New England Soccer Today

Legitimate Choices

When everyone's healthy, head coach Jay Heaps will have some tough lineup decisions to make. (Photo credit: Samuel Hiser)

In the midst of their first winning streak since 2010, the New England Revolution are already proving to be a much deeper team than in years past. For the first time in recent memory New England has legitimate competition for starting spots.

Sure, with how poorly the Revs performed in 2011 it was easy to wonder if some of the bench player or reserve players deserved some minutes over the underwhelming first teamers, but it would be hard to make a case that there was real competition for any spot in the starting XI. Now, in 2012, head coach Heaps has some legitimately tough, but good, decisions to make.

Those decisions couldn’t have been made more obvious than by the great performances of Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe and Ryan Guy this past weekend in Benny Feilhaber’s absence due to injury. When Feilhaber returns, one of the three is likely to find himself on the bench.

With Nguyen, Rowe and Guy all amongst the top performers in the Revolution’s 3-1 shock upset over the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday, taking any of the trio out of the starting lineup will be a tough call. Of course the fact that benching one of them is even under discussion is due to another early season revelation – Clyde Simms.

About midway through the preseason it began to look clear that Heaps’ eventual plans were a 4-4-2 formation with Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber in the heart of the midfield. Simms was seeing most of his early preseason minutes off the bench.

Additionally, despite the questions then surrounding Jose “Pepe” Moreno’s arrival, it appeared he was earmarked to start alongside Saer Sene up top as Heaps line-up began to take shape in preseason. Nothing was official, but around the start of the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup one would’ve felt fairly confident penciling in the Revolution’s starting line-up. That certainly changed fast.

Now, no one outside the organization should feel confident trying to predict the starting XI when a fully healthy squad becomes available. Thanks to injuries and tactical adjustments, Simms has gone from bench player to the legitimate replacement for Jeff Larentowicz the team sought so desperately, but failed to find last season. Sending the former D.C. United defensive midfielder to the bench as this point seems beyond consideration.

Simms emergence leaves midfield positions at a premium. Captain Shalrie Joseph won’t be exiting the starting lineup anytime soon, so at most three positions are available for Guy, Feilhaber, Rowe and Nguyen – and that’s ignoring the likes of Alec Purdie, Jeremiah White, Sainey Nyassi, Kenny Mansally and Zak Boggs. Clearly the Revs are overloaded with midfielders and Guy, Feilhaber, Rowe, and Nguyen have all made great cases for starting.

As a highly paid creative force and U.S. International, Feilhaber seems a safe bet to start. The consistently dangerous Nguyen also would seem impossible to bench. It will likely come down to Guy and Rowe, a rookie, but both performed so well on Saturday that it should prove an extremely difficult decision in itself.

Yet all of this assumes a five man midfield. If that’s the case then another battle for playing time is brewing up top. Sene has emerged as a legitimate goal scoring threat, but with Moreno working his way to fitness and the experienced Bjorn Runstrom on the way, Sene can expect competition.

And what happens should Heaps decides both Moreno and Sene together up top are still the best option for the team? Yet another strong midfielder will find themselves on the bench.

All these options put Heaps in a difficult position of trying to do what’s best for the team and, at the same time, keep players happy who have now proven they deserve a starting role. In the end, it’s exactly what the team needs.

A multitude of good players means competition for starting roles day in and day out in practice. No longer is complacency an option like it has been for many players over the past few seasons. Heaps’ new squad has made sure this is not an issue in the midfield this season and up top, should Moreno and Runstrom perform.

But the rookie head coach’s task isn’t done. Though he’s improved the backline from its recklessly thin 2011 edition, the excessive number of options in midfield and up top combined with the roster restrictions in MLS means the defense could still use more help.  With rookie left back Tyler Polak yet to prove he’s ready to start at the professional level, just Kevin Alston, with his recurring hamstring issues, Chris Tierney, a natural left midfielder who is emerging as a solid option at left back, and newcomer Florian Lechner appear ready for primetime at outside back.

In the center there’s AJ Soares, John Lozano, Darrius Barnes and converted midfielder Stephen McCarthy. There is depth, a marked improvement over 2012, but as recent injuries have shown a bit of a boost to the quality numbers in the backline – perhaps at the expense of some of the excessive midfielders who appear unlikely to see first team action this season – would certainly be beneficial.

Yet, that at this point the addition of one or two more defenders would appear enough to complete the roster is remarkable in and of itself. Just a few months ago such a statement would’ve seemed preposterous.

While it is far too early to declare the Revs will be headed to the postseason, New England may well already have their deepest squad since the MLS Cup Final days of 2005-2007 when the likes of Andy Dorman, Jose Cancela and James Riley were all on the bench fighting for minutes.

Soon Heaps should have the enviable task of making some difficult decisions.

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