New England Soccer Today

Five Things We Learned: Revolution at D.C. United

Dimitry Imbongo scored a 54th minute equalizer in Saturday's 2-1 Revolution win over D.C. United. (Photo: Chris Aduama/aduama.com)

Dimitry Imbongo scored a 54th minute equalizer in Saturday’s 2-1 Revolution win over D.C. United. (Photo: Chris Aduama/aduama.com)

We all know that life is bigger than sports, and sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded of that.

In the 84th minute of Saturday’s contest, Jay Heaps gave us that reminder when he used his third and final sub to bring on Kevin Alston, who only four months ago, was staring down a serious battle with leukemia.

On most nights, Heaps keeps his reserve defenders on the bench. Even when protecting a lead, you’re more likely to see Robert Kraft do the Dougie than watch Heap bring on a defender late. On another other night, the head coach probably would’ve looked at either Juan Toja or Andy Dorman without giving a second glance to either of his two available defenders. And nobody would’ve thought harshly of it.

But Saturday was different. On a cool night in the Nation’s Capital, a place that’s hardly been friend the Revolution as of late, Heaps decided to do something he rarely does: he let his heart, rather than his mind, guide him on an important coaching decision.

While Alston’s late-game introduction brought smiles and tears of happiness to thousands of faces, it’s easy to forget that, from a logical standpoint, the substitution was a questionable one – and one that could’ve cost his club points.

With six minutes to work with, Heaps knew D.C. was going to press the Revolution hard for the equalizer. The first half showed the hosts quite capable of finding a goal. Again, the smart move in this situation would’ve been to call upon Toja or Dorman, proven veterans who know how to exert their influence in the midfield. On the other hand, if Heaps had his mind made up on a defender, Darrius Barnes would’ve been the best choice. After all, Barnes had just played the full 90 in last week’s 2-0 win in Columbus.

Instead, Heaps went with his heart. He called upon Alston, whose story was, and is, truly remarkable, by any measure. The kind of story that really makes sports so gratifying on a personal level. But, let’s be real: opposing MLS teams could care less about feel-good storylines or slickly-produced video tributes when they’re backed into a corner at home.

Looking at it unemotionally, Heaps brought on a player who hadn’t seen game action since March to help protect a one-goal lead. On the road. In a place the Revolution hadn’t won in nearly two years. Risky? Yeah, you might say that.

In fact, only two minutes after his emotional entrance, an unmarked Sainey Nyassi grabbed a Nick DeLeon cross into the space Alston was patrolling and uncorked a drive that, with better precision, would’ve knotted the match at two apiece.

Fortunately for the Revolution, the 2-1 scoreline held, and we got to see Alston, Heaps and the rest of the team embrace and celebrate their victory, and perhaps more poignantly, the return of their teammate. It was a scene that will likely remain in their minds for quite awhile.

Now, all this isn’t to second-guess or question Heaps or to throw cold water into the face a magical moment. Not at all. Rather, it’s to illustrate how big a risk the Revolution head coach took when he called upon Alston in the waning moments of a match that propelled the club into the postseason race. But compared to Alston’s triumphant return, that race meant little.

Sometimes we lose sight of what truly matters. The result, of course, was an important one for the Revolution. But what truly mattered, in ways that words cannot accurately convey, is that a young man who, not long ago, went face-to-face with his own mortality, and came back to play the game he loves. He didn’t do it in a vacuum, either. He did it in front of his family, friends, teammates, coaches and fans that supported him.

For the first time in a long time, three points was the secondary storyline. It didn’t matter as much who won or lost because, at the heart of it, no scoreline could’ve topped seeing a man who was once fallen lifted back up.

***

Saturday’s game featured its fair share of highs and lows, but in the end, the Revolution pulled away with a victory. So what did learn from it all?

1. We’ve watched Bobby Shuttleworth become a solid keeper before our eyes, but he’s got to figure out how to stop those long-range blasts. The numbers don’t lie: of the last seven goals given up by Shuttleworth, six have come from beyond the 18, with Luis Silva’s eighth minute blast the latest. Some said the conditions were partially to blame, as a wet surface made it difficult for the fifth-year keeper to poke it away. Had it been a one off, fluky goal, then the slick pitch is as good excuse as any. But let’s not kid ourselves: this is becoming an obvious pattern. Say what you will about the need for the back four to clamp down in front of the 18, or attributing some of those strikes to pure skill. Sure, those are all a part of the equation. Bottom line, though, Shuttleworth has to  be better when an opponent gives it a go from distance, because by now, the scouting report is already out:  the best way to score on the Revolution is to have a go from outside the box.

