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MLS Eastern Conference Preview: New England Revolution

Are new defenders and a new-ish formation enough to turn the Revs around?

The New England Revolution have regressed in each of the last two seasons, falling from a 55 point 2014, to 50 points in 2015, to last year’s 42 point total that saw them miss the playoffs even in a pretty weak Eastern Conference. The same streaky nature that has characterized them in the past was there, but too often they found a way to lose instead of hanging on for a draw.

That’s despite being a team featuring some elite attacking talent in Kei Kamara and Lee Nguyen, and some complimentary parts that would be a big deal elsewhere. The Revs have focused on defensive additions this offseason, and they believe the diamond formation they switched to late last year is the way forward. Is that enough to push them back above the red line?

Last season

Regular season: 42 points (11W-9D-14L, -10GD) | 7th in East
Playoffs: Did not qualify
Season form: DDLDWDDLDDLWLWWLLLWDWLLLLDLWWWLWLW

Eleven games into the season, the Revs had seven draws, and more importantly only one win. They were hard to beat, but that’s still fewer than one point per game, or a recipe for finishing dead last in MLS. Traditionally streaky under Jay Heaps, New England spent the rest of the season in alternating good and bad form: winning three of four, then losing three straight, then taking seven of the next nine points, then picking up just one point in six games.

That last stretch, featuring some heavy losses, essentially killed the Revs off. Despite winning five of their final seven games - that is, picking up over a third of their points on the year in the final fifth of the season - they missed the playoffs on goal difference. And now, to twist the knife, it’s worth noting that the Revolution’s final five wins were all over playoff teams (Montreal twice, Colorado, NYCFC, and Sporting KC), while the last two defeats were against Columbus and Chicago. That’s last place Chicago, who had gone down to 10 men in the 54th minute with 1-1 on the scoreboard.

Projected starting lineup

That late-season burst of wins came after Heaps changed to a diamond 442, and that will continue for the time being. The odd thing is where the players will line up. Juan Agudelo being listed as a central midfielder is not a mistake; that’s where he’s been playing in the preseason more often than not. Lee Nguyen, due to a combination of a lack of defensive application and his ability to break crowds open with his footwork, has been pushed up as a second forward.

What fascinates me, at least, is what will follow once Xavier Kouassi gets fit. Kouassi, you may recall, is the defensive midfielder that New England was delighted to sign to a pre-contract last winter, only for him to tear his ACL days later. He has only played a handful of minutes this preseason, but he’s approaching the day he can be fit to step in. Gershon Koffie was utterly critical to New England’s diamond, and Kouassi is supposed to be his replacement.

When he’s fully fit, look for a more traditional diamond: Kouassi will play at the base, and then Heaps will have to make a choice between Scott Caldwell, Kelyn Rowe, and Agudelo. On pure talent, Agudelo should stay on the field, but a diamond with Caldwell right of center - thus freeing Diego Fagundez, who looks great in this system, to be more attack-minded - and Rowe as the attacking midfielder makes a lot more sense in terms of getting players into roles they belong in.

Key signings: Antonio Delamea and Benjamin Angoua

The Revs had the fifth-best defense in the East last year on a pure goals allowed basis, but on many occasions they conceded too easily and were forced to play catch-up. This team was simply too easy to score on, and it had a lot to do with their center backs. Andrew Farrell spent time there but was at no point a convincing center back; London Woodberry is a solid depth option, but in 2017 if you’re starting him, you’re in trouble.

And then there was Jose Goncalves, who maintained all the aggression and high-risk decision-making that he had when he won Defender of the Year in 2013, but none of the timing or soccer IQ. Goncalves looked lost, and the only solution he seemed to have was to try harder. As such, the Revs made sure that this offseason, they pursued center backs, plural, with the plan being to add two starters right now rather than simply upgrading the player alongside Goncalves and hoping he improves.

That’s who Delamea and Angoua are. The former is an emerging option for the Slovenian national team, while the latter has 17 caps for Ivory Coast and signed with New England on loan from Guingamp in Ligue 1. The Revs also appear to have improved their depth by drafting Joshua Smith, who seems likely to be handed a contract and may even be competition for Goncalves to be the next man up.

In terms of profile, Angoua is probably the bigger deal, but realistically the Revs need both players to be good additions. Delamea, having never played outside of the Slovenian domestic league, seems like more of a risk. They won’t make a physically imposing pairing - both are listed at 6’ tall, which is an inch or so short for an average MLS center back - and a major problem New England had last year was defending in the air.

Naturally, though, the bigger concerns are more basic. Can they come to grips with MLS’s overall style of play? What about the travel? And will they hold up being on a team that plays their home games on less-than-ideal turf? Neither player has played for a club in an English-speaking country, so communication could be another hang-up. Heaps and the Revs need positive answers to these questions, or it might be another erratic year for New England.

Key loss: Gershon Koffie

Koffie was very good at the base of the Revolution diamond, and his offseason departure (he signed with Hammarby in Sweden) has left the Revs with a potential issue. Kouassi is, on paper, a good replacement. However, he’s a total unknown in MLS, and if he can’t replace Koffie’s physical gifts and ball-winning ability, the Revs will have a problem.

And that’s once Kouassi gets on the field. Up until then, Heaps will be relying on Caldwell, who is smart and technical but simply does not have the speed, strength, or mentality to win the ball back for the Revs. That’s compounded by a midfield that doesn’t feature much in the way of hard-nosed players. Guys like Rowe and Fagundez talk a lot of trash on the field, but there’s no one in their opening day midfield that can effectively win physical battles (save, oddly enough, Agudelo). Until Kouassi is fit, the Revs will be soft through the midfield; come late April or early May, we’ll find out whether that’s a temporary problem or something they’ll have to deal with all season.

Overall prospects

I’m frankly not sure what to make of the Revs. The diamond makes a lot of sense for most of their players, but playing Agudelo through the center seems more like something you attempt after food poisoning leaves you short five players on the eve of an away game rather than a Plan A. And if Kouassi isn’t up to snuff, it’s not going to work defensively (unless they look at moving Farrell there, as has been discussed at times throughout his career?).

Still, this is a talented group, and they were able to beat five straight playoff teams out of the diamond at the end of last year. The Agudelo issue is strange, but being so good up front that you don’t have room to start him at his natural position is a strong spot to be in. Kei Kamara will probably get to 15 goals without too much trouble, and Lee Nguyen will probably be in the top 7-8 in terms of assists. The Revs are not going to struggle for goals.

That wasn’t really the worry coming into this offseason, though, and my gut tells me that the New England front office doesn’t have it in them to have snagged three straight good signings (with Kouassi’s delayed entry into MLS joining Delamea and Angoua as the trio). I’m not even sure they’re sharp enough to go two-for-three. And in this case, that means a defense that won’t hold up well enough to let them make progress up the table.