Even the truest, dyed-in-wool Revolution supporter has to admit it: there’s very little to like about Saturday’s game against the Red Bulls. And given the way Friday’s conferences clashes sorted themselves out, there’s even less to like about it.
Why? Let’s consider the circumstances: The Revolution enter this game in eighth place with four games to go. Three of their last four games are on the road, and all against clubs competing for postseason berths. Oh, and the first of those four games is at a place they’ve gotten zero points from. Ever.
As if the above scenario couldn’t be any bleaker, well, brace yourselves for more despair. The Revolution face a Red Bulls side that’s unbeaten in their last five, and nearly pulled a win out of last Sunday’s clash in Seattle. Typically, this is the time of the year in which the Red Bulls begin to implode. This year, the exact opposite is taking place.
Then, there’s the small matter of talent. Even if the Red Bulls didn’t compete in a park where the Revolution had never gotten a result, or weren’t in top form at the moment, the fact is that they are, by any measure, the most talented team in the east. Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Dax McCarty, Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave can all single-handedly turn a game in their favor. On Wednesday, Jay Heaps said that the Red Bulls are about as complete a team as any team could be in MLS. Note: Jay Heaps wasn’t joking.
Although there’s probably a few more things that aren’t exactly pointing to Revolution success on Saturday, this one might be the toughest to stomach: the once-invincible defense hasn’t posted a clean sheet since July. While the attack has come alive in recent weeks, the defense that grinded out results in the first half of the season is on the back of a milk carton. And that’s really the most worrisome aspect of Saturday’s game: anything less than a perfect game from the backline is going to result in a loss, and most likely of epic proportions.
Now, it may seem like the skies are black and the waves are crashing with greater force given the challenge the Revolution face. But although it may not seem like it, all hope isn’t lost. After all, hope never dies in MLS, unless you are Toronto FC.
If we’ve seen it once, we’ve seen it a hundred times: a good team gets humbled by a plucky opponent. We saw it last night in Houston, we saw it on Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium, we saw it a couple of weeks ago with the Crew in Montreal, and we saw it five weeks ago when Chivas USA beat the Red Bulls. Whenever you put two MLS sides on the pitch, anything can happen. This is especially true when both of those sides are members of the Eastern Conference.
Yes, it may be hard to look at Saturday’s match and not see the demise of the Revolution’s postseason ambitions. But on the flip side, there’s still one promising prospect that can come out of Saturday’s clash: three magical points for the Revolution. And yes, they will be magical.
Before we find out whether the Revolution have a rabbit in their hat, let’s go studs up on this week’s set of questions.
1. What needs to improve from Saturday’s 1-1 draw vs. Houston? Nothing sours a postseason run like a wobbly defense, and we saw that first-hand last weekend. After the Revolution held back Houston in the first half, then scored shortly after the hour mark, all the defense had to do was hold on, and see the game out. Not long ago, this would’ve seemed like a mere formality. But just as they have in recent weeks, something went painfully awry. A.J. Soares fell to the floor after a midfield dust-up as the Dynamo swarmed the Revolution inside their own end. A poor Andrew Farrell clearance fell to Boniek Garcia, who quickly found Will Bruin for the equalizer. It wasn’t the most egregious mistake, but it was a costly one. So the defense – team defense – must be better. Another area where the Revolution can’t afford to fluff up is inside the final third. Although Bruin’s goal may have ultimately doomed them, attacking chances were being handed out like Halloween candy by the Houston defense. Juan Agudelo found two of them, Diego Fagundez had one, and so did Saer Sene on his last-gasp free kick. The Revolution might’ve survived to claim a point against the Dynamo despite their mistakes, but they won’t have any such luck against the supremely-talented Red Bulls.
2. What did the Revolution do against the Dynamo that could lead them to success against the Red Bulls? While mistakes may have kept the Revolution from claiming maximum points last weekend, one thing Heaps was impressed with was how his young, inexperienced side played tough against the savvy, playoff-tested Dynamo. Instead of shying away from contact and allowing the Dynamo to take their lunch, the Revolution stood up to their adversaries. They didn’t back down after Dimitry Imbongo was taken down almost every time he had possession. They didn’t get flustered when the Dynamo back line tried to bully them inside the final third. It was the kind of game in which boys become men, to borrow a cliche’. If the Revolution can continue to show the physical and mental toughness they displayed against the Dynamo, the odds of them getting a result against the Red Bulls can only get better.
3. Is Juan Agudelo in line to start? We saw how much of an influence a diminished Agudelo can have on a team as strong and physically imposing as the Dynamo last week. Though still hobbled, the 20-year-old helped open up a slew of chances for the attack, and nearly biked home the game-winner just as the game entered stoppage time. Although he may not be 100 percent just yet, the fact is the Revolution are going to need as much as they can get from Agudelo on Saturday. Just how much they can get is worth keeping an eye on. It’s unlikely he’s ready to go the full 90 – something we may never see again before he leaves for Stoke – given how tricky hamstring injuries can be. But it’s worth noting that as Agudelo was scrimmaging with the starters during training on Wednesday, which suggests we may see an hour of Agudelo on Saturday.
4. Will Jay Heaps use his full set of subs? If there’s a game to release the hounds, this might be one of them. Perhaps it’s because most of the bench is comprised of strikers, but we’ve seen Heaps use all three subs fewer and fewer times in recent weeks. Last week, Heaps only used one sub in a game that might’ve tipped in the Revolution’s favor had Charlie Davies or Chad Barrett come on for a defender or midfielder. Alas, we’ll never know. This week, though, there shouldn’t be any hesitation, unless, of course, the Revolution are up 8-0 at the break. In a vacuum, a point at Red Bull Arena would feel like a win. But the Revolution do not compete in a vacuum, and as such, it’s three points or bust against the Red Bulls. The Revolution have weapons on the bench. Saturday might be a good a time as any to start using all of them.
5. Should the backline remain unchanged? This is a sticky issue because there are two schools of thought when it comes to late-season lineup tweaks. One school suggests that if a team is underperforming in one area, the most appropriate course of action is to try to fix it. This is especially true if depth isn’t an issue, and for the first time years, the Revolution are stacked in the rear. The other school says that a coach shouldn’t tinker with what’s working, even if it’s not working at its best. No one will debate that the Revolution backline hasn’t been its lights-out self since midsummer, but there is something to be said about continuity and keeping things running smoothly, even if there are a few bumps along the way. That said, the Revolution are going to need their best four defenders on the pitch on Saturday, and Stephen McCarthy is one of them.