2. The Revolution still haven’t figured out a way to come out of the gate strong. Even if you take away Silva’s opening salvo, the Revolution were absolutely abysmal in the first 10 minutes. Heck, they were almost as bad as the Crew were in the waning moments of their match against Toronto. It’s one thing for the offense to gradually get into a high gear, but on Saturday, the Revolution defense was equally culpable for its slow response to D.C.’s ambitious attack. In the fifth minute, Silva speared toward the near post, beating Stephen McCarthy before earning a corner. Two minutes later, Kyle Porter missed his chance to score the opener at the far post. A minute after Silva’s goal, Porter nearly connected with Conor Doyle in front of frame. A minute after that, Woolard’s header was cleared off the line by Diego Fagundez. That’s five quality chances collected by the worst offense in MLS against the best defense in MLS. Something is clearly not right with this picture. Jay Heaps is cognizant of the issue, and there’s little doubt he’s addressed it with his players. But when it comes down to it, the onus falls on those in charge on the field. So it’s up to the likes of Jose Goncalves, Clyde Simms and Lee Nguyen to get their teammates focused right from the opening whistle. Whether it takes an extra energy drink or a large gong to do the trick, the responsibility ultimately falls on the players.

3. Dimitry Imbongo is scoring the kind of goals that the Revolution paid big money for Jerry Bengtson to score. When the Revolution introduced Bengtson as their newest designated player signing last summer, one of the things the coaching staff and front office praised was the Honduran’s reputation as a poacher. With Saer Sene scoring the so-called pretty goals, Bengtson was supposed to be the perfect compliment, the striker who’d position himself perfectly to push a loose ball or rebound through. Clearly, it hasn’t quite worked out that way for Bengtson, or the Revolution. While the quiet striker continues to  frustrate when he’s on the field, Imbongo, who looked like a raw specimen last season, is starting to become the player the coaching staff thought Bengtson would be: a player who knows what to do when he’s inside the 18. His goals aren’t always the prettiest, to be sure. His goal against the Red Bulls in Open Cup play was all sorts of ugly. But the league doesn’t award extra points for aesthetics.  So long as that’s the case, Imbongo – a classic midsummer flier signing – could very well render Bengtson’s roster spot obsolete simply because he’s doing what Bengston isn’t: scoring.

4. The curious timing of David Gantar’s whistle may come back to haunt the Revolution. You don’t see it very often, and thankfully so: a referee who whistles thrice in the middle of a golden attacking chance. Sure, the rules are the rules, but there’s also an unspoken rule about a referee not interjecting himself into the result as Clive Thomas infamously did during a Brazil-Sweden clash during the 1978 World Cup. But on Saturday, Gantar channeled his inner Clive Thomas by curiously whistling the match over just as Saer Sene carried the ball toward the D.C. net, which had been vacated by Joe Willis on a botched United corner kick. Granted, it wouldn’t have mattered in the short-term. A Sene goal only makes the margin of victory wider. But what about three months from now? With the race in the east as tight as it is, a team like the Revolution, who are fighting for their playoff destiny, might need that goal if it comes down to a tiebreaker. In related news, the Revolution edged their eight-win, 30 point counterpart Houston for fifth solely on – yep, you guessed it – goals scored.

5. Only the Revolution can keep themselves out of the postseason hunt. At this juncture, we have a large enough sample to work with in order to accurately gauge a club’s capabilities. Some clubs, like D.C., Chivas USA and Toronto, are clearly playing for the first pick at SuperDraft, while others like Portland, Sporting K.C. and Montreal, are clearly focused on late-fall. So where does that leave the Revolution? Like many of the remaining teams still making their cases for a postseason berth, the Revolution have the talent and the ability to claim points, especially on the road. Lately, they’ve claimed victories on the road, which is often an indicator of a team’s chances of making a legitimate postseason run (unless, of course, you’re the 2011 Dynamo). Even with Bengtson’s loss of form, Juan Agudelo’s injury and Kalifa Cisse’s troubling disappearance, the Revolution have managed to make it through stormy waters. Yes, there may still be more than a third of season undecided, but the come-from-behind win against the cellar-dwelling D.C. showed us one important thing: that the only club who’s capable of eliminating the Revolution from the postseason picture is the Revolution.

3 Comments

  1. Neil Martin Caswell

    July 30, 2013 at 10:36 am

    When Agudelo makes it back to the pitch do you see Heaps going with a two striker set or staying with his 4-1-4-1 mindset?

    • Brian O'Connell

      July 30, 2013 at 5:30 pm

      Hey Neil, thanks for reading. I think Heaps stays with the 4-1-4-1 formation, with Imbongo the victim of the numbers. He’s played well of recent, but I can’t see Heaps tweaking his formation to accommodate both he and Agudelo, once the latter returns.

  2. Robert

    July 31, 2013 at 12:59 am

    Has Heaps had my any mention of Cisse’s absence? He was considered a big off-season signing.

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