Without question, there was a slew of story lines surrounding Saturday’s contest between the Revolution and Fire. The lineup changes. The return of Matt Reis. The debut of Charlie Davies. The sight of Jerry Bengtson in Revolution gear (visual proof here). In sum, it was one of those rare nights in which the scoreline was almost secondary.
But let’s not kid ourselves. These were all just subplots to a larger story. This isn’t to say that some weren’t interesting. Not at all. Reis’ return and Davies’ debut were absolutely compelling. On different nights, they each get top billing. Ditto for the lineup changes, especially if the Revolution had lost. The Bengston sighting? A sidebar, maybe, if the attack has another slow night.
No, you didn’t have to be Sheldon Cooper to figure out that the return of Juan Agudelo deserved the biggest headline.
In 68 minutes of action, the 20-year-old striker almost single-handedly restored hope to a legion of supporters who so badly needed it after last weekend’s soul-crushing defeat at Sporting Park. And he did it in stunning, #SCTop10 fashion.
You’ve probably seen the replay many, many times, so there’s really no need to sit here and describe it to you. In a sense, description doesn’t do it justice. It’s one of those plays that you just have to see to truly appreciate it. A play that deserved more than just four different camera angles, even if one of those angles came from a blimp.
After the game, Agudelo was asked if his cheeky, outside-of-the-foot shot something he’d practiced. He said it was “instinct,” which is not a disingenuous response. All of us who’ve played the game, whether with friends or professionally, have tried something out of pure reaction. That’s what Agudelo did. It was instant innovation. But unlike most of us, he nailed it.
More than that, he rubbed the clamps together and jolted a flatlining attack back to life. With Agudelo on the pitch, the offense flowed instead of stalling. It found holes instead walls. It induced defenders to foul instead of goad. On Saturday, the Revolution offense actually looked like a unit comprised of capable players. And that itself is an intriguing storyline as the Revolution embark on their final 10 games.
With ten games to go, that means there’ll be at least 50 more things that we’ll learn between now and October 27. But before we look too far ahead, let’s take a look at what we learned on Saturday.
1. It cannot be overstated: the Revolution missed Agudelo. Badly. If you don’t believe in the numbers or the affect that a single player has on his team, then here’s your chance to make a quick escape. Don’t worry. We’ll leave the light on for you. OK, with that out of the way, the numbers are compelling: in the eight games that Agudelo missed, the Revolution scored nine goals, which isn’t a terrible stat. Then again, it’s not a great one. Going into Saturday’s clash, the Revolution hadn’t scored in their last 206 minutes with the final pass somewhere out on Route 66 trying to hitch a ride. But that all changed on Saturday. With Agudelo back on the pitch, the Revolution’s attack actually put a backline on notice, even if it was only Chicago’s backline. The chances showed up in droves, the passes were cleaner, as evidenced with the Revolution’s 85.4 percent passing success in the first half. It was as if everyone was playing with Agudelo’s so-called South American swag. Not to rely on a tired standby, but a confident team is often a dangerous team. And the Revolution were looking pretty self-assured with Agudelo back on Saturday.
2. In case you missed it: the lineup changes mean that Jay Heaps just raised the stakes. There wasn’t much for the Revolution boss to be happy about following last weekend’s barbeque in Kansas City. A three-goal loss that featured a horror-show of bad passes, clumsy tackles and atrocious finishing didn’t sit well with Heaps. So he did something about it. Instead of sitting on his hands and pretending a 3-0 loss that was televised and archived on mlssoccer.com for future generations didn’t actually happen, Heaps made changes. Bold changes. While the addition of Agudelo wasn’t all that surprising (other than the fact that he was healthy enough to start), the reintroduction of Matt Reis, A.J. Soares and Chad Barrett would’ve been tabloid material if the Revolution played their games on E! Nevertheless, the moves worked wonders. Aside from Agudelo’s singular performance, Reis was solid between the sticks, Soares played smart, and Barrett, despite playing on the wing, added an element of grittiness against a chippy Chicago midfield. While the changes helped put the skids on the Revolution’s modest losing streak, it also signaled that now, with the season coming down the stretch, it’s time to step up - or step aside.
3. Matt Reis played well enough to hold onto the starter’s job for the foreseeable future. While many of us armay have been wrapped up on Agudelo’s brilliant 68 minutes on the pitch, the undeniable feel-good story was unfolding between the pipes. Reis, the longest-tenured player in Revolution history, seemed doomed to spend the remainder of his 16th (and possibly, final) season in MLS on the bench after Bobby Shuttleworth took over after the third game of the season. While Shuttleworth got hot and played some of the best soccer of his career, Reis nevertheless pressed on, and pushed Shuttleworth and rookie Luis Soffner during training. After Shuttleworth’s form cooled, Heaps decided that the reliable Reis deserved another shot. And so, with the Foxborough Faithful behind him once again, the 16-year-veteran performed at the level we’ve become accustomed to over the years. Whether it was organizing his back four, denying Magee on a 27th minute shot or smothering a dangerous pass right in front of the Golden Boot co-leader in the 8th minute, Reis was up to the task, and then some. Given that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Reis back at it on Sunday against the Union, another team that’s found its stride in recent weeks.
4. Aside from his stoppage time goal, Kelyn Rowe had a night to forget. It’s hard to believe that the Kelyn Rowe we saw on Saturday was the same Kelyn Rowe that had essentially torched the Fire for a goal and three assists in his previous four matchups. In the first half, the sophomore midfielder coughed up the ball so often that someone should’ve made a Dimetapp run. When he wasn’t giving away possession, he went MIA on the attack, with Agudelo, Diego Fagundez and even Andrew Farrell all making greater offensive contributions. Then, of course, was the epic miss in the 87th minute, the ying to Juan Agudelo’s 54th minute yang. All in all, it was a wretched night for Rowe up until his 90+1 minute goal that not only allowed the Revolution to safeguard their lead, but gave the goalscorer a playful opportunity to pretend to row the signboards behind the net. While Rowe may have redeemed himself with the goal, it was an uncharacteristically subpar night for a player who essentially owned the Fire in his last four head-to-head clashes.
5. The Revolution were fortunate that another slow start didn’t cost them the result. Lost in all of the celebrations and heartwarming stories that unfolded before us on Saturday was the ugly truth that, once again, the Revolution got off to the wrong foot. Again. In the first 30 minutes, the Fire earned three corners, fired four shots and needed the right post to bail them out on Mike Magee’s 15th goal of the season. Although the Revolution nevertheless got their act together, it’s hard to imagine that Heaps was pleased with what he saw in the opening moments. True, the Revolution weren’t as awful in the first half as they were last week. And, OK, they still managed to escape danger, which is something they failed to do at Sporting Park, Gillette Stadium and RFK Stadium recently. But they were lucky – lucky that a team that entered the contest third in MLS in shots on target average (5.1 per game) didn’t make them pay. Three points may have glossed over what transpired in the in first half hour, but the Revolution would be wise to make a note that they only came inches away from finding themselves in yet another early rut.