Remember back - oh, just a little over a week ago - when we were looking at D.C. United's schedule for June and saying, "Wow - this is a much softer schedule than we've seen this year! Maybe we'll see our boys get off the schneid sooner than later!" I want to go back to then. Back to before Chicago picked up two pieces that have them looking competitive, and back to before the New England Revolution - the Black-and-Red's opponents on Saturday - beat the two-time defending MLS champs 5-0.
But because I don't have access to the TARDIS, and because I'm a sucker for punishment, I exchanged questions with my counterpart, Steve Stoehr, at The Bent Musket, SB Nation's Revs site. My questions for Steve are listed first, and you can find his questions for me, along with my driving-you-to-order-that-extra-drink answers below that.
Questions for the Bent Musket
Your Revs beat the two-time defending champs LA Galaxy 5-0 last weekend. Now, granted the Galaxy were missing their Actual Most Important Player in Omar Gonzalez, but my question for you is this: What's it like to win a game? I've forgotten what it feels like.
Hey, I feel for you. Until the 2-0 win over Philadelphia a few months ago, I'd pretty much given up on knowing that feeling, too. But when you find it, man...wow. It's euphoric. Especially when it's over a team that always seems so self-important and entitled as the Galaxy. To do it in such spectacular fashion...yeah. Yeah man. That's the stuff.
More seriously, New England have built one of the best defenses in the league this year, allowing only 9 goals in 13 games. Considering New England's defense was far from that good last year, where did that improvement come from?
Part of it is maturity. Last year the defense featured some veteran presence at fullback with Chris Tierney, Kevin Alston, and Flo Lechner, but in the middle the starters were Soares and McCarthy, neither of whom had much professional experience. They were each known to make one or two significant mistakes per game. And let's face it, despite being veterans and serviceable options at their position, Tierney and Alston aren't in danger of winning any league defender of the year awards.
Now each of those players has another year under their belts. The experience shows through every day. McCarthy and Soares are limiting their mistakes, and Tierney's defense has improved. It helps, too, that Bobby Shuttleworth has really come into his own this year. With him between the sticks, you can be confident that not many teams are going to score a lot of goals.
Finally, the biggest piece to the defensive improvement is Jose Goncalves. I really can't say enough about the player. He's big, strong, athletic, intelligent, and smart on the ball, and the impact he's had on each and every player in the defense cannot be overstated. It's not just that he can shut down opposing forwards with apparent ease, and it's not just that he can play out of the back with a style and efficiency that we haven't seen in New England for some time; it's that he makes everyone around him better. If there's a clearer candidate for MLS Defender of the Year, and maybe even MLS Newcomer of the Year, I haven't seen him yet.
Now that your attack has come alive - which, with guys like Saer Sene and Lee Nguyen and the emergence of Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez, may have only been a matter of time all along - where are Revs fans' expectations for this season, and where does that compare with the vibe back in March?
Ironically, I think expectations are right back to where they were in March. When the season started, we were all expecting a run at the playoffs. The team looked, on paper, like it had the legs to nick into the 4th or 5th spot in the East, but we as fans were all hoping to at least be realistically in it until the last day of the season. After the scoring drought early in the year, most fans went into depression mode and were probably predicting a 7th place finish at best. Without giving in to the sensationalism and euphoria of the three-match run and the 5-0 win, I think playoff contention is still a fair expectation of this team.
However, if I allow my fandom and homerism to take over a little bit, I think I'm expecting this team to comfortably make the playoffs this year. You mentioned the attacking talent coming alive; if they stay alive, and the defense keeps this up, I'm not sure there's anyone out there who can stop the Revs. The top teams in the East might be too good for us, and maybe some West clubs like RSL or (really?) Dallas. But as anyone will tell you in any sport (except Basketball), once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen.
If you were playing against New England and had to pick one Revolution player to center your gameplan on, who would it be?
