Welcome to the postseason, loyal readers! As we get set to fasten our harnesses for the twists, turns and gravity-defying loops of playoff soccer, we’re going to do something a little different with this week’s series of questions.
Instead of leading off with commentary, we’re going to plunge right into the questions – and at breakneck speed.
1. What do the Revolution need to do to break the hex that Kansas City has cast on them? That’s the question of the hour going into Saturday’s clash. Over their last 501 minutes of action against Peter Vermes’ team, the Revolution have scored exactly zero goals. That’s over eight hours of offensive failure, folks. And without scoring, the Revolution won’t make it to see the Conference finals. In order to put an end to that streak of futility, the focus has to be on the fundamentals. Look for teammates, complete passes, stay level-headed and concentrate on putting the ball on frame when close (or from 25+ yards, if you’re Kelyn Rowe). Look at the last time these two teams met. The Revolution were bullied right out of the gate at Sporting Park on Aug. 10, and as a result, they were continually haunted poor passing, panicked play and a pair of late red cards that only served to embarrass them further. It’s not complicated: you can’t succeed against any team, whether it be D.C. United or the New York Red Bulls, unless you’ve got your stuff together on the fundamentals.
2. How much will Jose Goncalves’ hamstring strain affect him? For the sake of the souls in the Fort, along with the hearty souls who’ll occupy the rest of the lower bowl (and let’s hope it’s a turnout like the one we saw two weeks ago in the home finale), let’s hope that the Portuguese center back remains largely unbothered by one of the most uncooperative injuries ever seen in sports. Last week, Goncalves somehow battled through the pain – a pain which typically does not respond to the magic spray – and went the full 90 at Columbus. And there’s no way to begin to describe just how badly the Revolution needed every minute Goncalves could muster given the way the Crew threw everything but the kitchen sink last Sunday. This week, against a superior Sporting side, the Revolution will need a similar performance from their captain. Just how much he can give will probably depend upon how he’s responded to treatment over the last few days. But if there’s someone who’ll get the full benefit of the recovery techniques used to treat such injuries, it’s Goncalves, who is one of the most well-conditioned athletes you’ll ever see on a soccer pitch.
3. Will Juan Agudelo finally get the opportunity to feature at forward for the majority of the match? It’s hard to tell just how married to the idea Jay Heaps is when it comes to the constant in-game swapping of Agudelo and Jerry Bengston/Dimitry Imbongo between the wing and up front. It’s certainly not by design that Agudelo’s found himself out on the right after what happened to Saer Sene in Montreal. But the fact that Agudelo is being asked to move out of the role he’s thrived in all season is a curious development. Now, Heaps will be the first to say that every game is different, and that most of the front five are not chained to their listed positions on the lineup. Just because Agudelo is listed as the right-sided midfielder doesn’t mean he’ll spend the entire game there, which is something we’ve seen during the last two weeks. Then again, if there is someone who should stay within his role for much of the game, it has to be Agudelo, especially against Kansas City. Knowing how imposing Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler can be, the Revolution need to match strength with strength, and Agudelo is their strongest forward. Yes, Imbongo’s no slouch, but then again, Imbongo’s no Agudelo. In light of that, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if we do see more of the Stoke City-bound striker in his natural role, with either Imbongo or Bengtson on the right for much of the match.
4. Can Diego Fagundez find a way to crack through Kansas City’s physical defense? At first blush, this is a nightmare matchup for the talented 18-year-old. At 5-8, 140 lbs, Fagundez could easily become a human pinata with Collin and Besler lurking in the Revolution final third. Heck, it wasn’t all that surprising that the last time these teams faced off, Heaps left Fagundez on the bench until the 57th minute. But this time around, though, the Revolution can’t afford to protect their investment. Fagundez will need to figure out a way to avoid the punishment. To do so, he’ll have to be at his sharpest, whether it’s his trademark incisive runs, or his cool demeanor in front of the net when he’s able to make those runs. He’ll have to stay disciplined, and resist the efforts of the Kansas City defense that’ll surely attempt to funnel him into the teeth of their defense. We’ve seen Fagundez find a way to escape the traps opposing teams have set for him in the past; it’ll be interesting to see if he can do it again on Saturday.
5. Should Jay Heaps be concerned about playoff jitters? In a word: no. After all this is the same team that has rowed an imaginary canoe after goal celebrations, a team whose players employ elaborate handshakes when its not rowing imaginary canoes, and a team whose star striker has coined himself “Swagudelo.” Speaking of swag, or swagger, depending upon your preferred nomenclature, few teams in league have as much of it as the Revolution. And it’s not by accident, either. As we’ve seen countless times throughout this season, they’ve used their youth as an advantage rather than using it as an excuse. Fagundez, Agudelo, Caldwell, Rowe, Imbongo and Andrew Farrell have all played without fear or nerves this season, and the Revolution have reaped the rewards. Now, this isn’t to say that regular season soccer is the same animal as the postseason variety. By no means. But as Matt Reis, the wise elder spokesman, said during Wednesday’s presser, they’re treating Saturday’s clash as just another game. On second thought, perhaps there is some wisdom in that naivete.