On Monday, as the New England Revolution opened preseason training at the Dana Farber Fieldhouse, you couldn’t help but ask yourself the following: who are these guys?
Sure, there’s still Shalrie Joseph. Matt Reis remains the same charismatic keeper. And you could probably spot Kevin Alston’s wild mane. Okay, okay, you might eventually pinpoint Marko Perovic, Darrius Barnes, and Pat Phelan, too. But the rest? Good luck.
It’s natural, of course. With no fewer than nine new players in camp, and a few more probably on the way, it’s fair to say that the Revolution, a four-time Eastern Conference champion, are a club in – you guessed it – transition.
Don’t believe it? Consider this: of the 27 players currently in camp, only two – the aforementioned Joseph and Reis – can say they played in the last MLS Cup appearance the Revolution played in, which took place less than four years ago.
Let’s face it: these aren’t the same players who once spearheaded the team to postseason success. Those days are over. No longer are the constants (i.e. Steve Ralston, Taylor Twellman, Jeff Larentowicz, and Jay Heaps) still running laps alongside the boys in blue. Today’s group is a young, unproven bunch with a blimp-sized question mark hovering over their collective heads.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five story lines to follow this year, as the Revolution return to the pitch in 2011.
1. Where’s that designated player the front office promised?
Last October, Brian Bilello publicly announced the club’s intentions to sign “one or more” designated players – and the Revolution faithful rejoiced. But in the subsequent months, there’s been little to report regarding the designated player issue. With four international roster spots currently vacant, the room to sign a couple of designated players is certainly there. Although the Revs succeeded in signing international Didier Domi -who’s experience in both the EPL and Ligue 1 will undoubtedly help the back four- the fact of the matter remains that Bilello has not yet delivered on his promise. Without a single DPA-worthy candidate on the radar, it’s worth asking whether the front office is actually serious about adding a high-priced player or simply waving another carrot to its supporters.
2. Will A.J. Soares live up to the hype?
It’s never easy to forecast how well college players will do in MLS, but if the scouting reports aren’t terribly inaccurate, this kid looks legit. Just ask Chesapeake the Dolphin. On paper (and film), Soares appears to have the tools and smarts to make it big as an MLS starting center back. Then again, the same was said about Gabriel Badilla, who looked ready to seize Michael Parkhurst’s slot in the lower spine. One small problem: he wasn’t ready, or healthy, for that matter. But that’s neither here nor there. Soares is a much different player than Badilla, as the former Golden Bear seems to exude the same quiet confidence that became a staple of Parkhurst’s on-pitch persona. If he can make the transition to MLS as promptly as Parkhurst did in 2005, then the hype will be warranted.
3. How many diamonds in the rough can the Revs find in one offseason?
With seven rookies in camp, and at least two more waiting in the wings (Diego Fagundez and Hunter Christiansen) it’s fair to say that the Revs are undertaking a considerable mining expedition this winter. Can they continue to find talent on the cheap with the hope that a few become regular starters? Probably not. One or two players may pan out and become regular contributors, but let’s be frank: this isn’t 2005, back when MLS clubs could legitimately stock talent Moneyball-style and collect trophies in the process. That’s not to say the likes of Ryan Kinne and Alan Koger can’t make this club better. Not at all. But, in order for this club to succeed, it’ll take a strong group of capable veterans to polish any diamonds the Revolution may have found.
4. How much of a factor will Diego Fagundez be this season?
The fifteen-year-old sensation, who’s scored a scary 28 goals in less than a season-and-a-half with the Revolution U-16s, is easily the most intriguing player on the Revolution roster. It’s obvious the teen sensation knows how to score and his talent certainly points to success. But can a high schooler really make an impact in MLS? History has shown that the vast majority haven’t. The plan for Fagundez will likely include more seasoning at the Academy, with a few Reserve League matches to gauge his progress. Don’t be surprised if Nicol adopts a parsimonious approach toward his youngest player’s first team minutes.
5. Does this club have what it takes to make a return to the MLS Playoffs in 2011?
It’s hard to imagine things getting worse than last year’s nightmare season – one that included a porous defense (50 goals allowed), an anemic offense (32 goals scored), countless injuries, zero minutes from Taylor Twellman, and a Shalrie Joseph suspension for good measure. Although the jury’s still out on how well built this club is at the moment, improvements have been made in the back with the additions of Domi and Ryan Cochrane. But the midfield and attacking third largely remain works in progress. Unless the Revolution wisely invest in proven talent for both areas, it looks like another early autumn for the local XI.