Three wins away. That's all I kept telling myself. Just three, small, simple, wins.
Was I wrong in looking ahead and counting the number of victories it was going to take to get my beloved hometown club back to the CONCACAF Champions League? Perhaps. Yet, I still can't help but feel like this one hurts just a little bit more than usual.
On a neutral-site field somewhere in the sticks of Maryland, the New England Revolution were defeated on Wednesday Night by one of their most bitter rivals, D.C. United, 3-1 in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals, ending their dream of hoisting the Cup a second time in the club's history.
While both sides fielded relatively average-strength squads, it's the circumstances under which they were selected that seems to be getting everyone in New England into a bit of an uproar. Simply speaking, the Revolution hadn't played a competitive match in over ten days, while United were coming off an impressive victory at home only four days prior.
The wild card in all of this is certainly the fact the Revs had to follow Wednesday night's match with a cross-country trip to Los Angeles to take on Chivas USA, who are widely regarded as the worst team in MLS. While it's difficult to say just how much Revs manager Jay Heaps concentrated on resting a few key players ahead of the weekend's league fixture, one can't help but wonder why, with 19 league matches remaining and only 3 points separating the Revs and a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (with a game in hand, I might add), was there ANY thought given to the lineup choices that would be made on Saturday night?
Let me make one statement clear before we go any further: Wednesday night's team was MORE than capable of getting a victory. I'm not stating that the team Heaps put out there didn't have a chance of winning, I'm just saying that with a few key players not starting or missing out completely, perhaps the chances were a little less than they could have been?
The easiest way to analyze it? Break it down.
AT THE BACK: No issues from me here. Matt Reis getting the nod between the sticks meant you had one of the most decorated goalkeepers in league history as the backbone of your defense. As for the back four, save for Darrius Barnes it was a first-choice back line. Andrew Farrell is suspended for the Chivas match, so you knew he was getting all 90 minutes here, while A.J. Soares and Jose Gonçalves have been absolute stalwarts at the back all season long. The back four, by far, was the least of the Revs worries going in, which is why it's so disheartening they didn't perform well enough on the night.
IN THE MIDFIELD: This is where it gets a little dicey. Andy Dorman, Juan Toja, and Scott Caldwell all got the start alongside Diego Fagundez. Talent-wise, not particularly lacking by any means, and you certainly had plenty of experience split between Dorman and Toja. The issue? Three center-mids by trade playing in the same midfield. I'm more than well-versed in the U.S. Open Cup so I'm well aware that players play out of position all the time in the competition, but again, with only three wins separating you from silverware, why play players out of position when you brought on two other midfielders later in the match? More on that later.
UP TOP: Dimitry Imbongo and Chad Barrett. Again, the talent was there, and in Barrett's case, the pedigree too. However, with Juan Agudelo on your bench (who's on a pretty strong run of form) and the ever present specter of Jerry Bengtson still hovering over the squad as well, do these two HAVE to start together? I'm more than confident that these two were capable of earning the result the Revs needed, but are they as capable as Agudelo? Bengtson (regardless of form)? Saer Sene (who we haven't even mentioned)? I will still argue that given all Bengtson had gone through with his National Team saga in recent weeks, he may have been primed to go out and prove himself in a Cup match. Pure speculation on my part, but I'd have loved to have found out.
SUBSTITUTIONS AND MOVES: Kelyn Rowe for Dorman in the 61st minute made all the sense in the world to me, as the Revs were struggling to create, given the lack of true fire power on the field offensively.
14 minutes later, with the Revs now down a goal, Agudelo entered the match for Fagundez, whom he had been so potent with in recent MLS matches. The Revs had been one of the most exciting teams to watch in the matches leading up to the quarterfinal, and a lot of it had to do with this particular combination of Fagundez and Agudelo. The two were swapping flanks almost at will, and were outright dangerous. It's a pity we didn't get to see if this would have changed the match for the better.
Lastly, Lee Nguyen came on for Chad Barrett in the 80th minute to try to spark the Revs offense and find an equalizer. I was a little surprised to see this particular move, as I thought taking out Toja would have been a little more attack-minded. The Revs are dangerous when they have their quick, incisive midfielders playing together, and I thought Toja may have been holding them back a little.
THE FINAL ANALYSIS: If players like Rowe, Agudelo, Fagundez, and Nguyen were going to get minutes anyway, why not start them and then play the match out? I HATE it when teams play a lesser-quality lineup in a Cup match, fall behind, and then try to "bring in the cavalry" and somehow scratch out the result they need. It never seems to work. At worst, the match remains close and you have to play your starters longer than you anticipated.
Would Revs fans feel a little better if Heaps approached it that way? If the strongest possible starting lineup trotted out onto the field in Maryland, and then Heaps mixed-and-matched players into the match later on as the narrative was being written, would we feel any better about the loss? Further still, would we feel bad about losing to Chivas USA with a less-than-first-choice lineup because we had exhausted several outlets in a VICTORY on Wednesday night?
It's incredibly difficult to decipher how to properly attack Cup competitions no matter what country you're in. However, I've always held true to one particular philosophy: THE LINEUP SHOULD REFLECT THE STAGE OF THE COMPETITION YOU'RE IN. Simply put, with every round you survive, your lineup should strengthen. It's just my own personal opinion, but I'm pretty sure there are a lot of Revs fans that think that opinion may have helped on Wednesday Night in Maryland.