After a shaky start to the season, Big Macca has morphed into a dominant physical presence in the center of defense. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Last season, the New England Revolution hit the midway point of the season with a particularly poor 3-8-6 record and 15 points. Goal-scoring was way down, but defensively, the team was downright abysmal.
This season, things have changed for the better. While a mark of 22 goals conceded isn't a number that puts the Revs well up into the top of the league in that category, the club's +2 goal differential is considerably better than last season's. Furthermore, the defense looks more composed and assured, and has dropped the disturbing habit of conceding late goals that was so prevalent in 2011.
A.J. Soares has made enormous strides over what was already a highly successful rookie season, demonstrating poise, leadership, and emotion from the back while continuing his record of exemplary marking and precise tackling. The month of June was a rocky one for him, but he managed to pull through and turned in an excellent performance recently against New York to solidify his status as one of the best young center-backs in the league.
Not far behind him Soares terms of consistently solid play is Chris Tierney. After spending much of last season playing all over the pitch, Tierney has found his home under Jay Heaps as the Revolution's starting left-back, a position he has made his own. Defensively, Tierney's soccer IQ remains his greatest asset, as he is rarely caught out of position and knows the angles well enough to cover his opponents even when beaten. Offensively, he's the team's leader in assists so far this year with four, equaling his total from the entirety of 2011. Chalk that up to his cultured left foot and a nearly-telepathic understanding with winger Lee Nguyen.
At the other fullback position, Kevin Alston was considered a known quantity entering 2012. Plenty of speed created attacking promise that was rarely fulfilled, and only barely allowed the former USA youth international to cover for a disturbing lack of positioning sense. Under Heaps, however, Alston has reinvented himself as a reliable defensive right-back, still using his speed to cover positioning miscues but more often than not turning in quality performances. He has even begun to make better decisions in the attack, using that devastating speed to great effect.
The real story on the Revolution back line, however, is Stephen McCarthy. Macca played a large role in the 2011 season for the Revs, partnering Shalrie Joseph as the more defensive-minded midfielder in Steve Nicol's base 4-4-2 before shoulder injuries sidelined him permanently. When Jay Heaps took over, McCarthy was immediately converted into a center-back, and the move was met with mixed results early in the year. The month of June, however, became Macca's coming-out party. He turned in two dominant performances against Toronto and Seattle while the rest of his defense floundered, and then last week against New York was again imperious as he handled the dangerous Kenny Cooper as he would an AYSO player. Macca's positioning, marking, tackling, and distribution have all improved drastically in the last month or two, which speaks to great things coming.
In goal, Matt Reis has been the steady rock. In the early going of the season, Reis was called upon to handle the many mistakes that a young and inexperienced back line tended to make, leaving him stranded on more than one occasion. However, Reis has recently deteriorated in form, even going so far as to be primarily at fault for several goals in the last month. Plus, the Revs' early-season difficulties with set-pieces could at least partially be attributed to lack of communication between Reis and his defense. Matt is still a top keeper in this league, but he may need to look within himself to regain the form that has made him so feared in the past.
Enter Bobby Shuttleworth, who filled in for Reis against New York and helped the Revs look like they were running a completely different defense. Loud, commanding, and excellent in the air, Shuttleworth looked like everything a top-flight MLS goalkeeper should be. Bobby has had great struggles in past appearances, but his first of 2012 was one of the most promising performances by a New England player this year.
The one place where the New England defense seems to be lacking is depth. Florian Lechner provides cover for Alston, and while he is miles better than his counterpart offensively, Flo has been guilty of maddening spells where he seems to lose track of opposing wingers, leading to goals. Darrius Barnes has seen almost no field time, which is surprising given his known pedigree, and Generation Adidas left-back Tyler Polak has made one substitute appearance and nothing else.
The 2012 Revolution defense is an improved unit, but it is also the squad area that is probably most in need of improvement. The talk of Carlos Bocanegra coming to Foxboro has continued to gain steam as the USA captain ponders his future in the wake of Rangers FC's tragic demise, and with the Revs in possession of the top allocation spot, they're in pole position to get ahold of a world-class defender that could anchor any back line in MLS. Alternatively, though, they may be simply in search of some depth; the Macca/Soares partnership is blossoming before fans' very eyes, and perhaps with more time together they could form one of the league's best central tandems.
So, to conclude, improved play from all starters is a step in the right direction, but costly mistakes and a high number of goals conceded don't speak well for this defensive unit. The Revs still have a lot of work to do before they can be considered part of the defensive elite; but with three shutouts in their last five matches, the right steps are being taken.