FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Since his first day on the job, Revolution head coach Jay Heaps has consistently preached the importance of possession.
Whether it’s setting the tempo early or seeing a game out in the waning minutes, there’s no question that the second year head coach is a firm believer in the “control the ball, control the game” credo.
But even though possession remains a primary tenant of his coaching philosophy, Heaps wants more from his team. He wants them to adopt a grittier approach this season. And he wants to start seeing it when the Revolution hit the pitch for the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup tournament, which kicks off on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be a balance, we want to be smart in how we play,” Heaps said. “Last year, we played and we got knocked down we tried to play, we got knocked down (again). We have to have an understanding that there’s got to be times when we knock down, then play.”
The genesis of that shift in thinking can probably be traced back to last season’s 1-0 home loss to Toronto FC on Jul. 14. The cellar-dwelling Reds physically dominated the match, creating 15 fouls to the Revolution’s five. By disrupting the flow of the game, New England never found an attacking rhythm, and failed to score against one of the most porous defenses in the league.
As the second half of the season progressed, more teams employed Toronto’s approach against the Revolution. At the end of the season, the statistics were damning: the Revolution were not only the most fouled team in the conference (483), but they recorded the second-fewest fouls (360) in MLS, behind Chicago (349). Leaguewide, no team had a greater gap (123) between fouls suffered and fouls created. Something had to give.
Heaps knew that some of the rough play was attributable to his team’s ineptitude on free kicks situations. Some of it also had to do with the team’s lack of size. The solution: sign bigger, stronger players (see: Jose Goncalves, Andew Farrell, Matt Horth and Kalifa Cisse) to not only win the aerial battles, but to dole out some long overdue punishment.
The new emphasis on physical play may be tough to gauge with only two preseason games under their belts, but center back A.J. Soares believes that it’s already paying dividends in training.
“You do see it in training,” Soares said. “It’s physical, it’s aggressive and competitive and it makes for better training. The trainings are sharper and because we know we want to be more physical this year.”
It’s a welcome development for players like Soares, who watched his teammates get cut down time after time last season.
“We want to, in a sense, foul them just as much as (we’re) getting fouled,” said Soares.
While Heaps might not echo that exact phrase, he will be keeping an eye on the physical dimension of his club’s final four preseason games.
Yes, possession will remain an important, if not indispensable, part of his team’s identity. But it’s an identity that cannot remain static.
The lessons learned from last season proved that. While the Revolution tried to hold the ball and play out of the back, far too many teams successfully – and rather easily – introduced brash, bottom-line tactics to short-circuit that approach.
So with First Kick less than a month away, Heaps believes that his club’s next challenge is to show its mettle. To out-muscle an opponent. To agitate rather than acquiesce.
MLS has been called many things over the years. One thing it hasn’t been called is “soft.”
Soft teams get tossed around, no matter how much they hold onto the ball. In light of that, the Revolution are anxious to brandish some much-needed grittiness, starting this week in Tucson.
“I think that’s going to be an important step for us – to be a lot tougher,” Heaps said. “And so with our style of play, we want to add toughness. That’s been our thought process this entire preseason: ‘How do we get stronger mentally and physically?'”