For the better part of the past half decade, the terms “postseason” and “New England Revolution” have been polar opposites. Like oil and water, Batman and Bane, or even Drake and Chris Brown, the two have been nearly impossible to pair, especially in a sentence, without a qualifier such as ”no chance” or “watching it on TV”
Indeed, from the time we saw Maurcio Castro kick a ball into the Toyota Park signage back on a cool October evening in 2009 through that time the assistant referees blew two calls at the same stadium nearly four years later, the Revolution have been the butt of many MLS jokes. Of course, there was little the club could do about the autumn-time gridiron lines, the Patriots look-alike home jerseys (circa 2010-11), or the Rev Girls’ inability to throw a tightly-rolled t-shirt beyond the fourth row (two words: t-shirt launcher). But they deserved the pokes for the 9-game winless streak, the 10-game winless streak, the 4-4 draw in Philly, the embarrassing development of letting Steve Ralston leave to play in a franchise that folded faster than a Krispy Kreme in Beantown, and the signing of Joseph Niouky.
But this season, it appeared the tide was starting to turn. The embarrassing personnel moves seemed to wane. There was no Colombian striker saga to speak of, no overstock of strikers, no shortage of defenders and, perhaps most importantly, no surprise dumping of the skipper. This year, there were signs that the Revolution, from top to bottom, seemed to have their stuff together.
Granted, it didn’t look that way when they opened the season 1-3-2, with only one goal to their credit if you take away Brandon Barklage’s own goal at Red Bull Arena. However, it wasn’t long before the season started to turn around.
The 2-0 victory over the Philly on April 27 pointed the Revolution back in the right direction. Starting with that win, the local XI went a respectable 10-8-5, and found themselves on the cusp of their first postseason berth since the days of Kheli Dube, Emmanuel Osei and, yes, even Nico Colaluca.
Sure, there’s still five games to go in a postseason race that has had more lead changes than a Sunday afternoon in Talladega. For some, this just means that there’s five more opportunities for the Revolution to blow it. And who could blame them? This is the same club that just figured out a way to give D.C. its first road lead of the season last week.
But the table doesn’t lie: for the first time in recent memory, the Revolution are actually a team to watch with the season winding down. Mind you, Friday’s Union-Sporting K.C. contest didn’t exactly do the local XI any favors. At the same time, though, a win against Dynamo on Saturday would put the Revolution square in fourth place with four to go. So hope is far from lost.
Yes, it may sound odd or unfamiliar, but the Revolution are in the midst of a legitimate postseason push. At this point, we don’t know if that push will be successful. But we do know that, for the first time in years, the Revolution are doing well enough to duck the usual, late-season jokes and wisecracks.
That said, let’s dive into this week’s set of questions in a completely straight-faced fashion.
1. Will Juan Agudelo start? It was somewhat surprising to see Agudelo’s name absent from the gameday 18 last week vs. D.C. After all, he’d been healthy enough to play 29 minutes in Chicago the week before. And what better team to test out a gimpy hamstring than D.C.? In hindsight, though, that decision could very welll yield dividends with the Dynamo in town this weekend. With an additional week’s worth of healing time, Agudelo said he felt much better after Wednesday’s training. And perhaps, that’s exactly what Jay Heaps had in mind when he decided to keep Agudelo away from the D.C. game. With Dimitry Imbongo getting the early boot from both Dynamo contests earlier this season, and hoping to field the strongest possible lineup on Saturday, it’s not outside the realm to think that Heaps was looking ahead when he rested Agudelo last week. But whether that extra rest affords the young striker the chance to start remains to be seen. In all likelihood, a healthy, albeit ejection-prone, Imbongo gets the start, with Agudelo coming on early in the second half.
2. Is Lee Nguyen capable of dishing out the punishment needed against the Dynamo? Up until last week, Nguyen was enduring a particularly trying season. His offensive numbers were down, he was hacking (55 fouls created) and getting hacked (56 fouls suffered), and for all intents and purposes, he was trying to do his best impression of Shalrie Joseph without being 6-3 or a superior distributor. But despite his shortcomings, Nguyen has put together an admirable showing during the second half of the season. He’s put in extra work in the rear, and has helped stabilize a defense hasn’t been its first-half self. However, the challenge presented by the Dynamo is much different than the ones posed by the likes of Montreal, Chicago or D.C. Saturday’s game isn’t going to be pretty, and Nguyen is going to have to play an especially gritty game. There’s no doubt he’ll do his best to disrupt the Dynamo in any manner possible. But he’ll have to be cautious not to get carried away, as he did in Toronto, where the only thing keeping him from getting a second yellow was the exceptional patience of Fotis Bozakos.
3. Are the Revolution collectively up to the physical challenge the Dynamo pose? Let’s bypass the make believe routine here. The sky is not green, the ocean is not purple, and the Revolution aren’t a very physical team. There, it’s been said. Now, with that out of the way, there are ways the Revolution can combat the brute strength and ballwinning abilities the Dynamo have used to get to four of the past six MLS Cup finals. One way the Revolution can pierce the Dynamo’s approach is smart, disciplined passing. The direct stuff may work from time to time, but keeping it one the rug should be priority number one. Another way to avoid a battle they cannot win is to come out strong, and energetic. They can’t allow their guests to set the tempo. Lastly, the Revolution have to convert the chances they find. As good as the Dynamo defense is, they’re still prone to hiccups (see: 50th minute Eric Avila tally last week). Putting balls in the back of the net and making the Dynamo a desperate team is the best way to neutralize their physicality, as we saw back on May 18 at BBVA Compass Stadium.
4. Can the Revolution avoid giving up a costly set piece goal? They’ll have to, especially late, when a team like the Dynamo can wear down an opponent’s mental and physical strength. For all the power and accuracy contained in Brad Davis’ left foot, there is something to be said about how the physical approach can mentally drain a team. Note: mentally drained teams don’t often mark well, especially on set pieces. See 2011 Revolution, for reference. Even though Houston’s seven set piece goals this season puts them mid-table in MLS, no defense can afford to take a mental break with Davis behind the ball, not to mention Will Bruin, Giles Barnes and Rico Clark ready to push a defender aside and know it into the back of the net. Two weeks ago, the Revolution conceded a late, game-winning goal in Chicago, sending them to seventh place. Needless to say, they can’t afford a repeat of that this week.
5. Is this the kind of game Jay Heaps is inclined to tweak the lineup for individual matchups? There’s a fine line that coach must walk when his club is in the midst of a postseason push. More often than not, there’s a core group of players that collectively put the club in contention. And more often than not, there’s little debate or discussion about changing what’s generally worked all season. But we all know that Heaps won’t hesitate to tweak the lineup to find better matchups. He’ll put a Chad Barrett out on the right in a heartbeat if he sees his midfield needs more strength and toughness. He’ll flip-flip his center backs if one isn’t performing up to his standard. And as we’ve seen in the last month or so, he’s not afraid to make a goalkeeper switch. Taking all this into account, there could be room for one or two changes this week. The defense will likely remain unchanged, although it might not be such a bad idea to give Stephen McCarthy an opportunity to win some aerial duels against a team as good in the air as Houston. After the midfield was overwhelmed by the Dynamo in the July 13 clash, it might make sense to put Barrett back on the right. Oh, and we all know the problems Dimitry Imbongo’s encountered with, you know, staying on the pitch against the Dynamo. So Agudelo, even if he’s not 100 percent, is probably the better option up top. Changes may not be a recipe for success all of the time, but sometimes, a coach needs to make them when a tough opponent marches into town.