Seven Saturdays ago, D.C. United and the New England Revolution engaged in a stereotypical early-season match at RFK Stadium. For the Black-and-Red, the match presented a good chance to get their first win
since the Clinton administration of 2014, while the Revs were trying to rediscover the chemistry that brought them within a lightning strike - that's what a Seth Sinovic goal counts as, basically - of an upset of Sporting Kansas City in last year's playoffs.
United was the only team that got what they came for, but neither team impressed. The game featured a total of three shots on goal, the last of which was Chris Rolfe's stoppage-time nail in the coffin. Like many games in the first month or so of any MLS season, the game turned on a stroke of luck: Christian's driven cross was too close to goal for any United attacker, but fortunately it was struck with enough force to flummox Jose Goncalves, who inexplicably volleyed it past Bobby Shuttleworth. It's not the Own Goal of the Year - surely Victor Bernardez, with an assist from Jordan Stewart, will hold onto that title - but it was a huge slice of luck for a team that needed it at the time.
Since that game, United is 4W-2D-1L and has outscored opponents 12-6. If not for two stoppage time goals against on the road, those figures would be even more impressive. United finally getting an MLS win seems to have helped the team turn a corner mentally.
However, United's improvement has mostly fit under the category of steady improvement rather than some evolutionary leap forward. That latter description suits the Revs, who are on a 5W-1D-0L streak at the moment. New England first responded to their listless early-season form with some better defending - letting up just two goals in the next four matches - before exploding for ten goals in their last two matches.
Suffice it to say this will be a far different match from the first outing. That's good in one way: the Revs side that will be available tomorrow might not have hung five goals on early April United, but they would have certainly controlled the flow of the game and scored two or three goals. Today's United, however, is a far more confident side, even if our best road result is a perfunctory 1-0 win over a Philadelphia Union side who looked awful on the day.
What changed in New England? Actually, not that much. Jay Heaps still plays a 4141, he still wants his team to raid forward at a high speed, and his team relies a lot less on crossing than most MLS teams. Part of their progress was, like United's, simply the growth that happens when a team has time to work on things in training. Patience is a virtue, and all that. The Revs had to cope with Jose Goncalves - their most important player in 2013 - being grumpy about his contract, and later both Goncalves and Kelyn Rowe were injured. Matt Reis had retired. These weren't things that they were built to just brush off in a couple training sessions.
Beyond that, though, Heaps figured out how to use his players in a more efficient manner. Teal Bunbury was never going to be a suitable replacement for Juan Agudelo in the lone forward role, because Bunbury is not a back-to-goal player. Charlie Davies and Jerry Bengtson have the same general problem, even if each is slightly different.
Meanwhile, on his bench, Heaps had Patrick Mullins, a player perfectly comfortable being a target man who thrives on technique rather than physicality. Mullins got tons of press for scoring goals at Maryland, but he was also the fulcrum of the Terps attack. Everything went through Mullins, even if he eventually was supposed to finish off those same moves.
He was the best answer for the Revs, but most pundits - and apparently at the time, Heaps - felt he was more of a winger. Mullins started New England's first game of the season at right midfield, played poorly, and was pulled at halftime. Faced with an attack in need of a spark, Heaps turned back to the MAC Hermann Trophy winner. Bunbury was moved out to the wing, where he had some previous experience playing as a wide forward in KC, and Mullins was started at forward.
The Revs have scored twelve goals in the three games since, and the schedule was not an easy one. The Revs went to Toronto and won 2-1, then put five past Seattle (who were top of the table at the time), and then went to Philly and won 5-3. The change of adding Mullins isn't the only reason - we'll get into all that below - but it was the final piece of the puzzle. The Revs can now score goals just as well as they can defend, and at the moment they are (in my opinion) the best team in MLS.
Another huge factor in the Revolution suddenly seeming unstoppable is the play of Lee Nguyen, who was a good player last year and early this season but has since outstripped any realistic expectations one might have had. He may not stay in the MVP race, but he's getting that kind of hype now.
That sort of talk is justifiable, as Nguyen has found a way to showcase his own ability to beat teams on the dribble with his normal playmaking and tempo-setting duties. Last year Nguyen was the only player capable (or even interested) in slowing down the go-go-go Revs, but this year his job is different. Being partnered with Daigo Kobayashi - a player who Heaps probably had no intention of starting until Rowe got hurt - has freed Nguyen up to be more attack-minded.
The reliable Japanese veteran can also be trusted to keep the ball cycling throughout the team, which lets Nguyen jump forward as an attacking element the Revs lacked. There's plenty of speed, and the wingers can be devastating when they start their slashing runs, but last year the central threat from the Revs was Rowe arriving late from central midfield. This year, the Revs have the added weapon of being able to enter the box centrally due to Nguyen's footwork and deceptively good balance. People try to barge him off the ball due to his size, but he's stronger than he appears and usually those attempts to charge into him end up with the defender missing entirely.
Another factor that has gotten far less attention in this streak is that the Revs have also been lucky. Certainly they've deserved to win their last two games handily, but the Sounders and Union both gave a perfect demonstration of how to lose at soccer with some of their mistakes. Last week, Philly buried themselves by giving up two goals that came directly from thoughtless clearance attempts. The week before that, Seattle found themselves down 2-0 with both goals coming from truly awful turnovers by Marco Pappa, who seems to have left his spatial awareness back in the Netherlands.
