When Revolution Head Coach Jay Heaps was faced with some difficult lineup problems down the stretch of the 2012 season, he did what some first-year managers may not have had the courage to do: approach a multi-year veteran to change positions for the betterment of the team.
Kevin Alston has been the cornerstone of the Revs defense in recent years, and while the pieces around him have changed quite a bit, it's almost been taken for granted that over the last few years you could pretty much just pencil him in at right back and expect a 90 minute performance. When you also add the fact that Alston was an MLS All Star and started against Manchester United at right back, it made it all the more surprising to see him line up on the other side.
This is what makes Heaps' decision to switch Alston to left back all the more admirable. Faced with injuries, suspensions, and departures of several players, Heaps saw the hole in his lineup, and decided that given the pieces he had, switching Alston to the left side of the defense, and opening up the right back spot for veterans like Flo Lechner and Ryan Guy, was the best course of action for the team.
While the results for Alston's "replacements" out on the right have been mixed (the late goal given up by Guy against Philadelphia still angers me), there's no denying that it's the resurgence of Alston out on the left side of the defense that's proved to be the revelation.
Whether it's that he feels more comfortable having his left foot up against the touchline, or his pairing up with talented left midfielders like Lee Nguyen, Fernando Cardenas, and now Juan Toja, it's clear that something has clicked in Alston's play over the last few months of the season.
Which begs the question: Going forward, with the pieces this team has, should the move be permanent? While it's still a little early, let's do a little rapid-fire reaction and see if we can get a little closer to an answer:
Who plays right back? : Outside of his first, and mostly rusty, MLS appearance, I liked what I saw out of Flo Lechner. With plenty of European experience, and a solid ability to serve good quality crosses into the box, you could see that Lechner added quite a bit to the offensive side of the Revs play, but his lack of pace was noticeable on the defensive end. If Lechner can be more selective about his runs forward, and if Kelyn Rowe gains a little more seasoning in his second season, this could be a viable option for the Revs out on the right.
What happens to Chris Tierney? : Chris Tierney has done it all in a Revolution shirt. Multiple positions, stepping up to take free kicks, and most recently, becoming the squad's every day left back. While I really like Chris' attitude and leadership (I called for him to be the next team captain) if Alston's move to LB is permanent, that may leave Tierney out in the cold, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing. Tierney won't outplay Lee Nguyen or Juan Toja for a spot, however, if the club makes a few moves in the offseason (like dealing Benny Feilhaber) it could open up more minutes for Tierney.
What does the depth chart look like? : Here's what we know now: Alston can play both sides, Darrius Barnes has played all over the back line, and A.J. Soares can play out wide in a pinch. One of the better traits of this Revs back line is its versatility. While moving Alston to left back would change the look of things, it doesn't affect the depth of the squad should a move need to be made.
Effect on team chemistry? : If the move was going to ruffle feathers of anyone involved, you would have seen it already. If this move was going to cause any type of unrest, you would have seen the effects already down the stretch, and as someone who hasn't missed a minute of soccer from this team in 2012, I really couldn't see it shedding any negative light whatsoever.
Could this really happen? : In a word? Yeah. Quite frankly I thought from the get-go this was just a temporary band-aid on a depleted squad, but after seeing a resurgence in Alston, and looking at the roster's current make-up, this could definitely happen. Now, there's a long way to go to MLS First Kick 2013, so let's not get ahead of ourselves, but if Kevin Alston were to start at left back on opening night next year, you'd hear no complaints from me.