The Revolution are about to embark on a campaign—without Lee Nguyen as a key component—for the first time since he joined the club in 2012. His holdout following an unfulfilled trade request came to a close early in preseason, but his fitness, according to new gaffer Brad Friedel, is still nowhere near where it needs to be. In fact, he's trained apart from the team all of preseason and has yet to learn and become integrated into Friedel's new system and style of play. In a recent interview with MLSSoccer.com, Friedel went so far as to imply Nguyen will basically need to earn back his playing time with the club.
Where does that leave the Revs' formation? Former manager Jay Heaps was able to pencil in Nguyen to the #10 role for as far back as we can remember, except for a couple occasions where Lee was employed up top. The Revs' entire formation was built around Nguyen's strengths and talents, as Heaps admitted in the MLSSoccer.com-produced documentary on the player from a few years ago. The offensive mindset became "get the ball to Lee and go from there", which worked great until other teams figured it out after the 2014 MLS Cup run. Coincidentally, the Revs' playoff fortunes gradually dwindled each following year culminating in the past two playoff-less seasons, which brings us to this week and the start of a new campaign. To their credit, Heaps and the front office noticed the club had become a one-trick pony, so they traded for Kei Kamara in 2016 as a potential solution. We all know how that worked out.
So, here we are on the eve of the 2018 season, with a very winnable first match looming against the Union—if only we had Lee Nguyen in the lineup. But we don't. What to do? In the last two preseason matches, Friedel has primarily employed Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe in the #10 role. Unlike his predecessor, Friedel looks like he won't be bound to a certain formation, as it appears he will adapt to the personnel on the pitch. He has used a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1, interchangeably moving players as needed. For example, we saw Teal Bunbury as a #9 and a right winger; Diego as a #10 and also up top; Krisztian Nemeth as a left winger and up top; and Kelyn Rowe as a right winger and #10. Now, maybe he was just seeing if the shoe fits, but all of this is being done in the notable absence of one Lee Nguyen. And it sure seems Lee Nguyen won't be walking onto the game pitch anytime soon, as least until his fitness level returns. When he does, though, will he have a place to play?
One could argue an attack that doesn't predictably run through Lee Nguyen's feet (and Kei Kamara's head), but one that instead can follow several different avenues through folks with the last name of Rowe, Agudelo, Nemeth, Fagundez, and Bunbury (not to mention the promising newcomer Penilla) is more dangerous and harder to defend. However, Lee Nguyen is an awesome talent whom Friedel can surely utilize upon his return. But where? On the flip side, can Lee comfortably play anywhere else? All he's known in New England, for the most part, is the playmaker role. Would he move to a wing? Teal seems rejuvenated by the coaching change and had a great preseason on the wing and up top, saying he was motivated and in better shape than in previous seasons. He seems primed for a nice year. The other potential spots all seem to be taken, as well.
No one on the team is outwardly concerned about Nguyen's absence. They've been all about business. Friedel, for his part, must have taken an online course in Bill Belichick player management because he's not holding back when it comes to his expectations for Lee's ability to return to the field. He exudes a rare confidence and is as even-keeled as can be, especially compared with the sometimes-excitable Heaps. The entire squad seems as focused as ever.
But can they win without the player who was responsible for nearly half their goals last season? Can they win without the player who would provide an instant #10 upgrade for most other MLS clubs? Can they win without the player who has arguably outplayed his contract based on his recent performance?
We've always said the Revs have way too many attacking options and not enough quality defending options. For the foreseeable future, we'll have one less attacker available. Can our quality be maintained? On paper, it sure seems like we should have plenty of offense to go around. And if we are able to utilize those attacking assets and feature a multi-pronged approach starting in the back, working through midfield, keeping the opponent guessing defensively, we should be fine.
We should be able to win without Nguyen.