Hey there! Remember me? I'm that guy who blurts out a stream-of-consciousness reflection on the Revolution's most recent match and (typically) tries to tell you to either stay positive or keep a level head. Yup, that's me. Maybe you've noticed that I haven't been around in a while. No, I wasn't on vacation in some foreign land or anything like that. I was simply curled up in my mid-season hibernation.
You see, my experience as a Revs fan usually involves a mid-season slump where the team starts to tail-spin downward as the performances turn sour and the points start to slip away. History has taught me that this downward spiral usually ends up spelling the end of New England's playoff hopes. By time we're mathematically out of the playoffs, I'm usually just getting over my "Hangover" (both figuratively and quite literally) and ready to start talking about the off-season.
Just about this time last year, the Revs were on a 9-game winless skid, Benny Feilhaber was sitting on the bench, and Saer Sene was about to go under the knife for his torn ACL. It was a hole that New England was never really able to crawl out of. And, yes, I'm admitting that after our losses to Toronto FC (tough) and Sporting Kansas City (brutal), coupled with the news of Juan Agudelo leaving at the end of the season, and the Revs' sole source of mid-season reinforcements being the enigmatic Charlie Davies, my gut was telling me that this year's summer skid was beginning.
And yet here we are, once again sitting above the red line in the Eastern Conference's 5th and final playoff spot. Now, I know as well as you do that this hardly means we're out of the woods yet, but it's something, isn't it? Hope is still alive in New England, at least for another week, is it not? Well, it depends on who you ask, I think.
The Revs' last four games have proven one thing for certain: if this team makes the playoffs, it's because of Juan Agudelo. Without the England-bound striker, the Revs could not finish any of their many chances against Toronto, and then look utterly listless against Kansas City. And then, by no certain coincidence, they got back on track against the Chicago Fire and most recently the Philadelphia Union. There's credit to be doled out elsewhere for the turnaround these past two weeks, sure. But there is undoubtedly one common denominator through the month of August, and that's the absence/presence of Juan Agudelo.
And that's why these last two wins are so bittersweet. When you watch the games and then re-watch the games and really, truly think about it, Agudelo is everything that this team needs in a striker. He fits perfectly in Jay Heaps' 4-3-3 (let's not call it a 4-1-4-1 anymore). He's got the energy, physicality, pace, creativity, and pure talent that the position calls for. It's going to be hard to find a replacement for that.
There are other more subtle moves that have helped the Revs turn a corner this month, at least for now. Most notably, Jay Heaps' decision to shuffle the lineup is crucial and may be the second biggest reason why the Revs are back to winning ways. Matt Reis looks like his old self again and A.J. Soares looks like a man with something to prove and a starting spot to keep this time around. Chad Barrett may not be the most skillful player on the roster, but he is certainly one of the hardest working. His defensive work-ethic practically dwarfs Sene's, and he is a key contributor on the attack, albeit as more of a complimentary player to Agudelo and Diego Fagundez.
As for those who did not lose their starting jobs, Chris Tierney and Lee Nguyen seem to me to have really stepped up their respective games. Tierney, to me, has quietly had one of the most consistent and effective seasons of his career. In fact, this might just be his best season yet. He looks more comfortable than ever on defense and is making good decisions across the full 90 minutes. I'd argue that he is crossing better than his last two seasons and the rest of the squad looks to be figuring out just how to use him when widening their attack.
What I like perhaps even more than Tierney's steady effectiveness lately is Nguyen's shift from an attacking fore-runner to a deeper-lying ball-winner and playmaker. One could make a case that the Revs' new system has morphed Nguyen's game into more of a complimentary player on both sides of the ball. When Scott Caldwell needs help tracking back on defense, Nguyen is there to win back possession. And when Kelyn Rowe or any of the forwards need an outlet to keep the ball in the final third, Nguyen is there to assess the situation and keep the attack moving. Last season saw Nguyen as the catalyst for the Revolution's winning ways, but this season he looks more comfortable being a part of a stronger cast rather than the lead role.
The loss against Toronto was a bit of a mulligan--one foot or call the other way and it probably would have resulted in at least a point. Kansas City spanked us and sent us home with probably the one game we'll try the hardest to forget this season. Against Chicago, it looks like things were starting to click again. And then Sunday's dismantling of the Union seemed to reaffirm that. It's been a roller coaster summer. And based on what I've seen over the course of the season so far, it's going to be this way right down to the wire.
With the exception of Sporting Kansas City and probably the Montreal Impact, I honestly couldn't tell you which other teams will be in the playoffs come November (though I can name one that definitely won't). It's going to be a dogfight from here on in. Every game is a must-win. Slow-starts and a lack of finishing in front of the net simply can't happen anymore. With two games against Montreal on the docket, plus another meeting with the Houston Dynamo and an away fixture against the New York Red Bulls, there is plenty of work still to be done.
I wouldn't dare get my hopes up too much, but I won't lie and say I'm not excited to see if New England can pull it off. If I have any fingernails left by November, I hope that I'll be cracking beers in celebration instead of drowning my sorrows away.