For the past two years, the New England Revolution has been trying to find a replacement for Taylor Twellman. Searching for a dependable goal scorer, the Revs have tried rookies and European veterans, but have thus far failed to find long-term success with any of the players they’ve inserted up top.
But the emphasis placed on a striker may actually be a distraction from a larger problem: the lack of service from the midfield and particularly on the flanks. While the Revs have been busy making additions up top, little has been done to strengthen the outside midfield positions.
Throughout their success in the early and mid-2000s, the Revs saw much of their goal production come from service via the flanks. Since then, the squad has continued to lose reliable outside midfielders without finding adequate replacements. Steve Ralston was the most notable loss, but the Revs have also seen players such as Brian Kamler, Andy Dorman and Mauricio Castro, all of whom provided quality service from the wings when called upon, come and go in the past decade.
While Ralston was in a league of his own, providing an astonishing 19 assists in one season (2002), the Revs haven’t found anyone who could come even close to matching his production at right midfield. In fact, with Ralston gone in 2010, the Revs outside midfielders, Sainey Nyassi, Chris Tierney, Kenny Mansally, Khano Smith, and Zak Boggs and Kheli Dube on a few occasions, combined for a meager seven assists all season.
One may consider the service of the Revs outside backs to the flank play, but that only adds a lone assist from Kevin Alston, bringing the total to eight in 2010. Unsurprisingly, the Revs scored a team-record low 32 goals that season.
For comparison, in the Revs most recent trip to the MLS Cup Final in 2007, the team had over 20 assists from its outside midfielders as they finished second in the league with 51 goals. Certainly, having a finisher the quality of Twellman helped, but one would have a tough time arguing the service from the wings has been anywhere near the quality it was in 2007 over the past two seasons.
In the 2011 offseason, the Revs did little to increase the quality of their outside midfielders. Rookie Ryan Kinne was brought in and saw plenty of minutes in the team’s preseason matches, but has only seen a minute of action in the regular season. Veteran French left back Didier Domi was also signed and has shown an ability to provide service when getting forward, but otherwise the only move the Revs have made to address the failures along the flanks was to drop back Marko Perovic into the midfield.
The results? Another dismal season offensively with the Revs on pace to set a new team-record low for goals scored with only 10 in 13 matches so far this season. As for the wing play, Perovic, Tierney, Nyassi, Mansally, and Zak Boggs have a combined total of three assists. The outside fullbacks have yet to register a point.
That injuries have kept Perovic sidelined for much of the season have undoubtedly made things even worse for the Revs. But even when the reigning team MVP returns to health, the squad needs more quality on the wings. Rajko Lekic may or may not be the answer for the Revs up top, but it is hard to deliver a verdict on his performance thus far given the lack of service he’s been getting.
Benny Feilhaber and Shalrie Joseph provide a skillful combo in the center of the midfield for the Revs and Ousmane Dabo can provide another option when healthy. The Revs have built a solid, fairly deep backline with veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis behind them. Lekic has shown signs of being dangerous up top.
But the bottom line is this: the lack of quality on the flanks is what’s keeping the Revs from becoming a playoff team. If signing a Designated Player remains a priority this summer, the Revs would wise to find a creative experienced winger to finally replace Ralston. With a healthy Perovic complemented by another inventive and consistent midfielder on the right, the Revs could finally provide the service needed to not only contend, but to also discover whether the club should continue its search for the next Twellman.