keeper.
Road Form: The Revs have yet to win on the road this season and tallied just two road victories last season. While this is not unique in MLS, it should allow Chicago to play with a bit more freedom.
Prediction: If Chicago wins this match they’ll have set themselves up to weather a difficult storm on the road. They have the quality and momentum to do so. Chicago 3-1 New England. Schweinsteiger, Nikolic, and Accam followed by a would-be routine save trickling across the line from a speculative Kamara shot.