New England Soccer Today

Do or Die

Photo credit: Bernie Hoelschen/Prost Amerika

Photo credit: Bernie Hoelschen/Prost Amerika

There’s no reason to mince words: 2016 has been nothing but a huge disappointment for the New England Revolution. Less than two years removed from an MLS Cup final appearance, the Revolution look likely to miss the playoffs in a league where a ridiculous 60% of the teams qualify for the postseason.

At 6-9-8 (26 points) with only a tie breaker and two extra games played temporarily keeping the Revolution above the thin red line that separates the below average teams in the last playoff spots from truly poor teams that miss out in an underwhelming Eastern Conference, the Revolution’s season is on the verge of being classified as an unequivocal failure. It’s a far cry from where the team was under two years ago.

Think back to just after MLS Cup 2014. The Revolution were coming off a disappointing MLS Cup loss—their fifth loss in five appearances in the young league’s history—but with a young team looked set to contend for years to come.

The team would lose Patrick Mullins, a promising rookie, shortly after the MLS Cup in the expansion draft thanks in part to some questionable decisions the team made in deciding who to protect. Still, Mullins was mostly a depth piece on an MLS Cup finalist, so it was far from an insurmountable blow.

The big(-ish) loss would come in February before the 2015 MLS season kicked off with center back AJ Soares leaving to play in Norway. Soares had proven a great complementary center back to Jose Goncalves in the team’s defense. But Soares would be the only starter from the 2015 MLS Cup finalist to depart. On paper, replacing one starting center back from a contender shouldn’t have been an impossible task. In reality, it’s almost unheard of in a league with such a tight salary cap to lose as few players as the Revolution did from such a good team. New England was in good shape.

Yet, as of August 7, 2016, the Revolution still have not replaced Soares. Sure, a few other issues have developed since then, but the bottom line is nearly two years later the Revolution have failed to solve the one important loss the team had after reaching an MLS Cup in 2014. Instead of improving on a young team with many team friendly contracts, the team regressed to a 5th place finish and first round playoff exit in 2015 and now likely missing the playoffs altogether in 2016.

This, despite the team appearing to go all-in on 2016. The team added designated player Xavier Kouassi, whose importance became even greater when they failed to re-sign Jermaine Jones and then shipped off his rights to Colorado in a trade. An ACL tear meant Kouassi would likely miss the whole season, but even if healthy he wasn’t arriving till midsummer anyways.

Still, the Revolution had a contingency plan, trading for Gershon Koffie, who the Vancouver Whitecaps were willing to part with due to salary cap issues, but also, perhaps, due to contract uncertainty and rumblings that he’d depart for Europe after the 2016 season. With Koffie potentially just a short-term rental for the season, the move showed clear intent that the Revolution were going for it now.

After a difficult start to the season, the Revolution made a huge move on May 12, acquiring one of the league’s top strikers in Kei Kamara from the Columbus Crew. Kamara became available after publicly insulting a key teammate. Kamara had also discussed retiring and “going straight to Hollywood” at the end of the 2015 season had the Crew not lost in the final of the MLS Cup season. At 31-years-old and contemplating retirement—though the Crew did get him to sign an extension reported to last through 2018—Kamara, another designated player, was undoubtedly another “win now” move.

And yet, as talented as Kamara is, he was hardly the ideal striker for the Revolution’s system. Kamara, most comfortable with service to his head, by his own admission, was joining a team with just one dependable crosser in Chris Tierney that liked playing the ball in to feet. Since joining the Revolution, Kamara has registered just four goals in 12 games after having five in nine with the Crew this season and 22 in 32 in 2015.

Still, the move was a boost to a struggling offense where Charlie Davies—who led the team with 10 goals last year along with tallying four assists—was out most of the year with injuries (and as was revealed last week, cancer that’s now in remission), Juan Agudelo was struggling with form and injuries and rookie Femi Hollinger-Janzen, despite impressing, didn’t look quite ready to take over as lead striker full time and suffered from injuries as well. Davies style of play was perhaps a better fit for the offense, but while battling cancer and injuries and missed most of the first half of the season, the team clearly needed help up top.

Despite the acquisition of Kamara, the Revolution went into Orlando last weekend at 6-7-8, hanging on to the sixth and final playoff spot in the East. The team would blow a first half lead and fall 3-1.

Even after all this, there was reason for optimism. Davies, now cancer free, made his first appearance since April and provided a huge spark off the bench. Koffie, who had been out with an injury, also got his first significant minutes off the bench after not starting since May. And while the match showed the Revolution still had serious flaws defensively, the transfer window was still open till August 3rd, allowing the team to add a defender before the deadline and make one of their classic late season runs into the postseason.

But, as August 3, approached the Revolution didn’t make a move to fix their struggling defense. In fact, there wasn’t so much as a credible rumor suggesting they were going after anyone that could solve their defensive woes.

Instead, August 3 came and the Revolution made a move no one saw coming. Just days after announcing Davies was diagnosed with cancer and was now in remission, followed by all sorts of videos and promotions discussing the struggles Davies had overcome and his amazing recovery and attitude—and just days after Davies had made his impressive and inspirational return against Orlando—the team announced he was traded to the Philadelphia Union.

And the hometown hero Davies wasn’t traded for defensive help that could’ve aided a turn around in the Revolution’s season. Coming New England’s way was a first round 2018 MLS SuperDraft pick along with Targeted Allocation Money and General Allocation Money. Of course that money came too late to be used on a player in the MLS secondary transfer window. The move reeked of giving up and a “win later” mentality in a season that, until that point, was seemingly all about “win now”.

The reasoning isn’t easy to understand. The team was finally getting healthy and looking to make a run, while perhaps being just one defender away from getting into the contender conversation in the East. Instead of being buyers, New England, a team under two years removed from an MLS Cup final appearance, turned sellers, sending away one of their most dangerous offensive threats and one of a few key locker room leaders on the team. This, while the team’s top players in each aspect of the field aren’t getting any younger. Goncalves, the defensive leader of the team, turns 31 in September. Lee Nguyen, the team’s top midfielder will be 30 in October. Kamara, has his 32nd birthday in less than a month.

Two years ago, this was a young team with a bright future. Now, it looks like a team a couple pieces away from being a playoff side while the window for its core to win a championship is quickly closing. After an uninspiring performance in a 4-1 loss at Toronto last weekend, there’s little reason to believe this MLS season will turn around for New England.

That’s why Tuesday is now so important. No, it’s not MLS Cup, but the Revolution have a chance at some silverware the talented core of this team deserves, yet appears no longer in contention for through MLS thanks to the failings of the club to bring in the few pieces the team has needed since 2014 to make another run.

On Tuesday, despite the troubling season, the Revolution are actually favored to win a semifinal in the nation’s oldest soccer tournament, the U.S. Open Cup. Facing the Chicago Fire, holders of the worst record in MLS, the Revolution have the chance to win a semifinal at home and advance to a final against FC Dallas or the Los Angeles Galaxy—two of the league’s elite this season. While they’ll have to travel and won’t be favored in the final, anything’s possible in a one-off soccer match. It would be a very bright spot—and equal the Revolution’s best trophy after the club won the Open Cup in 2007—in what’s otherwise been a very dark season.

A loss on Tuesday and any realistic hope of some success this season is all but gone. With the window closing on the Revolution’s very talented, but now aging core—and question marks over the futures of several key players beyond this season as well as the ability of the club to find the needed complementary talent—“win later” doesn’t cut it. On Tuesday, this team has to be all in on “win now” because the long-term future of this core is very much uncertain.


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