D.C. United's vital May homestand, a trilogy of repeat opponents, ends today with our second look at the New England Revolution. Unlike Houston and Toronto, who basically just shared a flight with us in one direction or another so we could have the rematch immediately, it's been over 5 weeks since we last faced the Revs. That's not an eternity by any means, but it's long enough for things to have changed.
So what's different about the Revs these days? Well, for one, we won't be catching them without Shalrie Joseph - suspended for our trip up to
the middle of nowhere Foxboro - or with Benny Feilhaber (somewhat puzzlingly neglected by Juergen Klinsmann) unfit to play more than a sub's role. Those are unquestionably New England's two best players, and they will be ready to go from the start tonight. Joseph in particular has a history of strong outings against United. On the other hand, former DC stalwart Clyde Simms is out with an ankle problem, leaving the Revs without their main defensive midfielder and United fans without the chance to say thanks for years of service.
Change goes both ways, though, and United will also look different from when these clubs last met. Joe Willis, Robbie Russell, and Danny Cruz are definitely not starting, with the latter two out injured. Maicon Santos is likely only to feature as a sub, Chris Pontius (our super sub that day) is probably going to miss out with an injury, and we will likely see Dwayne De Rosario continue as a withdrawn forward as opposed to the attacking midfield role he held at Gillette Stadium. Andy Najar played no part in the previous meeting, but appears in line for a start.
In other words, this should end up being a lot different from our recent repeating opponents.
One thing that won't be changed is the formation. Jay Heaps will be sticking with a narrow 442 that is based on central solidity and the unpredictability of having wide men who prefer to drift inside.
The job of replacing Simms will likely fall to utility man Ryan Guy after he played that role against the Houston Dynamo last Saturday. Guy, an American with experience in Ireland's first division, has played just about everywhere for the Revs. He'll definitely put in the work and offers some skill on the ball, but he might be vulnerable in terms of his positioning.
The other option would be to move Stephen McCarthy - a defensive midfielder under Steve Nicol - up from his center back role. That would give the Revs a more rugged look in the midfield, but Heaps would have to give a start at center back to either John Lozano (questionable with an adductor strain) or Darrius Barnes (who Heaps thus far has not trusted to play much at all).
The other question mark is a familiar face. Blake Brettschneider broke into New England's starting lineup thanks to a brief tactical switch to a 4231 at RSL - Saer Sene is a good player, but that formation required Brettschneider's central presence as a target man rather than the Frenchman's roaming style of play - and made it count with this spectacular goall (ignore the RSL announcer bizarrely mistaking him for Feilhaber). It's not every day you see an MLS forward take Jamison Olave to school, and Heaps has stuck with BlakeBrett ever since.
That choice has been kind of easy with Jose Moreno troubled with a calf strain, but the Colombian is apparently fit enough to be considered a potential starter instead. If Heaps opts for Moreno - which would be odd given the "show my former team what they're missing" factor - look for him to play a bit deeper than Brettschneider would. Sene will still roam all over the place, but he'll probably do it a bit higher up the field.
The Revs will be far stronger in possession than they were at Gillette due to the return of Joseph and having Feilhaber back at 100%. Joseph's passing range opens up the field for the Revs, which is particularly of note when they have someone fast like Sene popping up all over the place. It also serves to mitigate the problem with playing a narrow midfield, which is that teams can smother you if they have wide players capable of coming inside to defend (as United does). If Joseph has time, he'll be able to switch play to either side quickly, which would bypass much of our midfield. Denying him space will be vital, and that's a job that will fall on Branko Boskovic, De Ro dropping back, and (sometimes) Perry Kitchen.
Feilhaber's importance is that, simply put, he's the most creative and skillful player the Revs have. His positioning as a "wide" player also means he gets multiple looks at opposing defenses. He can drift into the area a central playmaker usually occupies and look to slice the defense up, or he can stay on the flank and try to isolate a fullback. Dealing with him will require hard work to deny him space and time as well as positional focus across the field. It's not just Daniel Woolard, whoever starts at left midfield, or Kitchen; Feilhaber will spot poor positioning or a lack of alertness wherever it happens, and he'll take advantage.
Lee Nguyen plays more or less the same way as Feilhaber, albeit with a touch less ability and without Feilhaber's long-range shot. United struggled quite a bit with Nguyen last time out, as his moves inside - occasionally all the way through the center channel and onto the other side of the field - left us unbalanced numerous times. What made that showing more impressive was that Nguyen played with a temperature of over 100 degrees and was on an IV before the game started. There is no word of any such concern this time out, so it's likely that he'll be able to be even sharper than he was back in April.
The weak point for the Revolution is their back four. Chris Tierney can provide great service from the left - his free kicks have been a consistent thorn in our side for years now, so United will have to defend without fouling - but he's got below-average speed for an outside back. Najar is precisely the kind of player Tierney won't want to see coming at him.
In central defense, McCarthy and AJ Soares are both blood-and-guts types that love the physical side of the game but aren't that sharp in terms of soccer IQ. Both (particularly Soares) defend impatiently, and as such can be drawn out of position trying to make challenges. The movement of De Ro and Hamdi Salihi should be a significant asset.
Out on the right, Silver Spring native Kevin Alston has good speed but is prone to a big mistake or two per game. He also doesn't offer much of a threat to get into the attack, which hampers the narrow 442. While I'm sure Heaps is working on Alston's ability to overlap, that side of his game hasn't changed much in 2012. Unlike Tierney, who should be isolated 1v1 as much as possible, the tactic I'd use against Alston would be to try to work combinations around him. This could be particularly effective if Nick DeLeon is fit to play, as DeLeon has the vision and passing ability to send people through on goal without having to go the conventional route of getting wide and crossing.
This game has a banana peel quality to it. Going forward, this one looks promising on paper. The weaknesses of their defenders individually match up quite nicely with our strengths, and the Revs aren't a case of the whole being greater than the sum of their parts. Throw in some indifferent recent performances from Matt Reis in goal, and it would be a disappointment if United can't continue to punctuate attacking play with goals.
However, they're hardly pushovers, as we saw up north. Their narrow approach will leave United with less space in the midfield - Kitchen in particular needs to be sharp on the ball, as he'll have Feilhaber, Nguyen, and Sene all lurking in slightly abnormal positions around him - and they have an attack that is very capable of producing goals. A relaxed defensive showing, or some wasteful finishing up top, could leave us in a very difficult contest.
That means another hard-working display is in order when we don't have the ball, as forcing New England into sideways or backwards passes will mean more chances for a mistake from the back four or Guy in his new position. Being the harder working team will also likely cause the Revs some discipline problems; they're not a violent team, but they do tend to lose their way with the ball when the game turns against them. If we can take advantage of their flaws, we'll take them out of the game mentally. That's the surest path to making this homestand really count, and just as importantly make my drunken demand for nine points from these home games a reality.