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Opposition 11: Who will the New England Revolution start against D.C. United?

Ever streaky, the Revs may be rounding into form as they come to RFK

This might not be the right time for D.C. United to be playing the New England Revolution. Sure, United has thoroughly dominated the series over the past two years (3W-2D-0L with only 3 goals conceded), and they’ve shut the Revs out twice this season. The problem is that New England’s history with being either on a hot streak or a cold streak goes even deeper.

In 2014, the Revs won one of their first five games, then went on a 6W-1D-0L run (during which they averaged 2.71 goals per game). They followed that with eight straight losses, then followed that with a 10W-2D-2L run through the rest of the regular season. That hot streak carried them to the 2014 MLS Cup final, where they pushed the LA Galaxy to extra time before losing on the road.

It was more of the same in 2015. After losing their first two games of the season, the Revs went nine straight without a loss. However, the last two games in that run were draws, and they were the first two games of a wretched 1W-4D-7L midseason streak. Naturally, once they broke out of that funk, it involved a 180° turn. New England won seven of eight (a draw in Chicago being the only blemish). The pundits were readying their "Revs to repeat in the East" pieces, only for New England to go 1W-1D-3L in their last five regular season matches. United killed them off in the first round of the playoffs despite themselves not being in great form.

That brings us to this year, which saw the Revolution start the season 1W-7D-3L. They weren’t losing often, but one win in eleven games is terrible for anyone in MLS. However, in their last four games they’ve picked up nine points while scoring two goals every time. New England is still a pretty flawed team that is often overrated by observers, but they might be rounding into the form that sees them meet those lofty expectations.

Beyond being MLS’s streakiest team, the Revs are also a very predictable team when it comes to formation and style of play. They’ll line up in a 4231, and they’ll look to zoom through the midfield as fast as possible. New England’s preference is to get into the attacking third in a hurry, and then - if they can’t just storm in on goal - set up in possession looking for either a) Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez on the edge of the box or b) Chris Tierney on the left, who remains a huge crossing threat.

Bobby Shuttleworth had been the starter all season, but Brad Knighton got the start last weekend in Vancouver. This may have been some kind of "show your old team what they’re missing" mind game - Knighton used to play for the Whitecaps - but it’s still a bit of an odd move. Knighton didn’t need a game to stay fresh, as he’d played in their Open Cup win over the Carolina Railhawks (another team Knighton once played for). There’s not a huge difference between the two in terms of quality, though Shuttleworth is better when coming off his line to stop runners into the box.

Andrew Farrell, after being exposed repeatedly for about a season and a half, has been moved to his old right back role. Farrell is powerfully built and uses that to make it difficult to dribble past him. He’s also pretty comfortable on the ball, though that sometimes gets him into trouble. Of New England’s fullbacks, Farrell will be the more conservative, but he does still get forward to make himself an option in possession.

Farrell’s center back spot has gone to London Woodberry, who recently was more often seen at right back in a New England shirt. It’s not a new position to him, though, as Woodberry played center back for the University of Maryland and with both FC Dallas and Arizona United after going pro. He and partner Jose Goncalves have a similar weakness, as they both love to step up and be very aggressive. Both were booked last week in situations where they stepped forward too early and too enthusiastically. Luring them into that space before moving the ball on, or capitalizing on free kicks that result from fouls (like Vancouver did for their only goal) could be fruitful.

Tierney will start at left back, which is bad news for United. The Black-and-Red didn’t see much of him when the Revs came to RFK earlier this season, as he pulled his hamstring within the first half hour. His importance to New England’s attack is hard to overstate. Teams that effectively disconnect him from the midfield in attacking phases (or at least prevent crosses when he does get on the ball) rob the Revs of one of their best weapons. Of course, even if you shut him down during open play, his set piece delivery is top-notch.

A defensive midfielder’s life involves being under-appreciated, and that’s a common refrain with Revs fans when it comes to Scott Caldwell. He’s not the kind of holding mid who flies around making eye-catching tackles, and he doesn’t add goals or assists very often either. Caldwell is still vital for the Revs, though, because of his defensive positioning and his extremely tidy use of the ball. Caldwell rarely makes mistakes despite playing in a system that demands he play one- and two-touch soccer at all times, and that requires him to move the ball up to the front four as often as possible. If United can pressure him into a bad outing, they will significantly disrupt New England’s attack.

Caldwell is a lock to start, but his partner in the engine room is less clear. Daigo Kobayashi got the start in Vancouver, but Jay Heaps has largely preferred to use the Japanese veteran as a substitute over the years. With Gershon Koffie injured and Kobayashi a bit redundant alongside Caldwell, he could go with Je-Vaughn Watson. The Jamaican national team utility man has spent the last three seasons mostly playing as a defender, but this is a role he regularly plays for the Reggae Boyz as well as the one he held with the Houston Dynamo. It would add a considerable dose of physicality to a midfield that is otherwise pretty lightweight.

Heaps could also go with Kelyn Rowe there, but that’s more of a move the Revs make when they really want to push for a goal while trailing. Instead, look for Rowe to play on the right wing (which suits him more anyway). Rowe is a clever problem-solver between the lines; he’ll look first to combine, but if the option isn’t there he has no problem with trying to drive past his man on the dribble. The other option is Teal Bunbury, who does have a size advantage on Taylor Kemp. However, Kemp has grown enough that he avoids being overpowered by that type of player, and Bunbury has largely struggled to do much against United ever since.

Nguyen is the #10, and the system is really built as a showcase of what he can do. Few players in MLS are as dangerous on the ball in central positions, and it’s because Nguyen is a threat both to dribble past defenders or to play the through ball that unlocks an otherwise well-organized defense. The rest of New England’s attack commits to running the channels so that Nguyen has plenty of options. If United can be physical with Nguyen without giving away free kicks, they can dull his influence.

On the left, Fagundez has finally seen his hold on the starting job as the Revolution’s left winger loosen a bit. Fagundez had a goal and two assists in the season opener, but since then he has just two goals and zero assists despite having started all but two of New England’s games this season. Last weekend’s 27 minute appearance off the bench was the only time all year he’s played under an hour for the Revs, but an inability to consistently make an impact on games has seen his starting job become a bit more questionable. Rowe is the lead candidate to step in if Heaps wants to make that change more permanent.

Kei Kamara was billed as a game-changing move when the Revs grabbed him following a falling-out with the Columbus Crew. That hasn’t really been the case, though, as New England figures him out and vice versa. Kamara tormented Chicago in his Revolution debut, forcing four saves on six total shots. However, over the three games since then he has just three and eight in those categories (with only one shot on goal in his last 180 minutes). New England’s system doesn’t create as many crosses as the Crew’s, and United needs to make sure it stays that way. With Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell both unavailable, the Revs will surely be looking to increase their cross total in an effort to get one of the best aerial threats in MLS going.

Off the bench, United can be sure that they’ll see either Bunbury or Rowe (depending on who gets the start). Heaps has found a diamond in the rough with rookie Femi Hollinger-Janzen, but the high-energy Indiana product is questionable with a hamstring strain. If he’s available, look for him to play 100mph while using his target man’s build to be a second runner in the box from the right wing. Juan Agudelo is also likely to get in, but he looks like a player who really needs a change of scenery right now (which, hey...there’s an idea for DC). In fact, right now I think Heaps would rather be using Hollinger-Janzen as a super-sub, but there’s no denying Agudelo’s raw gifts as a player.