What Are They All About? New England Revolution
Dare we say it? Not yet. Although the Chicago Fire defeated St. Louis FC this past Wednesday 1-0 at Toyota Stadium, we won’t use the quintessential Open Cup motto until they are a bit further in the competition. Thursday’s draw pitted them against another lower league opponent away from home as they look to take on FC Cincinnati on June 28th in hopes of making headway towards that elusive fifth title. The mystique surrounding the competition will have to be put on the back burner for now as a quick turnaround sees Chicago take on the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium this Saturday (6:30 CT on CSN Chicago). This will be the second meeting of the two sides this season after Chicago defeated the Revolution 3-0 on the back of a goal from Bastian Schweinsteiger and a brace from Nemanja Nikolic.
Although both teams played midweek, Veljko Paunovic and Jay Heaps took similar approaches in their lineups by electing to start fringe first team players and up-and-coming youngsters against USL sides. New England had the luxury of hosting their encounter while Chicago will have to face it’s second road trip in a matter of days. However, given squad rotation and the lack of travel for key players, fatigue should not be an issue for either side.
The Revolution have recently hit a run of form after a poor start saw them win just two of their first ten matches and will be looking to add a bit of consistency to their talented squad. Luckily for Jay Heaps and his charges, they return to the fortress that is Gillette. They have yet to lose at home this season (a streak that goes all the way back to August of last year) and they will want to ensure they cushion a two-match road stint with full points this weekend. Will Chicago continue to turn heads by doing what Houston and TFC couldn’t, or will New England pop their head above the red line? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
New England Form Guide (last five league matches): W-D-L-W-W
Previous League Result: A 3-0 win over TFC at home.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Cropper; Farrell, Angoua, Delamea, Tierney; Caldwell, Koffie; Nguyen, Rowe, Fagundez; Kamara
Strengths: In our initial preview of New England this season we sighted Kei Kamara’s return to form, Xavier Koussai’s arrival, and the instinctual nature of their shot generation. Well, this time around the first two strengths have been turned into weaknesses so we’ll have to start from scratch. Let’s where the Revs might succeed on Saturday.
Chance Creation: With the likes of Nguyen, Fagundez, Rowe, and Agudelo, the number of attempts on goal is bound to be high. New England has averaged thirteen shots per match over the last five encounters–continuing the trend of a double-digit average across the season–unsurprisingly leading to the third best “goals for” average in the league. A dynamic ability to utilize Kei Kamara as a target forward to start the match and sub in Diego Fagundez once the opposition is tired in the second half has yielded superb attacking play from New England. This could be the preferred tactic once again with Joao Meira recently admitting that the physicality of MLS strikers has been one of the hardest adapting points to the league.
Additionally, the tactical flexibility present among the front four (if Heaps utilizes his typical 4-2-3-1) or the front five (if he utilizes a 4-4-2 with Fagundez, Rowe, and Hollinger-Janzen supporting Kamara and Nguyen) has ensured that overloading the midfield and springing quick counters continues to be the New England way.
When four of your top five goal scorers are also four of your top five assist providers, you’re in good shape going forward. This is epitomized by none other than Lee Nguyen who seemingly has a career season every year he decides to lace up his boots again. Sitting comfortably at six goals and seven assists, having a passing completion rating of 77% over the last three matches, an average of three key passes per match in that time, and the adaptability to play as a second striker when called upon make him the most dangerous man on the pitch for the Revs. The sometimes USMNT player will be a handful for the likes of Dax McCarty and Juninho in midfield and we don’t expect Chicago to put up its regular possession numbers in this one.
Ich Spiele Nicht Auf Turf: One way of stopping New England’s ability to build up in transition is the vision and calmness of Bastian Schweinsteiger. However, we’re not sure whether he is worth the risk in this encounter. In what is being dubbed as the Drogba clause, some big money DPs have requested that the decision on whether to feature on turf or not be included in their contract. While no one expected him to travel to St. Louis to play on sub-par turf against lower league opposition, he may just be rested in this one as well. If you look at recent season ending injuries in MLS (i.e Baggio Husidic away to Minnesota earlier this month), most ACL and MCL tears have occurred on those pesky round black plastic pellets. A less than ideal result on the road far outweighs the potential of aggravating the niggles of an injury prone DP. Chicago finally has the luxury to rotate their squad and the Revs may not be playing a full-strength opponent.
