Editor’s Note: With Brian O’Connell out of town over the weekend, Sean Donahue is filling in for this week’s “Five Things We Learned”.
Did one mistake or two mistakes cost the New England Revolution points on Saturday? Either way, a quick glance at the quote sheet shows the overused excuse continued after the 2-1 loss to the Chicago Fire.
Unfortunately for New England, the claim that one mistake (or two mistakes) did the Revolution in – the team’s go-to explanation for dropped points over the past several weeks – simply didn’t apply against the Fire at all. If anything, the Fire could claim their one mistake led to the lone Revolution goal and that with how many chances they created, Chicago should’ve won by a far greater margin.
The reality is the Revolution was simply outclassed. Chicago had quality – and chemistry – across the pitch that the Revolution was lacking. That’s why the Fire are ascending towards the top of the Eastern Conference and the Revolution are in the hunt for the wooden spoon. It’s not one mistake and it’s not opponents’ timely fouls (the Revolution actually out-fouled the Fire in this one, 11 to 8).
All-in-all, it was another disappointing showing as the Revolution seemingly continued in their regression from their solid early season form. So, what can we take away from such a performance?
1. Matt Reis at his best remains one of the top goalkeepers in the league. Starting with perhaps the lone positive of the match, veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis put in perhaps his best showing of the season. The 37-year-old showed the same form that helped carry the Revolution to three MLS Cup finals from 2005-2007. From acrobatic diving saves, to nearly saving a perfectly placed penalty kick, to fighting through traffic to punch away crosses, it hardly looked like age had taken its toll on the 12-year MLS veteran. If Reis can keep playing like he did on Saturday, the keeper controversy that appeared to exist a few months ago is surely a thing of the past.
2. Set piece defending is still a problem. Early in the year, the Revolution was constantly getting beat on set pieces for goals. While the leaking of goals off dead ball situations has died down, it was hard to tell why on Saturday. Whether it was poor positioning, getting caught flat-footed, losing a mark, or simply a lack of strength or height, it seemed the Fire were beating the Revolution to the ball on every set piece situation. With the Revolution’s increased reliance on fouling due to struggling with the Fire’s creative attackers, the Fire had plenty of chances to add to their lead off free kicks and only Reis and some misplaced shots kept them from doing so. If the Revolution are going to take an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach to fouling, as head coach Jay Heaps suggested to The Republican, a week ago, that set piece defending could become an even bigger issue.
3. If Fernando Cardenas continues starting, communication and decision making on the right flank needs to improve. Cardenas got his first start for the Revolution since July 14 and scored his second goal of the season, an 11th minute tap-in to equalize. Unfortunately for Cardenas, the rest of his night was marred by the defensive struggles down the right flank. The communication between Cardenas and right back Kevin Alston appeared off all night, as Cardenas would leave his mark with Alston not there to cover or Alston would push forward and Cardenas wouldn’t pick up the slack defensively. While Cardenas may provide a nice offensive spark, the 24-year-old’s defensive awareness at right midfield appears lacking. With Alston’s penchant for pushing forward, that combination could prove disastrous for the Revolution if Cardenas is to continue to start on the right.
4. The constant line-up shuffling isn’t helping. Let’s be honest: very few players on the Revolution can say their performances over the last couple months have been worthy of a guaranteed starting spot. If Jay Heaps has proved anything lately, it’s that very few of them have one. The first year head coach has been constantly dropping players and shuffling his first 18 as the Revolution have continued to struggle. While it may help to send a message that everyone needs to work for their spot – something some players insinuated was missing towards the end of Steve Nicol’s tenure – it hasn’t helped the Revolution get results on the field. New England is a club in transition; rough patches will happen. But, a young team needs some consistency to build chemistry, grow as a team and progress going forward. With the constant changes – some forced by injury, but many just coach’s decisions – the team has struggled to find any chemistry and frankly looks uncomfortable or unfamiliar with teammates’ habits at times (see point #3, the central midfield pairing or the strikers). Heaps might be better served to bring some consistency to his starting XI and game day 18 – even if it means looking past a mistake or two – to let the team develop as, well, a team.
5. The referees aren’t what is keeping the Revolution from getting points. While complaints about referees ranging from the missed foul calls, to a lack of cards handed to the opposition, to penalty kick calls against the Revolution have been heard in recent weeks – some of them valid – refereeing decisions aren’t the reason the team continues to plummet down the standings. Sure, not every call has gone the Revolution’s way, but Saturday’s match was well refereed and the team was simply outplayed and lost. It’s time to take the focus off the referee on game day and focus on the play on the field, which has been subpar lately. Until the team can learn to overcome a questionable call or two or an unfortunate bounce of the ball, picking up points on a regular basis is out of the question. Lately the struggling offense has been the main culprit, but on Saturday an extremely shaky defensive performance was equally culpable. There’s no blaming the ref for that.