FOXBORO, MA - APRIL 10: Fans of New England Revolution show their support before a game between the New England Revolution and the Toronto FC at Gillette Stadium on April 10, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Ah, MLS First Kick 2011. The lows of a depressing 2010 campaign are finally no more than an unpleasant memory.
Unfortunately, any cynic will tell you that a new season in 2011 presents as much of an opportunity for continued failure as it does for renewed success. The Revolution had a lot of problems last season that they've already done a great deal this offseason to correct, but questions remain across the pitch.
New England made several signings this winter to address a flimsy defense and thin midfield, but have failed to address an impotent forward line. The Revs were the third-lowest scoring side in MLS last season with just 32 goals, and the average goals-scored total for a playoff side in MLS last season was just a fraction over 40. Despite that, their only striker signing was Alan Koger (Ryan Kinne could be called a forward but appears set for a midfield role), an untested rookie from a mid-level collegiate program.
Furthermore, preseason performances appeared to be trending toward good things for the regular season, but then they wrapped up their travels with two comprehensive defeats in Kennesaw, Georgia. Columbus and Houston both smacked them pretty badly 3-1, and truthfully the Revs never really looked to be in either match. They won four on the trot in Orlando but, with the exception of a 1-0 victory over Dallas, none of the competition was anywhere near the level they'll be seeing during the regular season.
The organization also reiterated its desire to sign an impact Designated Player this offseason, but have apparently failed in that endeavor as well. After the jump there will be five questions listed. How those questions are answered could mean the difference between a playoff return and the ignominy of anchoring the bottom of the table.
5.) Will the Revs find their dream DP?
Director of Player Personnel Mike Burns has been saying the same things (read some of the transcripts of his interviews and statements; it's all literally the same words) since the "Beckham Rule" came into effect. The Revs have been looking for a player who will have major impact on and off the field. Burns also loves to remind fans that no team with a DP has ever won the MLS Cup. Recently, though, the club seems to have changed its stance and is now more focused on a player who will help the team win immediately, with less stress on off-field marketability.
It was rumored that the Revs were close to a signing over the winter but the deal fell through. They aren't likely to get another chance until the summer transfer window, so any player they grab this season will be a piece added to make that final push into the playoffs. Whether they're in it or not, the Revs should probably make their first foray into the realm of signing Designated Players if they want to keep pace with the rest of the league and maintain the increasingly-tenuous faith of their fans.
4.) Can the new defense hold together?
Being last in the league in goals conceded is a hard pill to swallow. In light of that, the Revs did away with much of their 2010 back line and brought in a host of new talent. AJ Soares, Franco Coria, Didier Domi and Ryan Cochrane will be expected to make major contributions right away this season, and all four have shown great potential in preseason.
None of that will matter if the box scores in the final two matches last week become the norm this season. The new-look defense has to hold it together, especially when playing behind an offense that looks to have stagnated rather than improved. If not, the Revs will be in for another bumpy ride in 2011.
3.) Who is going to score the goals?
Last season this question remained unanswered, and thus the Revolution suffered. Marko Perovic led the team tally with just six, and forwards Kheli Dube, Ilija Stolica, Zack Schilawski and Kenny Mansally (who also played in midfield) combined for 13 goals. Scoring was definitely a major weakness for this team.
It was a weakness in 2009, too, so this is nothing new. It was expected that after Taylor Twellman's retirement the front office would go all-in for a reliable striker to try and replace his output, but they appear to have fumbled badly in this regard. Hopefully Alan Koger turns into the next Taylor Twellman, but pundits and fans alike can easily be forgiven their doubts.
If Stolica full adapts to MLS, he may be able to fill the void. Really, though, it isn't his game - he likes to hold the ball and bring others into the play. Dube is in his fourth season and hasn't shown the consistency or ability to be a premier goalscorer. Zack Schilawski may be the Revolution's best hope, but unless he delivers on the promise he showed early last season, the answer to this question will be "no one."
And when no one scores, you don't win.
2.) Can Ousmane Dabo adapt to the American game and partner Shalrie in midfield?
If the answer this question is "yes," the Revs will be a completely different team in 2011. Joseph and Dabo will be able to break up attacks before they even reach the back four, and together can spray pinpoint passes up to Stolica and out to the wings to create opportunities and kick start attacks. Furthermore, both of them have the class, vision and composure to totally control and dictate the tempo of a match, helping to maintain long periods of possession.
Shalrie was sorely missing a midfield partner who also provided a good passing outlet last season. Jeff Larentowicz was often looked at as a midfield destroyer, but his title-winning season in Colorado last year served to highlight just how much the Revs missed his calm presence on the ball and sensible, simple passing game. If Dabo can do that, the Revs will be very competitive in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
If the 34-year old Frenchman cannot adapt to the league or stay healthy (he's already had his share of fitness issues this preseason), the Revs will end up the same as last season. Stephen McCarthy isn't ready to step up to a starter's role in this type of midfield and Pat Phelan, though willing and well-respected for his tenacity and determination, does not have the quality of touch or passing that New England needs in a flat 4-4-2 midfield. Without significant contributions from Ousmane Dabo, the Revolution are doomed.
1.) Shalrie Joseph
Notable is the fact that this last entry is not phrased as a question. This is purposeful on the part of the author, because Shalrie Joseph himself is a complex, multi-faceted subject going into this season.
The obvious question, given events which transpired in Orlando, is "can he be the leader?" The short answer is yes. On the field, Joseph leads by example in terms of class, effort and pure indomitable will. That will never change, and his attitude and actions on the pitch will of course translate into respect and leadership off it.
However, incidents in the last two seasons have thrown Shalrie's maturity and off-field leadership abilities into considerable doubt. He was busted for marijuana in 2010 and missed several games as a result, and then this season managed to get arrested for trespassing at the team hotel in Orlando. This after he was inexplicably absent from the first day of training camp.
Even the best leaders can be forgiven one minor transgression, and in Shalrie's defense he maintains that the incident at the hotel was blown far out of proportion and deserves no reprimand. The problem is that a good leader has the ability to avoid these types of situations. There was no reason for him to be out as late as he was in the hotel in Orlando and, regardless, he should have left the premises immediately upon being told to go. Standing and arguing with security isn't how a leader handles that situation.
Even worse, he involved another young player in the incident by being there with Kevin Alston. Both should know better, but it is on Shalrie to keep his younger teammate in line. Instead he provided a terrible example of how to act. It's tough to bet against Joseph getting his act together during the season and being the consummate captain, but there is certainly a well-built case for the doubters out there who think he doesn't deserve the armband.
Beyond his leadership skills, the other question to be asked about Shalrie concerns his play. Despite having an All-Star season in 2010, he was very slow out of the gate. Even considering his early injuries and suspension, it wasn't until the final month or two of the season that he got up to speed and started dominating midfields as he usually does.
He scored most of his goals at the very end of last season, providing really the only offensive spark the Revs had after Marko Perovic cooled off in the fall months. Had he been on that sort of run throughout the season, the Revolution may have found themselves in the thick of wildcard playoff race until the very end, instead of being mathematically knocked out weeks before the season ended. If Shalrie can get off the mark early and provide the creative force the Revs need in the middle from March on, the Revs should have a good shot at a playoff return in 2011.
Do you agree or disagree with these assessments? Do you have your own questions for the Revolution this season? Leave your comments below!