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Revolution In Review: Midfielders (Part 1)

The 2010 midfield was an absolute mess. The Revs began the year without Shalrie Joseph thanks to injury and then a "leave of absence", and had to endure the ugly partnership of Pat Phelan and the since-departed nightmare that was Joseph Niouky. Despite finding considerable consistency in the lineup both centrally and out wide, the engine room still failed to hold possession and were forced to chase the ball and chase games throughout the 2010 campaign.

More than that, an utter lack of quality service from midfield was a major reason why the Revs failed to score many goals. Shalrie Joseph had, by his standards, a down year and with no one else able to deliver the passes needed to ignite an attack the Revolution found themselves impotent in the attacking third.

In Steve Nicol’s newly-preferred 4-4-2 (can it finally be said that the 3-5-2 has gone the way of the Dodo?), New England needs two central midfielders who can both win the ball, distribute and provide a safe outlet for possession, along with quick wingers that can get to the touchline and ping in quality crosses. Ironically, ex-Rev and fan favorite Jeff Larentowicz just won the MLS Cup playing in this same sort of system with Colorado. His ability to tackle and pass were a great foil to Shalrie Joseph’s physical but technical game. Unfortunately he was traded for two players now found on the re-entry draft list.

Shalrie Joseph: Not much needs to be said about Shalrie. He’s the heart and soul of the team and one of the few (besides Reis) who really remembers what it was like to be a top side in the league. This past season was a bit of a downer for Shalrie, especially after he scored eight goals in 2009, but he still left his indelible mark on the team and league, picking up 4 league goals (all scored in the final 6 games of the season) and being named an MLS All-Star.

Joseph will continue to be the centerpiece of the Revs midfield for the foreseeable future; the problem is going to be finding him a suitable partner. Pat Phelan has the required tenacity to be a midfield ball-winner but lacks the technical ability and composure to distribute well and avoid costly suspensions. A Schelotto-esque playmaker doesn’t fit the 4-4-2 system, either, so it will be up to the New England front office to produce another two-way midfielder through the drafts or other means of acquisition.

Pat Phelan: Phelan was a warrior for the Revs in midfield this season, making 28 appearances (25 starts) and logging 2167 minutes. He also displayed a touch of versatility, moving into central defense (where he played at Wake Forest) for five matches during one of the Revolution’s many injury crises.

While his commitment, stamina and drive could never be questioned, fans and pundits alike are left to question his skill. His yellow/red card totals don’t tell the whole story – even an impassioned observer has to admit that Phelan mastered the art of the reckless or dangerous tackle, and his extremely physical style of play was at times beyond acceptable levels in the game.

Besides being a Dema Kovalenko-in-waiting, Phelan displayed poor vision and passing accuracy. Much of the Revs inability to hold possession can be attributed to his presence in midfield, though it certainly wouldn’t be fair to blame him for everything. Phelan will probably remain this season, if anything because he has plenty of MLS experience and provides another option in defense if necessary. However, if the Revolution want to see improved results in 2011, they need to acquire some pieces that could relegate Phelan to a depth option rather than a consistent starter.

Jason Griffiths: "Jase" is a young English draftee from Kentucky who saw action in 10 matches this season. In that short time, he displayed considerable awareness both on and off the ball, and could be excused for one or two overzealous fouls in his first appearances. There are some, including myself, who believe Griffiths could be a better option in midfield this season than Pat Phelan.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether or not the Revolution coaching staff shares that view. Despite seeing time whenever healthy (he joined the team in May and then missed the bulk of the summer with a hamstring strain) he was left unprotected in the expansion draft. Neither Portland nor Vancouver took a chance on him, and the business of protecting players in those drafts is always a difficult one, but it does raise questions of his value to this organization.

Griffiths strikes me as the sort of player Burns and company would use as a trading piece. The expanded rosters and reinstatement of the Reserve League make it infinitely more beneficial to keep and develop him, and the Revs have shown a past willingness to hold onto their draft choices for more than one season to give them a chance, so the book certainly is not closed on Griffiths. Hopefully he gets at least another year to show what he can do.

Sainey Nyassi: Nyassi is one of the fastest players in the entire league. Throughout a season, moments arise where the Gambian decides to test his opponents’ awareness by sprinting after a laxly-played ball or a rebound that seems destined for the touchline, just to see if he can catch a defense unawares and snatch a goal or opportunity from nothing. When he’s playing his best, tricky dribbling ability combines with blazing speed to terrorize fullbacks across the nation.

Regrettably, Nyassi’s best is like a shooting star: brilliant and awe-inspiring at the moment, but rare and disappointingly brief overall. More often he is caught out by his downright abysmal decision-making, whether it be dribbling directly into the feet of a defender when he has two open passing options, delivering an inaccurate cross to no one in particular, ballooning a shot over the bar from an impossible angle when he has three options in the box, or neglecting to make an obvious and open run that would have left him ten yards of clear of the nearest defender and bearing in on goal.

That said, the old saying goes "speed kills," and the Revolution certainly prescribe to that notion. Their preference for his dynamic pace coupled with a depressing lack of depth on the right wing means that Sainey’s future in New England is more than likely secure for this offseason. And besides, there are still moments when he gets it right, and rare though those moments may be, they make anyone following the Revs optimistic that his potential can somehow be unlocked.

Marko Perovic: Perovic arrived in MLS from the Swiss top-flight a known quantity: a quality left-winger and set-piece taker who would hopefully provide necessary attacking verve and creativity in the Revolution midfield. Six months later he was named New England’s team MVP after finishing the season top goalscorer with 6 league tallies (8 in all competitions) and 3 assists (4 overall), and cementing his reputation as the best set-piece taker in MLS not named David Beckham.

Even early in the season, when he appeared to be having chemistry issues with his squad mates, anyone paying attention could see that Marko was operating on a totally different level from the rest of the team. He was beating two or three defenders at a time on the dribble and leaving the most delicate back-heels and diagonal passes – it got real easy to share in his frustration when his teammates stared at him slack-jawed rather than returning his passes or making useful runs.

All of that isn’t even counting his greatest strength: the free kick. Perovic scored three free kick goals, all of which were stunning pieces of skill (although he may have gotten lucky with the effort against Philadelphia). Despite being signed as a left midfielder, Perovic spent a lot of time partnering a target striker up top or playing "in the hole" as a withdrawn forward. He seemed to enjoy getting forward and was just as dangerous making runs off his teammates as he was creating space and opportunities on his own.

Marko is going absolutely nowhere. The Revs have few pieces in place right now that can really be considered must-keep players, and Perovic is one of them. It would be quite a sight to see what he can do on a team that surrounds him with his level of ability.

Due to the number of midfielders on the team and the unanticipated length of this piece, it will be broken into parts. Part 2 should be up soon.