I call this space The Wins Column because it’s supposed to highlight, whenever possible, the positive takeaways from the past week of Major League Soccer. The New England Revolution playing like RSL 2.0 fits that bill.
The Montreal Impact, who were just 45 minutes away from claiming the league’s first ever CONCACAF Champions League victory but blew their opportunity in humiliating fashion, do not. Major League Soccer’s head honchos, who finally published updated Roster Rules that only confirmed reports that the league was still penny-pinching, don’t fit the bill either.
Stuff like that is what makes MLS fans want to follow Homer Simpson by tuning out and heading into the bushes, like in the classic meme-turned-GIF of the Week
But it’s what’s happening in New England, very much an extension of their success towards the end of 2014, that makes fans want to tune in and watch every match.
For the last six or seven seasons, Real Salt Lake have lived by their “the team is the star” mantra. They’ve won an MLS Cup and finished runners-up for the Supporters’ Shield, CONCACAF Champions League, and the U.S. Open Cup, and have been able to keep the bulk of their roster together for the better part of 5 years. But they haven’t been convincing this season, leaving New England in pole position to become the “RSL 2.0” of Major League Soccer.
Like RSL, the Revs do have a little bit of star power built into their team. Jermaine Jones is essentially a more expensive Kyle Beckerman that gets played at centre-back. Lee Nguyen’s performances in 2014 were reminiscent of Javier Morales. When Juan Agudelo hits his stride (he hasn’t really yet, but surely his time is coming seeing how well everyone around him has been playing) he’s a flashier version of Alvaro Saborio.
What’s more important to the success of this New England side has been their cohesiveness. Head coach Jay Heaps has put out a pretty consistent roster week after week, maintaining faith in his side even after 3-0 and 2-0 losses to the Seattle Sounders and New York City FC, respectively, to start the campaign.
Six Revolution players- Agudelo, Scott Caldwell, Andrew Farrell, Nguyen, Bobby Shuttleworth, and Chris Tierney have played at least 630 minutes so far this season, or the equivalent of seven out of the Revs’ nine matches. Add Kelyn Rowe, who’s at 620 minutes, and that’s a big core that’s had a lot of time to figure each other out.
Is that chemistry the only reason the Revs are currently on a league-best seven-match unbeaten run since that loss at Yankee Stadium? No, but it definitely plays a part.
Another admirable quality about the Revolution is how their attack can meticulously break defenses down. They aren’t a team that takes a lot of shots (11.8 per game, 12th in MLS according to WhoScored.com), nor are they a team that possesses or passes the ball REALLY well (13th and 15th in MLS in those respective statistics).
But when opportunities arise, the Revolution have found a set of motions that work. Even better, they can go through those motions like clockwork.
Defensively, they rely heavily on Jones, Caldwell and Co. to clog the middle and to push the ball out to the wings. From there, their speedy wingers (their attacking midfield three can be switched from time to time, but mostly it’s Agudelo and Teal Bunbury out wide), can dart forward and begin working the ball back to the middle.
They don’t waste time either. According to WhoScored, the Revs spend more time (32% of their possession) than any other team in the attacking third. From there, the Revolution rework the ball into a central position just as quickly.
It’s here that their versatility again shows. The quality of crosses that the Revs are sending into the box are excellent, making the job of Charlie Davies, who’s suddenly got the most prized forehead in MLS since Tim Cahill left town, all too easy.
But the Revolution are getting very good at the tiki-taka game too, or as I like to call it, the “Catalan Heart Surgery” that won Spain the World Cup in 2010 and FC Barcelona everything but in the following year. The Revs have put a twist on the style by adding speed too, like in the buildup to what was their fourth goal against, you guessed it, RSL two weeks ago.
Here’s the link to the full highlight, before and after that near-Steve Neumann strike Another thing you’ll notice is just how persistent the Revs are at getting second-chance opportunities and how comfortable they are within the 18-yard box, even the 6-yard box for that matter.
Now, RSL’s backline on that day was pretty makeshift in the absence of Jamison Olave. Jeff Attinella, MLS’ best backup now that Dan Kennedy is finally starting in Dallas, was superhuman though.
I’m not suggesting that the Revs will go to town every match they play against a defensive unit that isn’t LA Galaxy-esque. But going back to the WhoScored stats one more time, the Revs are taking 12% of their shots from within the 6-yard box, tied with Seattle for the league lead. Only 33% of their shots come from outside the 18, second only to Dallas for lowest in the league. Their goal differential at this early stage is a +4, one better than Dallas and only three behind Seattle.
The Sounders may have Dempsey and Martins. The Hoops may have Diaz and Castillo. But these Revs are equally loaded even if the individual names aren’t as fear-imposing.
Top-to-bottom this is a side that like the Real Salt Lake of old has quality everywhere. They’ve also got a certain Diego Fagundez on the bench, depth that even heyday RSL probably couldn’t rival. They’re younger, faster, and more fun to watch than Real’s semi-dynasty too.
The real question will be whether they can go one better than their predecessors from Utah who had a penchant for coming in second.
If they keep up their recent form, they sure will be.