Even when the Sounders weren't shooting themselves in the foot, fortune chose the Revs. The third goal in the game saw Bunbury's shot from an acute angle clip keeper Stefan Frei's shin, picking up enough spin that the ball bounced off the turf at a nearly 90 degree angle to go into the net. Bunbury's shot wasn't even on frame. And then, moments into the second half of the same game, Bunbury's hard cross attempt deflected off Chad Marshall and into the goal. It's been that kind of May for New England.
The old saying that you make your own luck applies, but only so much. Yes, the Revolution deserve credit for putting themselves into spots where hard shots and crosses deflect off of defenders facing their own net, and certainly those bad turnovers didn't end up in the goal by themselves. The lesson here for United is that while the Revs don't force you to make a slew of mistakes like Sporting KC, carelessness will be punished. If you take one thing from this scouting report, it should be this: United cannot afford turnovers in their own end or aimless clearances.
Getting back to that 4141, here's the eleven we should expect to see:
The Revs are missing a couple players with injuries, but there's also no good reason for Heaps to tinker with his field players at this point. As such, the only issue is whether Bobby Shuttleworth - who has quietly improved over the past month - has recovered from the concussion that kept him out of the match against the Union. If he can't go, Brad Knighton will deputize, and that would count as good news for United. Knighton appeared rusty against the Union, and though the three goals weren't really his fault he appears to have lost ground on Shuttleworth in terms of his ability to quickly diagnose situations.
Ahead of whoever the goalkeeper ends up being, you'll notice that Goncalves is not listed. Since his injury, the Revs have been surprisingly good in the back. AJ Soares is showing more leadership than he previously seemed capable of, and Andrew Farrell combines his comfort with the ball at his feet with high-end athleticism. This is still probably a center back pairing that you beat with movement and ideas rather than power, but they're further along in the mental department than anyone expected them to be without Goncalves.
Farrell's move inside opened up a hole at right back, and utility defender Darrius Barnes has taken a grip on the spot with some of the best form of his career. That's not to indicate that he's playing like an all-star or anything, but he is earning his starts over Kevin Alston and O'Brian Woodbine (who was first choice for Jamaica during the Hex). On the other side, Chris Tierney's set piece ability has been on full display recently, and United will have to prevent him from hitting crosses when he comes forward.
For United, the key to the game - well, after that whole "no easy turnovers, no dumb clearances" thing - is to control the tempo of the game. The fact that the Revs want to rush forward in waves means that dictating the pace is crucial in any venue and with any amount of days between games. Throw in the fact that United is the only team on short rest, and that this game will be played on New England's notoriously fast turf surface, and it only makes that idea more vital. If United plays at the speed the Revolution want to set, this will not end well. Slowing the game down - not to a crawl, because that's not the Black-and-Red's game, but not 100mph either - is the best way to cool off the white-hot New England attack.
That's easier said than done. United is going to have to have frequent stretches of possession, and there will be times where the best move is to pass sideways or backward. That might not get the hearts racing out there, but the Revs are killing teams in transition right now. The more this game becomes end-to-end, the less likely DCU is to get a result. Bunbury and Diego Fagundez - who has finally hit his stride this season - are electric running at defenders, and the Revs know damn well to feed the bears. If Nguyen and Kobayashi are playing 20-30 yard passes to those two in stride, we're in trouble.
Positionally, United will need to cope with a taste of our own medicine. Just as our attack has been better whenever we can unbalance teams by overloading our left side, the Revs tend to be a bit left-sided thanks to Nguyen. His movement is generally towards the left side of the top of the box, where he can either combine with Fagundez (who will cut in) or Mullins (who also thrives in that region of the field).
The movement and technical ability of that trio is troublesome enough, but it's just as important for our left flank to stay alert. If United collapses to deny space, Nguyen is especially good at either finding Kobayashi as an outlet or switching play to Bunbury, who is fast and strong enough to exploit 1v1s without having to pull out stepovers or other trickery. If United isn't mentally sharp and positionally sound across the field, this sort of move forward will happen repeatedly.
Going forward, United has some avenues to exploit. The central midfield trio tends to get too narrow defensively, so there will be gaps to the left and right of the central channel to exploit. Further, neither outside back is a particularly stout defender, with Barnes being a bit slow of thought and Tierney slow of foot. Things have been going well for the Revs lately, but it helps to score a ton of early goals and then get to play defend-and-counter. If United can sustain a 0-0 scoreline for the opening portion of the game, New England's so-so defending will start to make itself apparent, and I'm not sure any of their defenders is prepared for the puzzle that is Fabian Espindola.
On the set piece front, we have some things to worry about. Tierney buried a free kick from a few yards outside the box against the Union, while their first goal in that same game was a near-post header from Soares on a Tierney corner kick. The Revolution don't have the look of, say, Dallas or the Houston teams of the past; there's not a huge amount of size here, and of the big targets only Soares has the sort of angry mentality that your best set piece targets tend to have. However, Tierney's service right now is pinpoint accurate, and just as good targets can elevate so-so service, accurate balls in can cover up a lack of size and power.
Going the other way, though, those issues can't be covered by Tierney being accurate. United will have an advantage on attacking set pieces, and it's probably one that we need to capitalize on. If DC can make this game more of a chess match punctuated by set pieces, they'll be playing a game that the Revs aren't well-suited for.