With preseason still in its early days, it’s hard to get a read on how the New England Revolution will fare throughout the 2017 MLS season.
But on Tuesday morning in Casa Grande, Arizona, the Revs went through their paces, drawing, 1-1, with Minnesota United FC.
The scoring began in the 39th minute, when Eugene Starikov, a trialist for the expansion side, bundled home past goalkeeper Matt Turner. New England answered back, though, in the 78th minute through striker Kei Kamara, who nodded home a cross from left back Donnie Smith.
While the result bears some merit, Smith said the match offered valuable lessons for the Revs’ Achilles' heel in 2016: defense.
"We have a lot of guys on trial and rookies in here, so we worked on the defensive tactics,” Smith said in an exclusive interview with The Bent Musket. "Get everyone’s feet wet in regards to that. I think we did a good job in the first 10-15 minutes of each half when things are hectic. Then when you settle in, you build out more and attack.”
Smith, who's readying for his fifth MLS season, added that the match against Minnesota afforded New England the chance to become more acclimated with its 4-4-2 diamond formation. About two thirds of the way through the 2016 campaign, head coach Jay Heaps shifted into that setup from a 4-2-3-1.
The renewed focus, especially in defense, is quite simple, Smith said.
"In regards to the diamond shape that we’ve been playing, it’s just getting everyone in tight,” Smith said. "Then in the backline getting the center backs on the same page, then communication is a major key. With the diamond, trying to force the ball outside as much as possible then have solid shape up the middle.”
Tactics aside, the match also afforded Heaps and co. their first glimpse of Antonio Delamea in live action for the red, white and blue. The center back was acquired on Jan. 24 with Targeted Allocation Money, and previously captained NK Olimpija Ljubljana of the Slovenian top flight. In Tuesday’s game, Delamea played the first half.
"I’m really impressed with Toni," Smith said. “ ... Great with his feet, great in possession, then in the game he was great. A good 1 v. 1 defender, lots of talk. It was pretty exciting to see.”
As for New England’s other new center back, Benjamin Angoua, Smith similarly had rave reviews. He didn’t play against the Loons, but is on the ground in Arizona and getting work in. Much like Delamea, the Ivory Coast native was acquired on loan from En Avant de Guingamp of France’s Ligue 1.
“Right now [Angoua’s] still recovering from an injury he picked up in his last game in France, so right now there’s no need to rush,” Heaps said. “We want to make sure he’s fully recovered. Right now he’s just doing a lot of treatment, watching film. We’re showing him how we play, the way we want to defend, so I think he’s getting up to speed with that.
“Getting to know the guys, I think that’s also critical,” Heaps added. “Getting to know everyone in the locker room so he doesn’t have to just step on the field and be at 100 miles per hour, he can slowly get into that process.”
Speaking of new players, Smith similarly had positive remarks for Brian Wright, New England’s first rounder from the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. The striker from the University of Vermont played the first 45 minutes, drawing a penalty kick in the 12th minute that Teal Bunbury ultimately saw saved by John Alvbåge.
It’s in training, though, where Smith said Wright has left his mark the most.
"Our draft pick, Brian Wright, I’ve been super impressed with him,” Smith said. "In training he’s scoring, which is great. It takes young guys a little while to get acclimated, but he’s doing really well from the start. It’s great to see with how young he is.”
Looking down the road, Smith said it’s paramount that the building blocks keep falling into place. If all goes to plan, that’ll happen on Friday, as the Revs take on the New York Red Bulls out in Casa Grande.
For the time being, the Revs are slowly piecing it all together under the Arizona sun.
"I think we were pretty happy with how we defended [against Minnesota],” Smith said. "There were times we were under pressure and dealing with attacks, but we dealt with it. We did well with possession, too, in their half as the game went on. So you take those positives and build forward."