New England Soccer Today

Into the Unknown

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Up until recently, New England Revolution manager Steve Nicol generally knew what to expect when it came to the twenty or so players on his squad by First Kick. He knew that his defense would be stingy, his midfield would be organized, and his poachers would be potent.

But, after rebuilding a squad that went 9-16-5 and missed the playoffs for the first time in his nine-year tenure, it’s safe to say that the gaffer is still trying to find out what kind of team he’s got prior to Sunday’s season opener against the Los Angeles Galaxy. And Nicol knows that his job this season will entail much more than just plugging gaps or sliding players across the pitch.

“You just have to find out what makes everybody tick,” said Nicol. “You have to find out how we can use each individual in the best way to not only suit him, but the team as well.”

Fortunately for the Revolution, if there’s anyone who’s learned to master the art of getting the most out of a player’s talents, it’s none other than Nicol himself.

In a season decimated by injuries, Nicol had no choice but to feature a few of his lads in unorthodox roles. Striker Zak Boggs? See you on the other side of the pitch at right back. Holding mid Pat Phelan? Take a few steps back to centerback. Midfielder Chris Tierney? Play inside…and outside…and back inside.

Of course, last season’s results were less than stellar. But looking ahead, Nicol, with a replenished squad that boasts a healthy mix of talented youngsters and seasoned veterans, is realistic about his club’s chances on Sunday against a lethal L.A. attack.

“We don’t want to end up defending for 80 minutes because we know that doesn’t work,” said Nicol. “So, we want to nullify (their attack) but, at the same time, try and build on some of the stuff we’ve got.”

Some of the “stuff” Nicol hopes to build on this weekend is the club’s work-in-progress strikeforce. Currently, sophomore striker Zack Schilawski, as well as the seasoned Ilija Stolica, sit atop the depth chart at the striker position. In fact, Schilawski, who also took part in last year’s season opener against the very same Los Angeles Galaxy, looks at Sunday’s match as a good test run against against a strong opponent.

“I think right away it’s going to be a good measuring stick for us,” said Schilawski. “Obviously, they’ve got a lot of talented players, but I also think it’s early enough in the year that teams will still be figuring things out.”

One thing the Revolution will have to figure out is how to field four healthy defenders. With  Kevin Alston (hamstring), Ryan Cochrane (adductor), Franco Coria (hamstring), and Didier Domi (knee) all listed on this week’s injury report, Nicol may have to order more rolls of duct tape to patch together a defense come Sunday.

Going up against the defending Supporters’ Shield winners with a number of the Revolution’s first choice defenders on the bench will be no easy task for the local lads. Some may call it suicide. Yet, Revolution midfielder Shalrie Joseph wasn’t about to concede anything, especially after watching Tuesday night’s Galaxy-Sounders opening tilt.

“I think they were just a little bit sloppy with the ball,” said Joseph. “If we can be better with the ball, especially in our attack, we can create some chances and get a couple of goals.”

Of course, creating chances won’t be the only focus if the Revolution hope to steal three points from the Galaxy on the road this weekend. Joseph admits that the club will also have to show its teeth and settle into a rhythm in order to fend off one of the most talented teams in the league.

“We have to go there and be physical, and intimidate them a little bit,” said Joseph. “If we can get an early goal, it’ll settle us down a bit given that we have such a young team and it’ll allow us to be a little more composed and relaxed.”

The club’s composure against a formidable foe will certainly bear watching, especially if first and second-year players like Boggs, Ryan Kinne, A.J. Soares, and Stephen McCarthy are called upon to plug the holes.

Although Nicol may not admit it, Sunday’s opener represents more than just another regular season match. It’s more than that. It’s a test. A test that’ll pit the upstart against the proven.

“It’s going to be a good a challenge,” said Schilawski. “It’s going to be a baptism by fire right away going into the season and seeing what we’re made of.”

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