New England Soccer Today

Plugging the Gaps

When Revolution head coach Jay Heaps signed his squad up for the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup tournament, many assumed that the team’s defense was primed for a pounding against the competition.

The competition? Only the defending champions (Los Angeles), a CONCACAF Champions League finalist (Real Salt Lake), and a team with one of the biggest budgets in the league (New York). Matched up against the rebuilding Revolution, it seemed entirely possible that the four-game tournament could yield some disastrous results for Heaps’ squad.

Well, that was then. Now, two games into the tournament and – surprise, surprise – the Revolution sit atop the tournament standings with a 2-0-0 record and a +3 goal differential against the Galaxy and Red Bulls.

Although rookie sensation Kelyn Rowe (two goals and an assist) has grabbed the headlines for the past four days, some of the credit also belongs to the team’s improved defense, which has kept the opposition off the board for the last three halves of action.

And even though the Heaps has introduced a number of new players into the rear, Heaps was quick to credit the contributions made by some of the returning players – some of whom have had to play out of their customary positions.

“I’m excited that they’ve taken (on) the challenge,” Heaps told the media via conference call on Sunday. “I think that Darrius (Barnes) and Stephen McCarthy have shown that they’re buying in and that they know how to play (in different positions).”

For Barnes, who’s seen the bulk of his time at center back since entering the league in 2009, the switch to right back isn’t something terribly new to him.

In his first three years at Duke University, Barnes played primarily on the right for the Blue Devils. And even though injuries to Kevin Alston and A.J. Soares have kept the back line in a constant state of change this winter, Barnes admitted that it’s something he’s already accustomed to.

“Over the last three seasons, I’ve played with a number of different players and different teammates,” Barnes said. “So it’s something you just have to adapt to as a professional. You have to be able to adjust you’re attributes and kind of pair them along with someone else’s.”

But for McCarthy, who played exclusively as a central midfielder as a rookie last season, the transition may be more difficult. In Wednesday’s match, the former Tar Heel had has hands full with Edson Buddle, but quietly put together a solid game against New York last night – one which saw him earn a full 90.

Meanwhile, as the makeshift backline has played admirably in the last two games, Heaps knows that there’s still work to be done – not only in the rear, but in the team’s overall defense.

“There are moments when its really good where we’re in good lines and good spacing between the forwards, midfielders and defenders, when the other team has the ball,” Heaps said. “(But) once in awhile, we’ll get broken down.”

After looking at a tape of last night’s game, Heaps noticed that his squad had a tendency to slacken when the Red Bulls had the ball at length.

“We had a good line, but then, all of a sudden, after defending for a good 10-15 seconds, we’ll just let one play sneak in that’ll cost us,” Heaps said. “So once we start taking away some of those passing angles, we’ll be better as a group.”

Having diagnosed the problem, you can bet Heaps will make team defense a point of emphasis for the balance of the preseason. And with good reason, especially in the wake of last year’s well-documented defensive breakdowns.

The results have been encouraging so far. But, Barnes believes that even though there’s still room for improvement, the last two games against the Galaxy and Red Bulls have given the Revolution confidence, which also typically lends itself to better form – both on defense and offense.

“We’ve gotten some good results,” Barnes said. “And I think the team’s gelling well thus far into the preseason.”

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