At the start of play last Saturday, D.C. United fans were painfully aware that the Black-and-Red had zero goals for, joint-worst in MLS. What some fans may not have realized was that the team tied with United in that unfortunate category was the New England Revolution. That's the same Revs who, in 2013, seemed to pose a constant threat by attacking at pace and with technical players across the midfield and up top.
United used set piece play to avoid starting the season with 270 scoreless minutes, but the end result was unsatisfactory given the quality of the opposition. The same can't be said for New England, who went to Buck Shaw and beat San Jose 2-1 on a 93rd minute goal. That's a stoppage time game-winner for the Revs, not for the Goonies as tradition dictates.
Never mind that New England spent long portions of the game defending from deep inside their own box. Never mind that their opening goal was the most farcical scored in MLS this season, with Quakes left back Jordan Stewart tackling the ball past Jon Busch, followed up by Victor Bernardez, in position to clear, scuffing the ball over the line. Never mind that the game-winner shouldn't have counted, since the quick free kick that sprung Lee Nguyen was taken while the ball was still in motion. Bottom line: The Revs went to a venue in which the road team had failed to win in the previous 21 games, and they won.
While the feeling in the United locker room was three parts frustration mixed with one part relief - two goals in a game? We're allowed to do that? - there should be little doubt that the Revs don't care about the circumstances of their win. They got three points, and they get to be pleased with themselves.
That's bad luck for United, because the Revs were a disaster in the opening two games of the season. The contract issues that plagued Jose Goncalves through the preseason carried over into real matches, while the loss of Juan Agudelo was actually overshadowed by some insipid play through central midfield. The time to play the Revs was two weeks ago, in other words.
Unfortunately, we're going to have to play a pretty decent version of New England tomorrow. Goncalves and the Revs, after Jay Heaps benched his star player for a game, are close to a contractual accord. The midfield has been shored up by Lee Nguyen stepping his game up and some solid outings by new starter Andy Dorman. The attack still lacks a forward who can hold the ball up, but the Revs are working on that too.
Mentally, the Revolution also appear to have toughened up since opening day. Against Houston, they were completely unprepared to play and were down 3-0 in under half an hour. Since that slap in the face, they've made progress and become a more composed, collective unit.
What sometimes looks like a team that can be pushed around just went to San Jose and actually committed more fouls than the notoriously aggressive Quakes. Fouls committed is no sure link to composure or mental strength, but in this context it indicated a more street-smart Revolution team. When coaches talk about being tough to play against, they're talking about this sort of thing; New England didn't start the season with that mindset, but they have it now.
One step the Revs took to help get themselves to this point was a temporary shift away from their customary 4141 to a 4231. However, things are running a bit more smoothly now and there's little chance that Heaps sends out anything other than his preferred formation:
Based on recent performances, there's no reason to expect any changes. Kelyn Rowe is, per Kyle McCarthy of Fox Soccer, out again. Heaps has options here, with former Vancouver Whitecaps #10-used-as-a-winger Daigo Kobayashi getting the start last week.
Despite having Scott Caldwell or Georgetown product Steve Neumann also able to man Rowe's spot, I expect Kobayashi to continue. It's not that the once-capped Japanese playmaker was a standout against the Quakes; rather, it's probably hard for Heaps to trust Caldwell as a starter less than a month after his first two starts were simply disastrous, and Neumann has yet to appear (though he was in the 18 for last week's game).
Heaps opting for Kobayashi was intriguing given that the MLS trend for years has been to add some size and steel to your team when you travel to San Jose. Kobayashi is one of the smaller players in MLS, and he's not a tough little pest like, say, Dax McCarty or Sam Cronin. Granted, Kobayashi was competing with the 5'8", 150 lb. Caldwell, but still.
Heaps seems to have gotten this one right, though. He didn't have much of an option if he just wanted to see if his team could out-macho the Quakes, so he didn't even try. Instead, he sent out a player that could help New England slow the game down and retain possession. The Quakes like to charge upfield with a barrage of crosses and long balls, so having to spend time playing a bit slowly is a way to get them out of their comfort zone. It's a tough thing to accomplish given the size of their field, but adding a technically accomplished player like Kobayashi helped the Revs pull it off (at least for the first half).
It's not just about the opponent, though. On paper, last year's Revs looked like a team built to keep possession and focus on connecting passes, but in practice they were looking to play vertically as quickly as could be achieved without long balls from defenders. The Revs kept the ball on the ground, but they were always looking to get forward. Nguyen was often the only player actually taking an extra touch or pausing to, you know, look around and see other options.
Kobayashi plays at a similar tempo, and it's particularly important to add that element in given the change at defensive midfield. Caldwell wants the ball a bit more than Dorman does, which means the direct Revs threatened to get even more direct once Caldwell's poor form forced Heaps to choose the veteran Welshman instead. I'm not sure what they'll do once Rowe - who is too good to leave out - returns, but that's a concern for some other team.
All that said, the Revs still like to break forward at pace more than they want to slow things down. They did so against San Jose for tactical reasons, and could go back to it at RFK if United is playing too quickly for them to get their defense in order.
However, their first look is always going to be to push the tempo, and that means United's transition from offense to defense after a turnover is of the utmost importance. The Columbus Crew sliced United to bits because they were ready and able to transition quickly - well, that and other reasons - and another slow-of-thought performance like that would play right into Revolution hands.
