Midfield in Flux

Midfielder Blair Gavin was among the four players whose contract options were declined by the Revolution on Friday. (Photo: Chris Aduama/aduama.com)

By Kevin Koczwara

Today the New England Revolution announced that the team would not be picking up Blair Gavin’s contract option for the 2013 season. Gavin arrived in New England after the Revolution traded its team captain and most recognizable player Shalrie Joseph to Chivas USA in exchange for Gavin, allocation money and a second round pick in the MLS 2013 SuperDraft. Now, Gavin will enter the Major League Soccer Re-entry draft and it looks like New England will have traded one of its legendary stars for allocation money, a second-round pick and some cap-space, which is interesting when looking at the moves the team has made so far this offseason and what the future looks like in the midfield for Jay Heaps team — especially with the team also deciding to not pick up Benny Feilhaber’s option as well.

When New England traded for Gavin, the former Akron standout came as damaged goods thanks to a lingering hamstring injury, the team decided to dump Joseph’s salary in exchange for the 23-year-old midfielder in the hopes he could recover and show the kind of talent on the ball that made him the 10th pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. Gavin was unfortunate to not recover until the last two games of the season. His injury history, and lack of playing time since he joined the Revs is the major reason why his contract wasn’t picked up for the 2013 season, along with the fact that per MLS rules Gavin’s contract would become guaranteed next season and he would get an increase in his salary.

“When he came to us as part of the trade, he was injured for a good portion of time which kind of kept him out,” New England General Manager Mike Burns of the team’s decision to decline Gavin’s option for 2013 on the Revolution official website. “All of that factored in. Where we are right now in our central midfield, we felt that to pick up his option right now not having seen him play as much, we just weren’t ready to make that decision on December 1 for all of next year.”

The decision not to bring back Gavin, despite his injury history, is still puzzling, though. New England traded away one of its prized assets in Joseph in the aim to make the team more financially stable an with a view for long-term mobility in the player personnel market. New England wasn’t going to win enough games to make the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2012, and Heaps and Burns knew that. The team wasn’t going to make it in 2013 either if moves weren’t made. So, Burns decided it was best to get Joseph’s money off the books and start re-building. But the move for Gavin is still mysterious as New England has had a hard time filling its central midfield in past seasons with serviceable players week-in and week-out.

If you know the player is injured and you trade for him, you know you might not get a chance to see him play for sometime. You’re going off the idea that Gavin, at 23, can help bolster your midfield in the future. To let him go now means the front office really gave up Joseph for a second-round pick and the always mysterious allocation money, which isn’t on par with what the team’s captain offered New England on game day. In short, it was a straight salary dump. With New England’s fall from glory, that’s not something the fan base wants to see or hear, especially if the team continues to struggle in 2013.

Feilhaber option declined, and that move makes sense

Benny Feilhaber came to the New England Revolution during the 2011 season thanks to a pair of fortuitous passes on the part of Chivas USA and the Philadelphia Union in an allocation draft. Less than two years later, the verdict is out: The move didn’t work for either Feilhaber or the Revolution. The midfielder struggled to find his place in the side and couldn’t seem to get into a groove Stateside.

One of the problems for Feilhaber was that he tried to do too much for the Revolution. When he played in the deep-lying playmaker role, the U.S. International relentlessly searched for the killer pass, and either his teammates missed the chance or his pass was intercepted, and he was easily frustrated, which lead to a loss in focus and plenty of temper-tantrums.  Feilhaber’s form suffered enough for him to find himself ont he bench more often than not at the end of the 2012 season for Heaps’ side.

Feilhaber needs to find a team that suits his skill-set and has the room to put him out-wide as a roaming winger with the freedom to find space in the midfield to link play from the back to the front. Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley used Feilhaber perfectly for the National Team as an advanced playmaker, and if Feilhaber can find another coach with the patience, the roster depth and money to pay Feilhaber, then look for him to become an MLS All-Star. For New England, his price was too high and it was obvious a change was needed.

“What I can say with regard to Benny is that it was certainly not an easy decision not to exercise the option,” said Burns in a statement through the Revolution official website. “He’s a very talented player, there’s no question about it. But like I said earlier, in certain cases you have to look at salary budget implications. That certainly factored into the decision we had to make.”

Feilhaber made $446,000 in 2012. For a player whose production was falling while his time on the bench on the bench was rising, the math made it patently clear what the Revolution had to do. (Side Note: The Revolution hold the rights to Feilhaber. He is free to explore Europe, but a team in MLS would need to trade for his rights to acquire the former USMNT player’s rights in MLS.)

Dorman and Cisse Have to Show Worth

With the options of Feilhaber, Gavin  and Fernando Cardenas all declined, it means that new arrivals Andy Dorman and Kalif Cisse need to show that their worth the investment. The Revolution are trying to build a solid core in the heart of its midfield, something its been missing since Jeff Larentowicz was traded to Colorado before the 2010 season. Clyde Simms and Juan Toja are the only other returning midfielder who saw significant time in the center of the midfield for the Revolution. And let’s be honest: Ryan Guy was forced into the central midfield picture due to injuries and, well, more injuries.

New England hasn’t had the best of luck bringing in midfielder in recent seasons. Cisse and Dorman need to put a halt to that trend if the Revs want to climb out of the depths of the Eastern Conference table. With Gavin and Feilhaber out of the picture, the onus now falls even heavier on Cisse and Dorman to produce in 2013.

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About Kevin Koczwara

Kevin was one of the co-founders of The Soccer Guys, and contributes to Worcester Magazine, KCKRS.com, and an assistant editor for The Red Letter: An LFC Boston Blog. He has been featured on MLSSoccer.com, The Classical and NESN.com. He is a member of the North American Soccer Reporters and has been covering the New England Revolution since 2010. Follow him on Twitter: @kkoczwara