Some people would say that the New England Revolution should have been happy to be in the playoffs at all, and that a Semi-Final loss to Sporting Kansas City was to be expected. Winning 2-1 at home was a great result, as was going into Sporting Park and forcing extra time. It's small comfort to the players and fans, of course, but to the dispassionate observer, the better team advanced and the Revs should be happy to have been along for the ride.
Yeah, well, some people can say whatever they please. We'll be over here talking about how it could have been better.
The Revolution players absolutely gave their all and left it on the pitch on Wednesday night, running themselves completely ragged over 120 minutes of difficult soccer as they tried desperately to keep their season alive at least one more week. In the end, though, pure effort wasn't enough, and the problem was really a disturbing lack of class, quality, and polish in the team's game. New England was missing a lot of the savvy and pizzazz that characterized most of their season, and in a match where only the best would be enough, they wholly and completely failed to deliver.
Of course, sitting back and saying "you didn't play well enough!" is easy, but it's more difficult to point out how and why. We're going to try that here, while simultaneously pointing out the weak points in Wednesday's match that were indicative of greater issues to be addressed in the offseason.
- The Revs struggled mightily to keep possession - this has been a major issue since the Montreal match, despite New England's favorable record over that stretch. Against KC, though, this reached a new low. The first-half possession battle finished 71.6%-28.4% in Sporting's favor, and honestly it looked worse. The second half saw improvement - undoubtedly influenced by the inclusion of Scott Caldwell - but silly giveaways and unforced errors ruled the day when the Revs had the ball. New England seemed completely at a loss at how to deal with a team that pressured them on the ball, and it's an issue that's plagued them all year. Jay Heaps absolutely needs to figure this out next year, be it new personnel or better off-the-ball movement training, or there will be no improvement in 2014.
- Passing accuracy was an enormous issue - tangentially related to point one, the Revs couldn't string two passes together on Wednesday night. Again, this is back to the unforced errors and lack of intelligent movement without the ball. They finished with a dismal 68% passing accuracy for the whole 120 minutes. For most of the match, the Revs were content to either lump the ball forward and hope Dimitry Imbongo and Juan Agudelo would get the best of Collin and Besler - not a good bet on any day - or attempt medium-to-long passes that connected with alert KC midfielders. No one in that team seemed able to settle down and get something going. All year, high-pressure teams have bothered the Revs, and they never found a solution. They'd better if they want to make another playoff run next season.
- Lack of width was crippling - here's a fun stat for you: KC attempted 39 crosses, completing just over 30% of them; the Revs attempted six. Sporting packed the middle of the field, relying on strong midfielders and their all-star center-backs to stifle New England's favored attacking lanes. It worked, and when KC dared the Revs to go wide on them, the Revs didn't bother. Chris Tierney has consistently been the only effective wide player for New England, and his absence was felt painfully on Wednesday night. Still, he couldn't have done it all by himself. Jay Heaps either needs to pick up width and work it into his system, or make sure that whomever returns in the three-man forward group learns to get wide once in a while. All season, the Revs were too one-dimensional in this regard, and in the playoffs, good teams will punish predictability.
- The Revs were totally unable to make adjustments on the fly - even the best teams in the world have off days or encounter opponents with excellent game plans. What sets them apart is the ability to adjust and find other ways to win. For most of 2013, the Revs lived and died by their usual practices of building through the middle or on the break and challenging the center of a team's defense. On Wednesday night, they died by it. Whatever else they were trying to do, it didn't work, but for the entire first half the Revs stubbornly stuck to their opening plan and were beaten for it. The second half saw improvement, but not much, and by then it was too late anyway. All season we saw the Revs get off to slow starts and fail to react to other teams until after halftime; if they want to do better next year, they need to learn how to make those adjustments in-game and early.
- Again they started slow, and this is indicative of a major issue - remember 2012 when the Revs couldn't hold a late lead - or even a draw - to save their lives? Holding a lead is still a shaky prospect for this club, but the real mental focus and breakdown issue has now migrated to the beginning of the match. In more than a few games this season, the Revs have gotten off to horrible, slow starts. Their play has been sloppy, they've ceded possession and chances to their opponents, and in some cases, they've been punished. This became an epidemic, and it's exactly what happened against Kansas City. That's a mentality issue, and when it's consistent, it becomes a coaching issue. Heaps needs to solve it fast.
- Set pieces are still an issue - not much needs to be said here. Yes, Imbongo's goal came from a free kick, but whether it's the team's routines or deliveries, attacking set pieces are just not good enough for the Revs. There is height in the team, but they don't appear to know how to take advantage of it. Defending set pieces is also a terrifying prospect for this team, and while Jose Goncalves has certainly helped lock it down, all the problems have not been solved. Until they can prove themselves dangerous on dead balls, the Revs will continue to be fouled near the box, and they will continue to be punished by opposing set pieces. It simply has to stop.
- The Revs need to find a way to counter physicality without losing quality - Andy Dorman did a job in the last few matches, and he did it well. He provided height and size in a severely undersized midfield, and it worked wonders against Columbus and in the first match against KC. Unfortunately, Dorman doesn't have the kind of passing savvy and presence to settle a midfield and dictate tempo like Scott Caldwell, and that is proven by the possession and passing numbers for both the team and the individual. In the first half, the team was crushed in possession, and Dorman completed just 8 of 12 passes. In the second half and extra time, the Revs still lost the possession battle but performed much better, and Caldwell completed 35 of 44 passes. The Revs need size and protection in midfield, but they can't win the big games if they get sloppy with the ball in the process. That's not their style, and it's not a winning formula.
Obviously there is plenty more to go over, but these are just a few of the major points I saw from a general standpoint. Feel free to add your own in the comment section below.
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