When I had originally set out to create a weekly column that would dissect coaching decisions and how they affected the outcome of matches, I thought there'd be more to analyze. Quite frankly, given the long list of players unavailable for matches in the early going, Revolution head coach Jay Heaps has yet to be given the opportunity to CHOOSE his best XI. In the first three matches of the season, New England has been shorthanded, with players either playing hurt, out of position, or not playing altogether.
Saturday afternoon, in front of the home fans for the first time in 2012, New England jumped out early and held on for 90 minutes plus. While the result great for the club, the job done by Jay Heaps was just as great, if not greater. With limited resources at his disposal, Heaps found the right mixture on the field and pushed the right buttons to lead the Revs to their first three points of the season.
What moves really stick out from Saturday night? Well, after the jump, I'll go over it all as we analyze New England's first victory from a coaching staff perspective!
First and foremost it was evident from Friday's injury report that New England was going to be shorthanded at the back. With two CB's out for the match (three if you count Stephen McCarthy on Red Card suspension), Jay Heaps was going to absolutely get creative to put together a back four.
The absence of Benny Feilhaber will always be a very big thing, and would have been devastating last season. With a few savvy off-season moves, New England has at least given themselves quality depth in the midfield, which lessened the blow of the absence of Benny.
Follow my logic here, and hopefully it makes sense when I type it. I just couldn't trust anyone else other than Shalrie to play in the center of defense with A.J. Also, his size played a part, knowing that Kris Boyd was such a big, physical guy, I felt like SJ had the physical and mental qualities to compete with him.
Tierney made sense at left back, as I like him better than starting the rookie, Tyler Polak, although one could argue that if there were ever a time to give the rookie a start, it'd be the home opener, but not against such speedy, talented opposition.
In the midfield, I like Cardenas' pace much better on the flank than up front trying to track down long balls. Clyde Simms has been a beast for this team all season long, and continues to produce extremely professional performances. I brought Kelyn Rowe inside into the middle of the field, allowing him more room to be creative and use his talents to create chances, and gave Ryan Guy the start out wide right, again going with speed and dynamic ability.
The forward "pairing" if you will, made sense to me in that Lee Nguyen has been so special and dangerous that I thought playing in behind the pace and shifty play of Saer Sene would pay off dividends. Quite frankly, I also didn't like any of my other options. I wasn't going to play Brettschneider, or The Striker Who Shall Not Be Named, and thus came up with these two.
JAY HEAPS' LINEUP: (4-4-2) : Reis; Alston, Joseph, Soares, Tierney; Guy, Simms, Rowe, Nguyen; Brettschneider, Sene
First thing noticed was that Jay went with the 4-4-2, and really the biggest difference was giving Blake Brettschneider the start over Cardenas. The choice to play Shalrie at CB was mutual, and now in retrospect looks like a great selection, as Shalrie was MoTM in my opinion.
Going with the 4-4-2 meant Nguyen was going to have more of a wide role in this particular lineup, which, given his dribbling and creative prowess, may have handcuffed him slightly. I'm always wary of putting your most creative and dangerous players out wide as I feel it constricts them a bit with the touchline always on one side. After seeing the lineup, it was expected that Nguyen would do more in-cutting and attacking directly than crossing.
Saer Sene got the nod up top with Brettschneider, and it was good to see the Frenchman tally a goal early. Hopefully it's a sign of things to come, and with the arrival of "that other striker" after a long saga, it seems like this may be the last we see of Brettschneider in a recurring starting spot up top.
COACHES' CHALKBOARD AND STYLE OF PLAY
Jay Heaps made it very clear from the get go that this team was going to play an attacking style of soccer that took the game to their opponents. Even with the multitude of absences, New England still came out and did just that, as the early goal would indicate.
It seemed from the lineup sheet that Heaps wanted to counter the speed of Portland's wings with speed of his own. Ryan Guy and Lee Nguyen did their jobs on both sides of the field and managed to contain the incredibly fast Timbers' attack, at least for one afternoon.
Going with Shalrie Joseph as the second CB was great on several fronts: strong, physical body, the right attitude to mix it up in the ugly areas of play, and by far the most important was his incredible leadership qualities to hold it all together (AJ Soares actually mentioned how great his leadership was in his post-game comments).
From a tactical standpoint, Heaps played it right in my mind: Counter speed with speed, and make sure you were well-equipped to handle the physical play of Boyd in the box. With the early goal, New England managed to finally dictate it's own style and tempo of play, and even when Portland would counter-attack and pressure with their pace, the Revs handled it well.
Portland certainly had their share of opportunities on the day however, but a large chunk of that has to be chalked up to the lack of a back four that was familiar with not only each other, but their position on the field as well. Given the circumstances of the match, it was a great clean sheet and equal shares of praise go all around.
SUBSTITUTIONS AND COACHES' DECISIONS
Coach Heaps went with the double-substitution at the 70th minute:
Alec Purdie for Kevin Alston
Fernando Cardenas for Saer Sene
The Alec Purdie substitution was due to Kevin Alston taking a massive blow to the face in the box from the boot of a Timbers striker. What Heaps did in this sub was shift Ryan Guy from right mid to right back, a position that Guy was slightly familiar with, seeing time there late last season as well as in reserve matches. Purdie performed tentatively in his debut, but certainly didn't stick out like he didn't belong.
Loved the Cardenas substitution from Jay at this stage of the match. If Cardenas doesn't start a match, he is the ultimate super-sub in the late stages of the match. All of that speed bearing down on tired defenders can cause nothing but problems. Cardenas did just that as well, forcing a few nice tackles from the Portland Timbers' defense. If Cardenas is to find it difficult to crack the starting lineup regularly, then this should be his role, because I feel like he could really do some damage in the later stages.
Certainly a good victory for New England in their home opener. The Revs were able to jump out in front early and dictate their own style of play for large chunks of the match. What really stuck out to me is just how cohesive this unit seems to be. The players seem to genuinely like playing with one another and enjoy the style of play, which is a far cry from the end of last season where it was perfectly evident that several players were unhappy.
This result also shows the evolution the team and the club as a whole. With all of the key missing pieces, Feilhaber most noticeably, for this squad to still have the depth, attitude, and ability to go out and produce a result is something very positive. In years past injuries and suspensions have decimated this team at times, and to see a solid result against a good club (throw in a clean sheet for good measure) is something very encouraging for Revs Nation.
With yet ANOTHER cross-country trip awaiting the Revs, It'll be interesting to see if any of the missing players from Saturday will be fit enough to make the trip. McCarthy will be available after serving his suspension, but will John Lozano, Darrius Barnes, and Benny be able to overcome their injuries? It'll become clearer as the week wears on, but after this result, you've certainly got to feel better about this club in the face of adversity.