It's not just about switching on and getting into good defensive spots quickly, though. United needs to show good field awareness in possession. There are times to take a risk or be elaborate in your passing, but you pick the right spots and the right circumstances for those moments.
For example, if you're Davy Arnaud playing on the right and Sean Franklin just bombed past you along the touchline, you make the simple pass you know you can connect rather than trying something complicated just to get a murmur from the crowd. The Revs aren't necessarily a counterattacking team, but they have more than enough speed to take advantage and their ability to play one-touch through midfield can be very dangerous.
Part of the reason they're so good in those situations is the threat from Diego Fagundez and Saer Sene on the wings. While it is nice that Fagundez is out of form while Sene is still working his way back to full fitness and sharpness from last year's broken ankle, they're still excellent players who probably just need one or two breaks to build their confidence.
They're also different in their approach, despite both starting out as forwards but becoming inverted wingers for Heaps. Fagundez loves to make his runs into channels, particularly when other New England players are trying to combine at the top of the box. He's also a huge threat on the dribble, and he has no problem with either slashing into the middle or beating his man far out on the wing.
Sene, meanwhile, is both more and less predictable. He's more predictable in what he wants to do (cut in and line up his hard, often knuckling shots from just outside the box), but positionally Sene tends to lack discipline. With him out of form, it plays as a negative; however, if Sene gets going, his unpredictable starting points become a real asset, since he will all the sudden be attacking you from an unusual angle.
Up top, the Revs are still having some issues without Agudelo. Teal Bunbury is a capable player, but he's very different from Agudelo. Bunbury wants to face goal and run in behind, whereas Agudelo loved getting the ball at his feet and functioned as a target man by using his touch and dribbling ability to buy time for the Revolution midfield to get into the attacking third.
Against the Quakes, Bunbury showed signs that he's trying to work on this part of his game. He slowed play down several times rather than trying to mount solo raids, and his passing was actually a bit better than I expected. However, he's still clearly a guy working hard at adding a wrinkle to his game rather than someone taking to it naturally.
It also appears that Bunbury is lacking in confidence. One example from last week's game stood out to me: Midway through the first half, the Revs send him to chase down a ball after breaking out from a set piece. Brandon Barklage slipped at midfield, and suddenly the 1v2 in which he was unlikely to get to the ball became a 1v1 against Jordan Stewart.
Bunbury had acres of space and plenty of momentum to go charging forward, but after one uncertain touch he cut wide left, slowed things down, and awkwardly crossed the ball for an easy San Jose clearance. A confident Bunbury puts the blinders on and forces Stewart to come up with a big defensive play, but right now Bunbury looks like he wants someone else making the big play.
Passing the buck or no, he'll still get the start. Charlie Davies was used as a winger by Heaps last year, but when he came in for Sene in the 62nd minute, Bunbury ended up wide right and CD9 was up top by himself. While he did make an impact on the game - he took the aforementioned moving free kick on the winning goal - his most notable moments other than that were begging the ref for a penalty after minor contact from Clarence Goodson and just running about hopefully. At this point, Heaps appears to see him as a sub only, and for good reason.
It could be worse, though. Jerry Bengtson, who is laughably a Designated Player for the Revs, didn't even make the squad for the match against San Jose.
At the other end of the field, the return of a focused Goncalves has made a big difference. Undoubtedly New England's best player, Goncalves showed both his strength and his craftiness in mostly neutralizing Steven Lenhart last week. New England looked more organized than they had for most of the season, and in fact Chris Wondolowski's goal against them benefited from a couple of fortunate bounces stemming from the heavy rain that fell throughout the game. Despite the expected bombardment of crosses - San Jose sent in 32 - the Revs were rarely rattled.
That's not to say that there aren't weaknesses. As ever, Chris Tierney is vulnerable to speed. It would be nice to see what he does if United can spring Franklin on the overlap, because he sure as hell can't win that footrace. AJ Soares is prone to diving into tackles and generally spends half his time trying to goad opponents with macho posturing (while being susceptible to losing his temper, naturally).
United needs to make sure to take advantage of that lack of discipline. If Soares is going to be flying into tackles and fouling, then make him pay by scoring (another!) set piece goal. If he wants to act like a bully, don't lash out (Eddie Johnson, don't think we've forgotten that flailing arm against Waylon Francis in the opener). Instead, let him lose his head; Soares is not only a card magnet, but once he blows his top he tends to make decisions more slowly and take up bad positions.
In the midfield, a huge key will be applying constant pressure to Nguyen, who is looking very sharp lately. It's not just his goal in San Jose, either. He completed 51 of 57 passes in the broom closet that San Jose calls a playing surface, and he's been the main source of scoring chances for New England. Nguyen tends to take up positions left and right of center rather than trying to make plays from dead center, so this won't just be a job for Perry Kitchen to do alone.
In the end, this is a bigger test than last week's game against the Fire. The Revs are in a better place mentally, and they're playing a settled system with a few new wrinkles rather than making things up as they go like Chicago probably still is. However, last year's abysmal United team managed to play the Revs tough every time out, and while this year's model is hardly brilliant right now, I'd say we're clearly improved while the Revs have regressed a bit. It won't be easy by any means to break down that defense, but anything other than three points would still be a disappointment.