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New England Revolution 2019 MLS Preview

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The New England Revolution have improved their roster in several areas, but are those roster additions enough to get Brad Friedel’s side into the playoffs?

MLS: Montreal Impact at New England Revolution Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The first regular season games for the 2019 MLS season are right around the corner. The New England Revolution open up their campaign against FC Dallas in Frisco, TX on March 2nd at 4:30 PM Eastern. Be sure to check out the SB Nation MLS Previews Super Group as all of our network sites will have full previews for each team today.

How did the Revolution finish in 2018?

Not well. After starting the year by winning three of their first five games thanks to a high press system and a rapid strike counter attack, the Revs slumped in the second half of the year, winning just three games from July to the end of the year and finishing 8th in the Eastern Conference with a 10W-13L-11D record for a total of 41 points, nine points back of the 6th place Philadelphia Union.

New England slightly improved their dismal road form from 2017, where they won just once, to a still mostly awful 8 points from a 2-9-6 record in 2018. The Revs finished with 49 goals scored to 55 goals allowed for a -6 GD last year and were led by Christian Penilla (12G/7A), Teal Bunbury (11G/4A), and Diego Fagundez (9G/10A) on offense and Matt Turner in goal (27 starts, 83 saves, 8 wins, 5 shutouts).

What Did We Learn About the Revs in 2018? Biggest Change That Needs to Happen in 2019?

We learned that the Revs are still quite far away in their rebuild under Brad Friedel. The defensive shape and tactics remained a problem after teams caught on to New England’s early season high press and their wasn’t a Plan B in place besides create turnovers and counter. The Revs struggled to create in possession and gave away so many free kicks in the final third as the league’s highest fouling team.

What needs to be the biggest change in 2019 is a change in style, or perhaps, actually figuring out the identity of this team. Aside from a team that tries hard and, most days, makes opponents work hard, New England lacks consistency and balance in their attacking play because too often they turn the ball over as fast as they get the ball back. That frantic style is hell on the team’s fullbacks which are told to bomb forward and leave the centerbacks exposed all the time. Brad Friedel needs to a lot of adjustments in Year 2 if the Revs are going to be a playoff team.

Who’s in?

A decent amount actually, at least as far as the roster goes. Two new attackers in Juan Fernando Caicedo and Carles Gil are expected to slot into the starting striker and CAM roles joining last year’s leading scorer Cristian Penilla in the front four. New England traded for solid USMNT veteran left back Edgar Castillo who will take over as the familiar #8 for the Revs replacing the retired legend known as Chris Tierney.

Two new first round draft picks in Tajon Buchanan and DeJuan Jones add versatility out wide. The Revs also finally settled whatever situation they had with prized academy striker Justin Rennicks as he joined as a Homegrown from Indiana University after a solid freshman and U20 USYNT campaign. Rennicks joins with fellow homegrown in 18 year old Nicolas Firmino who plays in midfield.

Who’s out?

The above mentioned Kelyn Rowe was shipped to Kansas City via Colorado to acquire Castillo. Rowe was under utilized the past few seasons, making more of an impact as an outside back rather than a playmaking attacker and his move will be a bittersweet pill to swallow for a lot of fans, especially if he has immediate success with SKC. Kristian Nemeth also returned to SKC via trade during the 2018 season, and started of this year with a CCL goal last week.

Tierney’s retirement also is tough, but that’s because it was injury related. Claude Dielna left via trade to Portland and given his contract that’s very surprising. Most of the Revs other departures were lesser used players at the bottom of the roster, though there is a reunion tour happening in the USL with Birmingham Legion picking up a lot of former Revs. Striker Femi Hollinger-Jansen and former midfielder Daigo Kobayashi among others are joining up with the expansion outfit under Jay Heaps and Tom Soehn.

What’s the new jersey?

It’s called the “Colonial” and it’s not technically all white, but at the same time it is despite this awesome rendering art. A tremendous departure from the red/white away shirt for New England that was featured for the past four years and if we’re all being honest, this all-white trend is a step down for the Revs and the league.

Any new stadium news?

Hahahahaha...hahaha...ha... *begins sobbing*

PROJECTED STARTING XI (Week 1)

I’m going to borrow this graphic but as Sean points out there’s two big caveats with this lineup. The first is RB Andrew Farrell is working back to full fitness and didn’t feature much in the Revs preseason trip to Florida so second year player Brandon Bye fills in there. The second is the starting striker spot, which was thought to be new signing Juan Fernando Caicedo’s job, but he’s could also miss the season opener with an injury. So it’s a toss up between Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Teal Bunbury and Justin Rennicks for the starting striker and right winger spots on opening day and this lineup is as good as any though it’s a shame Teal might feature more off the bench after a career year up front in 2018.

Otherwise, the lineup should hopefully remain the same. Wilfried Zahibo is an option at holding midfield as well and should see plenty of action either off the bench or as a spot starter. For the first time in a while, save for maybe left back and centerback if the Phillips loan falls through, it sure seems like the Revs are almost two-deep at every position on the depth chart and yet it still feels like the overall roster is missing something.

Who is THE player to watch on your team, and why?