That's really tough. I think at this point I'd have to say either Lee Nguyen or Diego Fagundez. Diego seems the obvious pick, but the guy that keeps the team running in the attack is Lee. He's probably the most accurate passer on the team, he's creative, he knows how to move off the ball, and he knows how to link the defense with attack. He's got two goals and an assist on the year, but most of what he does goes unnoticed. It's not the hard-working, ball-winning sort of unnoticed work, but the kind of stuff that connects the team together in possession. If you shut him down, you make it tremendously hard for the Revs to get anything going offensively.
The flip side to that, though, is that Lee's no longer the only creative and intelligent midfielder playing for the Revs. Kelyn Rowe can do at least some, if not all, of the work that Lee does, and usually they're on the field together. Juan Toja has that potential. Scott Caldwell, when playing, can spray a pass. And up top, you have Juan Agudelo and the boy wonder, Diego, who can make a lot happen all by themselves. Diego, especially, is the single greatest offensive threat on the roster; if you don't account for him, you will suffer. I'm just not sure I'd center my game plan on stopping him, since so many other players can hurt you, too.
Who starts, and how does it end on Saturday?
I'm always wrong when I predict a lineup, but here goes nothing (4-1-4-1, R to L): Bobby Shuttleworth; Andrew Farrell, Stephen McCarthy, Jose Goncalves, Chris Tierney; Scott Caldwell; Saer Sene, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez; Juan Agudelo
It's possible we could see A.J. Soares in there instead of McCarthy, or Kalifa Cisse instead of Caldwell. I would be surprised to see Juan Toja in place of Rowe, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility, either. As for a score, I predict 2-0 Revs. It's a scoreline we've grown fond of recently.
Questions for B&RU
I don't want to come off as insensitive, but man, I don't really know where to start. I guess I'll come at you with this: give me one particular area of the game where United have been deficient, that has contributed to their horrid season so far, and what you feel they must do to improve in that realm.
Does "soccer" count as a particular area of the game? The Black-and-Red have been deficient all around. They've been lacking in all aspects of attack (movement, passing, set piece service, creating, finishing) and defense (positioning, marking, focus). If I'm picking one aspect of the game, though, it's transition. United as a team simply cannot create chances on the break because they have so far this year simply failed to get the ball forward quickly enough. At the same time, they have been very vulnerable when defending the break. It's gotten to the point where a team like Portland, who generally want to hoard possession, ceded much of it to D.C. when we played recently, secure in the knowledge that United would make a stupid pass that would lead to a counter. (It worked.)
Let's change gears. Tell us one area where you feel, if United is sharp enough, they can exploit the Revolution to their benefit in Saturday's game.
My first instinct led me to a decision between "luck" and "raiding the locker room Gatorade fridge." But then I realized that you probably meant on the field. If guys like Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon and Dwayne De Rosario can come close to their 2012 form, their interplay and movement could create some chances.
I happen to think that Ben Olsen is a talented coach, but if you start a season 1-10-2, you're on the hotseat. How long do you think Olsen has left, and are you surprised the leash has been this long?
While I am surprised at the depths to which the team has sunk this year, I'm not surprised that Ben Olsen hasn't gotten the sack. The front office was pretty clear from the start of the year that they would be patient with Olsen, who, in just his fourth year since retiring from MLS, is still a very young coach. I think that Olsen is likely to keep his job through the end of the season at least. At that point, the question will become whether we saw enough improvement over the second two-thirds of the season not to can him in the offseason.
Give us an under-the-radar player that Revs fans should watch out for in this match.
Outside midfielder Kyle Porter has to be the guy. He won Black & Red United's reader poll for United's Player of the Month for May. He's a Canadian international (his first and so far only cap coming against the USA in the friendly back in January) who played for the NASL Edmonton FC last year. He's just about the only guy on the D.C. roster who plays with any confidence going forward. His crossing has improved since the start of the year, and he's been taking set pieces in recent weeks. He's got the pace and ability to make runs at the back post, and that came together for his first counted league goal against KC a few weeks ago. (His first MLS goal wasn't counted, as it was tragicomically and incorrectly nullified for offside in Week 4.)
Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
Score - Do I have to? Really? Fine... The Revs should expect a win here, probably something like 2-0.
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How do you see things playing out on Saturday? Think the Revs could make noise in the Eastern Conference the way United did last year? Give us your say in the comments.