The New England Revolution are about to take on the Columbus Crew tonight at Gillette in game three of the season series between the two Eastern Conference originals. The last two didn't end well for the Revs: an ugly 0-0 draw earlier in the season was followed up by a disappointing 4-3 away loss just about a week and a half ago.
The Revs are moping through a ten-match winless streak; the Crew are cruising through a six-match unbeaten run. Honestly, it would be tough to match up two teams more at the opposite of the spectrum right now. Columbus has figured it out, adding Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta and turning from a tough-but-not-playoff-caliber team with no real offense into a big yellow juggernaut with a lethal attack and a tight defense. New England, on the other hand, completely lost it sometime in the middle of summer, and can't get anyone on the same page. When the defense is on, the offense can't score. When the attack opens up, the defense falls asleep and lets in three or four.
The scouting report for Columbus is deceptively simple: shut down Higuain and you shut down the Crew. The simplicity is deceptive because shutting down Higuain is looking more and more like an impossible task. With him pulling the strings, guys like Arrieta, Eddie Gaven, Dilly Duka, and plenty others turn into elite MLS talents and constant goalscoring threats. Roll that in with Higuain's own nose for goal (and his incredible free kick prowess, which any Revs fan can now attest to) and you're basically looking at a complete MLS attacking player, and not one that just lets teams stop him.
As if things weren't bad enough for the Revs right now, New England gets to try to make all this happen without the services of both Saer Sene and Jerry Bengtson. Sene, as reported this weekend, is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, while Bengtson is with the Honduran national team for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Diego Fagundez and Dimitry Imbongo look likeliest to start in their places, but with the fatigue factor of four matches in twelve days rolled in, a guy like Blake Brettschneider could also be getting a look.
On that note, predicting tonight's lineup is a fool's errand. Saturday's XI against Philadelphia featured some weird, confusing choices forced by injury and weariness. Probably the most striking was the decision to play Kevin Alston at left back, bringing in Florian Lechner on the right and Darrius Barnes in the middle. That was apparently due mostly to injuries to A.J. Soares and Chris Tierney; the former is still probable with whiplash, while the latter was never listed last week and is not listed now.
If Soares has recovered sufficiently, he should probably start. He's now one of the few first-choice players with a week's rest. To that end, in the back line at least, Alston and Stephen McCarthy have started every match in this congested fixture run, so it wouldn't be surprising to see one of them get a rest. Clyde Simms might also have earned some time off, too. However, the Revs have a week and a half off after this match, so Jay Heaps may decide to gamble on tired legs with the knowledge that they will get plenty of rest afterwards.
Here's a possible 4-4-2 look: Reis; Tierney, Soares, Barnes, Lechner; Nguyen, Simms, Feilhaber, Guy; Fagundez, Imbongo
That said, the Revs could easily give time to Kelyn Rowe, Fernando Cardenas, and even someone like Tyler Polak, who could be in line for just his second MLS appearance since getting drafted out of college this year. Blooding the youngsters is about the only directive left to be given to this squad since they're definitely not making the playoffs this season.
Final score prediction? Tough to call. Optimistically, this game has the potential to be a 3-2 thriller with a Revolution win.