Just eight minutes into Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Toronto FC the New England Revolution found themselves down a goal and forced into a makeshift backline due to Stephen McCarthy’s early injury.
That left the Revs with 82 minutes to claw their way back against the second-worst defense in MLS, a Toronto back line that had allowed 35 goals in 19 games. If the Revs needed inspiration all they had to do was look back three weeks to when they were down 2-0 at halftime against this same TFC side and fought their way back to get a 2-2 draw on the road.
Yet, this time, things were different. Toronto’s plan to fend off the Revs worked.
“They got that early goal and we knew what it was going to be,” said defender Chris Tierney. “They were going to try and get that early goal and then bunker in, which is what they did. Credit to them, they had a game plan to try and get one and then defend for 90 minutes and they did. It wasn’t good enough from us we didn’t move the ball fast enough. We created enough chances but didn’t take them. We’re disappointed.”
The early deficit left the Revs fighting an uphill battle to get back into the game. Toronto, tired from playing nine games in just 28 days, was content to sit back and strike on the counterattack. They also weren’t afraid to disrupt the game by fouling.
“I think it’s clear what’s happening: we’re trying to play and getting fouled,” said head coach Jay Heaps. “And you just want that to be taken care of early so it doesn’t turn into what happened in the second half where no one on their team has a yellow card, except for one player who they sub out. And now their entire team is free and available to chop anyone down and kill the play whenever they can.”
The stoppages in play made it difficult for the Revs to really play their game, especially in the final third.
“The game never found rhythm. It was shameful, to be honest,” said Heaps. “The game just got stopped and stopped and stopped and stopped, and we just felt like we could never get a rhythm. In the second half, we had I don’t know how many corner kicks, but enough corner kicks to score a chance and we didn’t. It’s disappointing and the locker room is pretty upset. We’ve got some work to do.”
But what Toronto’s fouls – all 15 of them – did, was create plenty of dangerous set piece opportunities for the Revs. The visitors also weren’t afraid to concede 13 corner kicks to New England – and why should they be? The Revs have scored exactly zero goals either directly or indirectly from free kicks all season and have just a single goal off of corner kicks. The service and options in the box on both was poor again on Saturday.
“The set pieces were not good enough all the way around,” said Heaps. “It was very disappointing. Corner kicks I thought were OK, but when we’re talking about free kicks, the chances we had were short, they were over. That to me is disappointing.”
“We had enough chances on set pieces to score goals with plenty of good service in there, and we got one on goal,” said Tierney. “There’s two aspects: the service has to be good and we have to attack the ball and we didn’t do any of those.”
It should come as little surprise then that the Revs have suffered the most fouls per game in MLS. In fact, the 15 fouls the Revs suffered against Toronto has been the average for the club this season. Teams simply aren’t afraid to give away set pieces against New England. Whether it’s been Benny Feilhaber, Tierney or now Lee Nguyen, the service from set pieces just has been inconsistent at best all season.
On the opposite side of the coin, the likes of the New York Red Bulls, D.C. United, Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy are all in the bottom five in fouls suffered per game, at four to five less per game than the Revs. With Thierry Henry, Dwayne De Rosario, Brad Davis and David Beckham taking free kicks, it’s no surprise teams avoid giving those clubs dead ball situations. Despite the limited chances, New York, Houston and D.C. all have seven goals apiece off free kicks and corners combined and Los Angeles has five, compared to the Revs one.
That fear of fouling those clubs has given some of the most creative players in the league more freedom to attack defenses than the likes of Feilhaber, Nguyen, Saer Sene and even Shalrie Joseph have had. While Feilhaber is averaging 3.4 fouls suffered per ninety minutes, Nguyen 2.2, Sene 1.7, and Joseph 1.5, De Rosario is averaging just 1.3, Henry 1.4, and even the speedy Landon Donovan is below Nguyen and Feilhaber at 1.9.
The problem is the Revs haven’t had a consistently dangerous set piece taker since the likes of Steve Ralston and Jeff Larentowicz left the team. Either someone on the roster needs to finally step up and prove they can be consistently dangerous, or the Revs might be best served searching for a set piece specialist as their next addition.
Until that happens, opposing teams will continue to use tactical fouling as an effective – and safe – way to disrupt the Revs offense.