Statement Match: Having just defeated MLS leading TFC, New England will realize that defeating second place Chicago could reassert their ambitions for the season. Not only would they rise above the red line, but their match in hand on Columbus could see them solidify that position next week. Additionally, the first encounter against Chicago played out in less than ideal circumstances as an early red card doomed New England’s chances of competing. A strong display could remedy a number of regrets and a strong mentality could be the difference in this encounter.
Weaknesses: The last time these two sides met we discussed a lack of cohesion and chemistry (evidenced by Heaps’ own post-match pressers), the inexperience of Cropper in goal, and a slow start to the season. Frequent line up tinkering, one of the lowest saves percentages in the league, and a strange up and down flow to their results mean that these critiques are still somewhat true. Let’s see where else they could struggle.
DP Voodoo: Although the Fire have often been the butt of many MLS Designated Player jokes, the Process has seen them reverse that trend in recent windows. The baton has been passed to the likes of Colorado, San Jose, and New England. Since the implementation of the rule, Robert and Jonathan Kraft have not shown any interest in using it to its full potential. From their very first DP signing, Milton Caraglio (who featured a mere twelve times, scoring just thrice as a lone striker before returning to ply his trade in South America), to the troubled waters of taking on Kei Kamara’s DP tag, the Revolution have continually missed on their big signings. The list includes the likes of Jerry Bengston, Shalrie Joseph, and Jose Goncalves all of which have been considered flops when compared to league wide expectations. Their one successful DP signing, Jermaine Jones, spent just two seasons in New England and was at the center of one of the most brutal salary negotiation sagas the league has seen before leaving for Colorado.
The trend is seemingly continuing this year with Xavier Koussai, Kamara, and the unfilled third DP slot. We touted Koussai as a central strength in the last meeting between these sides but warned of his injury prone past. His physical presence, technical ability, and leadership qualities earned him a big money move from FC Sion but he spent all of last year on the bench with an ACL tear. After featuring in twelve matches this season, Koussai was dealt another blow with a severe hamstring strain against NYCFC. He’ll miss up to six weeks and Jay Heaps has been quoted as saying Koussai’s presence will be missed heavily on the pitch, but even more so in the locker room.
Similarly, Kei Kamara is virtually non-existent. Sure, we can site his ability to create space for others to work in, but this is often a copout for struggling number nines. The fact of the matter is that he has scored just four goals in his thirteen appearances, has a mere forty-four completed passes over the entirety of his last three matches, and is still earning 800k a year. When you add the fact that he’s had just two seasons in which he’s netted more than ten goals in his entire career, you start to scratch your head at his DP tag and his continued inclusion in Heaps’ lineup.
Why do we mention this seemingly unrelated history here? Well, because we think it will have a clear effect on the psyche of the match. As the league transitions into a new phase, there has been a distinct separation between the top tier of MLS and everyone else. Chicago is by no means close to a long-term presence at the peak, but the previous victory over New England and the trajectory of the club seem to indicate this match will have an air of “little brother” syndrome about it with the presence of Nikolic, Accam and maybe Bastian on the pitch. Another heavy loss should reiterate the outdatedness of the workman like Heaps approach to the league.
CAPs Weigh Heavy: Although Jay Heaps praised the international call ups of Kei Kamara, Je-Vaughn Watson, and Antonio Delamea as beneficiary for player growth and a testament to the strength of his squad, there is a downside to international play as well. Watson went 90 minutes in a friendly against Peru on Tuesday (the Monumental is 7,368 feet above sea level) and his participation should be questionable on Saturday. Featuring frequently at right back and being able to fill in at center back as ywell means that he will be missed. Delamea, who had featured in every minute of the Rev’s season prior to his call up, did not play (or even make the bench) in Slovenia’s match against Malta on Saturday and should be ready to start, albeit with a bit of pondering to do. Kei Kamara featured in both of last week’s matches for Sierra Leon, playing a role in the two goals against Kenya. With fixture congestion piling up, the added stress of international participation could be a factor in this match.
Prediction: Chicago is just too good at the moment. Even if Schweinsteiger does not feature, Chicago will get it done on the road again. Chicago 3-1 New England. Nemanja Nikolic with a brace and Michael de Leeuw will finally get his first of the season.