The most important player for the Revs this year will probably be Carles Gil. While Diego Fagundez is a fine player and decent option to lead a counter attack in the CAM role, and had 10 assists last year, I’ve never liked him in that role compared to Lee Nguyen or even Kelyn Rowe as the Revs struggled to create in possession last year. The problem is, Gil now needs to not only match Diego’s 7G/10A season from 2018, but probably exceed it by a lot for the Revs to make a significant jump in the standings and Gil isn’t known as much of a scorer.

The same goes for JF Caicedo up front, as he’s likely to replace Teal Bunbury and his 11 goals last year up top. If either of these two don’t exceed the players they’re replacing, there’s a very good chance New England is nowhere near a playoff spot this year. Cristian Penilla repeating his breakout 2018 season would also go a long way too now that he has more firepower and support around him.

Michael Mancienne also will have a full preseason to work with his backline teammates and the Revs need a big season from the highest paid defender in the league. The carousel of dollars and players New England have brought in at centerback the past few years hasn’t led to a strong or settled backline and once again the Revs have to hope Mancienne is the man to solve New England’s defensive woes.

However, the player I’m most excited for is Justin Rennicks. The first year Homegrown Player and USYNT star signed after many thought his Revs career was done following an overseas training session that saw him suspended from academy play before going off to college at Indiana. Rennicks had a strong preseason and has put himself into the conversation as a legit option up front or on the right wing and a quick transition into MLS could be an added bonus if he can make contributions as a rookie.

How much will this roster change after the season starts?

The New England front office staff mentioned adding two max contract players a month ago and announced Gil a week later but rumors are hard to come by for the second player.

Defender Giles Phillips had a multi-week trial with the Revs during preseason but returned to club Queens Park Rangers and there’s no word yet on a loan deal that could see the American defender play the 2019 season in MLS.

Personally, the only spot I can see the Revs spending significant money on at this point is holding midfield after the addition of Gil and JF Caicedo in the attack. Five years ago New England jumped into the Jermaine Jones blind draw sweepstakes and turned it into an MLS Cup run. The problem is that Zahibo is already making near the max cap hit ($474K base salary, $544K total compensation) and between international roster spots and the salary cap, adding a DP at that position might not be able to happen without a corresponding roster move to open up space.

But the Revs were far superior in their play on both offense and defense when they had a big time CDM to protect the backline and to drive the ball forward. I think this team still lacks that presence and struggles in transition when they do win the ball and start to go forward. I don’t know who they should sign there, but JJ isn’t walking through that door and this team hasn’t been the same since.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

That despite New England’s improvements, it’s just not enough. The Revs are still so far behind the elite teams in the league as far as the first team roster goes that even when they make good signings and improve from year to year, they’re just not doing it at a high enough rate to catch up.

And on paper, the Revs got better this offseason. There was no left back after Chris Tierney went down last year and that ruined the New England formation in so many ways. Edgar Castillo should at the very least stabilize that spot as the Revs figure out their tactics this season. Cristian Penilla was probably one of the best value signings in the league last year and now has more options around him which can’t be a bad thing.

But as I mentioned above, the Revs are banking on two new players improving on career years from two players who have been in New England for a while. That’s a very tall order for a team that didn’t really sniff the playoffs last year and we’re not so much worried about the Revs scoring goals, but rather can they prevent other teams from scoring them. It doesn’t matter what players the team brings in, if the tactics and formations employed by Brad Friedel don’t get adjusted, see the team’s 6-2 preseason loss when playing with one holding midfielder, it could be a long season in New England.

Expectations for 2019?

At best this is a team that can finish mid-table in the East and compete for a playoff spot and maybe even pull of a road upset in the first round. Carles Gil is near the league leaders in assists and the Revs have 2-3 players with 10+ goal seasons in 2019. The Revs backline unit becomes a solid if unspectacular group bolstered by Matt Turner’s continued growth and heroics and the Revs keeper plays his was into the conversation for the MLS All-Star Game.

At worst, the Revs more or less stay where they are. I refuse to believe the Revs could be 2018 San Jose or Orlando City bad or give up like 70+ goals but I am also realistic. New England is nowhere near good enough on or off the field to compete with the elite teams in MLS. That doesn’t mean either extreme good or bad scenario can’t happen, I just think the Revs are largely who they are - a middling team that will have to overachieve and/or make significant progress to have a home playoff game in 2019.

New England goes into this season with a lot of questions regarding tactics, consistency of play, and even overall talent. We still don’t know if the defense is good enough or if the Revs formation and style of play can protect the backline as it was exposed constantly in the second half of the year without an adjustment in sight. New England’s press and counter can be effective but it also can’t be the only thing play in the Brad Friedel playbook. This is a big season for second year head coach and the team rise or fall in the standings will likely be a large reflection of his influence on the team.

The Revs have several young players - homegrowns Nicolas Firmino and Zachary Herivaux, two first draft picks in Tajon Buchanan and DeJean Jones - that will need to find playing time outside of the US Open Cup and with no current USL affiliate I don’t know where those developing minutes will come from and this is not the first or even third time I’ve asked this question in recent years.

The Revs in the DP era have only had one player on the roster truly live up to that title and their place in the standings reflects that over the last decade. Carles Gil and Michael Mancienne might be fine players, but the Revs need them to live up to roster designations and salary bestowed upon them.

The first week of the MLS season is upon us, and right now everyone has the same record and chance to lift the MLS Cup. New England is cautiously optimistic this is a better team than last year, but we’ll have to wait and see if those improvements reflect in the standings.