The New England Revolution had great difficulty dealing with physical play from opposing teams in 2012, and also failed to defend and attack set-pieces with any real measure of success. For 2013, steps have been taken to remedy both deficiencies, and not a moment too soon; if these steps are ineffective, it could be a very, very long season in Foxboro.
There are two major aspects of the game that the New England Revolution need to figure out if they're going to have success in 2013: physicality and set pieces. Last season, they struggled mightily with both; other teams leveraged size and strength to keep the Revs from playing their planned, on-the-floor style, while it wasn't until late September that the team managed to score a set-piece goal.
In the case of the former, the Revs inability to recover against hard-hitting teams was a bit enigmatic. There were players on the roster last season that aren't afraid to mix it up (A.J. Soares, Stephen McCarthy, Blake Brettschneider), and yet skillful players like Lee Nguyen and Saer Sene were consistently knocked down or off the ball.
A major culprit there might have been the loss of Shalrie Joseph. Diminishing physical skills aside, Joseph is and has always been a big, scary man. Anyone with half a brain would think twice before clattering a Revs player with the Dreads roaming the vicinity. With Joseph playing less and then eventually gone, it seems like the consequences for hard fouls were minimal, and thus it was worth it to use those tactics.
Steps have been taken to remedy this issue. Kalifa Cisse and Jose Goncalves may boast impressive European and international resumes, but it's terrifically obvious that they were also brought in for their size and grit. Seriously, those two - Goncalves especially - are big, solid walls who will not only defend with skill, but punish opponents in the process. As a member of the midfield engine room, Cisse will be expected to provide the physical protection that the creative players need; similar to the Arsenal Invincibles squad that had Robert Pires and Thierry Henry up top, covered by the menacing Patrick Vieira behind.
Handling physical play also ties into the second key area: set-piece success. Defending set-pieces is a part of the game that doesn't really merit discussion; full focus and concentration is required to proficiently defend set pieces, and last season the Revs didn't have that. They'd better find it fast if they want to improve in 2013.
In attacking them, however, the Revs played right into the hands of teams that had already decided to punish the Revs physically by creating no consequences for such teams if they fouled near the box. Against an average set-piece team, defenses might be willing to mix it up a little in the midfield, but once a certain point is reached, the risk of giving up a tasty free kick overrides the desire to be physical. It was here that the Revs failed to strike fear into any teams in 2012. Often, the Revs were lacking the final ball to lead to a goal; it's tough to play that ball when you're on your back, and it's tough to stop people putting you there when you can't punish them on the free kick.
The Revs were equally inept on corners in 2012. If a team can't score off of corner kicks, there is no fear in a defender's mind of clearing the ball over his own end-line, which is sometimes the most convenient - but not the safest - route when under pressure. A team that scores on corners gives that defender pause, and punishes him for taking that chance. A team that does not presents that defender with a very simple clearance option, making it more difficult on the offense to score.
Again, steps were taken this offseason to solve the problem. Goncalves and Cisse both may provide tasty targets for set-piece deliveries, augmenting the already-dangerous Soares and McCarthy. Chad Barrett's scrappy nature makes him a danger on set-pieces, and Matt Horth has the big body to make space for himself in the box when he plays. Even guys like Juan Toja and Donnie Smith have size, and Andrew Farrell's athleticism could open up opportunities for him on set-pieces, too. Along with Jerry Bengson and Sene, the Revs should have a wealth of excellent targets in the mix for every dead ball situation.
All that's left on set-pieces is to ensure that the right routines are implemented and perfected in training. Having a veritable forest of tree-like targets in the area means nothing if they remain rooted in place, or if they don't create space and opportunities through intelligent and coordinated movement. Deliveries from Nguyen, Chris Tierney, and perhaps guys like Toja, Kelyn Rowe, and Diego Fagundez should be at least adequate, so it's up to the player attacking the ball to get open and bury it.
If the Revs can score a few set-piece goals early in the season, it could completely change the methods by which other teams defend against New England's talented midfield and attacking corps. Defenses will have to take care not to create too many set-piece opportunities for the Revs, which will lead to more space in the attacking third. More space in the attacking third will lead to better, clearer chances to play an effective final ball. More of those will lead to more quality chances, and more quality chances...well, you get the idea.
The necessity of focus on these areas cannot be overstated. For the Revs to be successful in 2013, they must have addressed these weaknesses decisively, and if they have, a playoff berth is by no means out of the question for the boys in Foxboro.