D.C. United has faced two cagey opponents at home this week, and despite Orlando’s bus-parking and Portland’s more refined counter-attacking gameplans, the Black-and-Red have scored 7 goals in their last 180 minutes of soccer. That changes today, as Brad Friedel’s New England Revolution have shown no interest in playing a defensive brand of soccer. They press, they get in your face, and they take risks. It might not be elegant — they’re arguably the most physical team in MLS — but the Revs are definitely not playing for 0-0.
Friedel needed to find a way to differentiate his team from the Jay Heaps Revolution sides of the past, and their place in the playoff race (currently 4 points behind the Philadelphia Union and Montreal Impact) is mostly down to how well this worked in the spring. By mid-May, the Revs were 5W-2D-3L, including wins in Kansas City and Houston and a draw in Columbus. They looked to be expanding the East’s vanguard to a five-team group, which was bad news for everyone else.
Since then, though, MLS has largely figured out this new version of New England. While they do have a seven-game unbeaten run that included the entire month of June, five of those games were draws, and they’re currently on a 2W-6D-5L stretch that is getting worse (0W-2D-4L in their last 6). New England’s response to all this has been to keep going, just changing out players who are under-performing. There’s no broader course-correction than that, though they did recently try a 433 with Diego Fagundez playing as a false 9. The result was more of the same: a high-scoring, disappointing draw against Orlando.
Friedel is fully committed to a rather English style of up-tempo, tough-minded soccer, and given that dropping Teal Bunbury for Scott Caldwell in the aforementioned 433 made no real impact on their play, it feels safe to expect their normal 4231. Sometimes this is treated as a 442, but in reality it plays as a 4231 on both sides of the ball.
In goal, Matt Turner has pushed out established MLS veterans to quietly post a pretty good season. The Revs have given up 38 goals, but Turner has by and large been able to produce big saves. He might not be the best organizer, or the best presence challenging for balls in traffic, but he’s still been a solid positive for the Revolution this season.
Andrew Farrell, as ever, is New England’s right back. He’ll be more of a supporting presence than an overlapping threat going forward (which is important with everyone else charging forward), and he provides speed and strength defensively. He’s not the best at any one thing, and United might want to key on him when the Revs build out of the back. Farrell has good technique, but not as good as he seems to think it is, and he can be caught taking an extra touch.
New England’s big summer move was to acquire Michael Mancienne, who is now MLS’s most expensive defender. The 30-year-old Chelsea product never broke through with the London powerhouse, but he went on to be a starter in the Championship and Bundesliga. It seems less than likely that he’ll start, given that he’s only had 3 training sessions since getting his visa, but the expectation is that he’ll add a more cerebral presence at center back for a team that has badly needed an organizational presence.
However, United is most likely to see the normal starting duo of Antonio Delamea and Jalil Anibaba. Both are not outright bad, but neither is the caliber of center back you see standing out on playoff sides. Delamea is more prone to errors, but is also the vocal presence in charge of this group.
Left back has been a huge issue ever since Friedel lost faith in Gabriel Somi, a Swedish-born defender who has played for Syria internationally. In recent weeks, Claude Dielna (who apparently didn’t even travel for today’s game) played a few games there before Friedel turned to rookie Brandon Bye. Bye is an extraordinarily athletic player, but he also played as an attacker at Western Michigan, and his first pro season has seen the Revs converting him into a right back. Out on the left, he has issues due to not being left-footed, and he’s still raw in terms of his positioning. If Mancienne starts, however, Friedel will probably move Anibaba out to the left with an eye on improving his team’s defensive solidity.
In the midfield, Wilfried Zahibo has eventually learned how to be physical in MLS without getting too many bookings. The powerfully-built Frenchman is maybe the most “Brad Friedel’s Revs” player in the lineup. He’s fast, he’s tough, and in his ball-winning role he’s willing to chase a bit too much. United will want to draw him out of position by playing just a bit quicker than he can pursue the ball. If Friedel wants to add a bit more of a technical aspect to the midfield, he could replace Zahibo with Scott Caldwell.
Alongside him is Luis Caicedo a 22-year-old Colombian. Caicedo has kept Caldwell and Kelyn Rowe out of the lineup with relative ease, to give you an idea of how good he is. Whereas Zahibo frequently moves out of position in an attempt to hunt the ball down, Caicedo thinks a bit more strategically, holding his position (usually left of center) on both sides of the ball. Don’t be fooled by his diminutive status; despite being 5’7” and 155 lbs, Caicedo is strong and has good balance, which comes through when he gets into tackles.
The front four is pretty much a lock. Juan Agudelo found himself reduced to a sub’s role early in the season, but Friedel has more recently given him the starting role out on the right. As always when Agudelo starts on the wing, he’ll look to get inside and into the box as an auxiliary forward. Agudelo’s numbers this season aren’t impressive (2 goals, 3 assists in 929 minutes), but he’s rounding into form.
New England’s MVP thus far this season has been Fagundez, who has matched last year’s 7 goals/8 assists in 10 fewer appearances and 500 fewer minutes. He’s not a traditional playmaking #10 in this set-up, but rather a roving goal threat. The Revs aren’t looking for Fagundez to set the pace of the game. Rather, they want him to get open, combine quickly, and get himself into the box. Even in this six-game winless streak, he’s got 2 goals and 2 assists. Friedel’s plan may not be perfect for everyone, but it’s suiting Fagundez just fine.
Out on the left, MLS newcomer Cristian Penilla has been a terror to right backs all season. The loanee from Pachuca is one of the fastest attackers in the league, and has the dribbling ability to break down anyone that prevents him from getting into full flight. If he has an issue, it’s a tendency to go it alone a bit too often, and as the Revs have lost form, so has he. In their last 6 games, he has just 1 goal and 1 assist; in his first 16 appearances, he had 8 goals and 5 assists.
Bunbury has surprisingly kept Agudelo on the bench as New England’s lone striker, having the best season of his career under Friedel. Bunbury’s work ethic has never been in question, and he remains fast, strong, and direct in playing style. Mostly, his 11-goal output (more than his last 2 full seasons combined) is down to confidence and to fitting into Friedel’s system. Bunbury relishes leading this high-pressure system, and even though he’s cooled off lately, he’s still dangerous with and without the ball.
Off the bench, Rowe is an oft-used substitute, though Friedel often looks to him to play as a #8 in central midfield rather than in the more attack-minded role he played under Heaps. Still, he can play all over the midfield, which could also see Agudelo pushed up top for Bunbury. Caldwell would be the option if Friedel wants to solidify his midfield and slow play down, which might come with a shift to the aforementioned 433.
Friedel hasn’t seen fit to use too many other options, trading away Krisztian Nemeth recently and having no other attacker with more than 44 minutes played. Newcomer Cristhian Machado could also feature off the bench, but he’s a defensive midfielder rather than someone who could change their attack.