New England Soccer Today

Up For Grabs

Darrius Barnes is one of several defenders fighting for spots in the starting eleven this season. (Photo: Chris Aduama/

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – After five weeks of daily training and scrimmaging, Jay Heaps will finally get the opportunity to test out his revamped defense against MLS competition on Wednesday.

With the MLS Cup Champion Los Angeles Galaxy on tap for the first game of the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup preseason tournament (Feb. 22-Mar. 3) in Tucson, Ariz., Heaps hopes that the changes made along the back line will be up to the challenge.

“Defensively, we have to be sharp and we have to be sound,” Heaps said after Monday’s training session. “That dynamic of being able to keep the ball, but if we don’t, how do we defend as a group (will be important).”

How well all eleven defend will be certainly worth watching, especially in the wake of last year’s embarrassing 58 goals against total. Tracking back and plugging holes in transition will be two areas that the Revolution will need to improve if they hope to avoid the same misfortunes they suffered through last season.

But one particular area of the field that Heaps, a former defender himself, will be keeping a close eye on is his evolving back line. While the First Kick lineup projects to have Kevin Alston and A.J. Soares locked in at the right back and center back spots, respectively, the remaining center back and left back spots are pretty much up for grabs.

With six natural defenders on the camp roster, another reportedly on the way, and three more who have seen time in the back, the last thing Heaps will have to worry about is finding players to slot into his back four. And that’s purely by design.

After finishing last season with only five defenders on the roster, Heaps and General Manager Michael Burns made it a point to sign, draft and invite defensive reinforcements in order to ensure that the team doesn’t find itself shallow in the back again.

While the host of new faces could’ve been construed as an indictment on the holdovers, one returning defender who’s actually embracing the number of players finding time in the back this winter is fourth-year veteran Darrius Barnes.

“I think competition is always a good thing,” Barnes said. “It brings out the best in everyone. All of us are pushing each other to get better.”

Barnes, who split time between center back and left back last season, is one returning defender who’s had to raise his game after the team signed an experienced central defender (John Lozano) and selected a promising left back (Tyler Polak) in the draft.

But Barnes also understands that after last season’s defensive lapses, as well as the current uncertainty up top, that the pressure to squeeze out points may fall squarely on the backs of the defensive unit this year.

Even so, the versatile back believes that the increased competition for spots – especially in the rear – will only serve to motivate him and his fellow defenders to step up their efforts.

“That’s the main thing,” said Barnes. “You just have to be able to go out there, work hard and push each other day in and day out to get better.”

Some of the players that have been pushing to find playing time in the rear include center mid Stephen McCarthy, who’s seen time at center back, and outside midfielder Ryan Kinne, who’s at featured at right back on a few occasions thus far.

But one player who’s stood out in the defending third is Lozano, the Colombian center back the team signed last month. The former America de Cali defender, who looks bigger than his 6-2, 180lbs. frame, has appeared confident both in the air and with the ball at his feet in training, both of which have caught Heaps’ attention.

“John has impressed me,” Heaps said. “He, to me, really gets the center back position. He gets the role, he understands the position. So being a full-on professional every day, he’s been fabulous.”

Heaps will need the rest of his defenders to be equally fabulous as well, and not only against the Galaxy. With games against the high-octane Red Bulls (Feb. 25), the methodical Real Salt Lake (Feb. 29) and a consolation or championship game (Mar. 3), the back four will surely be tested before the season opener on March 10th.

Although Barnes acknowledges that teams on the itinerary will also be tinkering with their lineups and formations, he’s looking forward to playing against MLS-caliber competition.

“It’ll be a measuring stick,” Barnes said. “Obviously, we want to measure ourselves against the teams that we’ll be competing against this season.”

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