The New England Revolution won’t be playing in the MLS Cup playoffs for the third consecutive season. Yet, this isn’t the same kind of season as the past two. This Revolution team is in the middle of a rebuilding phase and there are already evident signs that its rookie head coach, Jay Heaps, has this team looking for more of an attacking endeavor than the past two seasons combined.
In short: This team is full of potential and only needs a few missing links to put it all together and become a team fighting for a playoff spot instead of fighting to avoid the dreaded last place spot. With three games left, it’s a good time to look at five things New England needs to do to finish out the year on a high note.
1. Find where Benny Feilhaber fits: Feilhaber was much lauded when he came back to Major League Soccer and somehow fell in the Revolution’s lap. Since then, he’s been a puzzle piece that either hasn’t fit well with the team or has been surrounded by a bunch of blundering idiots. It depends on who you read. My money is somewhere in the middle. Feilhaber is a creative player who can do things on the ball that most other players in MLS only dream of. But he’s not the kind of player you can build a team around. He needs a goalscorer in front of him and a work-horse behind him because you don’t want him too worried about the dirty work in the midfield, which is what he’s had to do too often. Revolution coach Jay Heaps and General Manager Mike Burns need to sit down and figure out what they want this team to look like and if Feilhaber is involved they need to find a way to make him a supplemental player who can do what he does best: create chances for teammates to finish.
2. Life without Nguyen: On Monday, Sept. 24 the Revolution announced that Lee Nguyen would miss the remainder of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, which means its time for New England to find another creative force in its midfield. Nguyen has been the creative fulcrum for the Revs for much of the season, and it’s time to see what the team can manage without him in the lineup. Nguyen’s dribbling and ball skill is great, but at times the team has lacked the shape it needs and the quick passing in transition to create and finish clear-cut chances. This is the time for the likes of Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez to cement their roles in the team and show Heaps that he’s got options beyond Nguyen.
3. The Jerry Bengtson mystery: Bengtson made noise at this summer’s Olympics, but he has yet to replicate that kind of form in MLS. Well, I shouldn’t say that entirely. After those goals, Bengtson kind of disappeared as Honduras powered on and impressed. For the Revolution, Bengtson has largely been a peripheral figure looking to find a familiar face in an empty landscape. New England brought him in to score goals and he’s only got two through nine games. Yes, he has missed time while playing in the Olympics and for the national team, but this was supposed to be the kind of finisher who would decimate MLS defenses. He was much applauded when the Revolution snagged his signature. But that form has been lacking and New England is left wondering: which Bengtson will show up for the remainder of the season? And if it’s the one who struggles to link-up with teammates and score goals, does he deserve the luxury of another season?
4. Life after Matt Reis: Bobby Shuttleworth has had few chances to show what he can do as the Revolution’s perennial goalkeeper Matt Reis continues to fight father time and stay in good form. But with New England out of the playoff hunt, it’s time for the Revolution see what it has with Shuttleworth. Is he a future No.1 in MLS? Or is it time to look for another long-term option for when Reis decides to hang it up?
5. Give the kids a chance: Yes, Alec Purdie, Mike Roach and Tyler Polak haven’t seen much time with the first team this year. Like many MLS rookies, the minutes are often few and far in between. But it’s time they get their chance to show Heaps what they can bring to the Revolution and if they can compete in MLS. One of the complaints with former coach Steve Nicol over the past few seasons was his wariness to give his younger players a chance, even when things weren’t going well and the trusted veterans were faltering. Heaps needs to use this time to evaluate the entire squad, including the fringe players, and see if he has a hidden gem somewhere, or a player who just needs the opportunity.