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New England Revolution 2021 Defensive Overview: Turner Train and The Backline

Taking a look at Matt Turner and the Revs backline ahead of the start of the 2021 MLS regular season.

MLS: New England Revolution at D.C. United Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

In 2020 the New England Revolution entered the regular season with a lot of questions and very serious concerns. Most of those questions got answered and in theory the Revs continued to get better this offseason as well.

Henry Kessler had a standout rookie campaign and Tajon Buchanan became a true weapon from the fullback spot in the playoffs, with both players turning that success into call-ups for their respective countries U23 Olympic qualifying campaigns. DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye continued their solid form as well and were starting for most of the season.

Add in the Turner Train continuing to dominate and Andrew Farrell as always leading the league in acrobatic bicycle clearances and the Revs backline might have been the most stable position group on the entire team in 2020. An impressive feat considering the concerns going into the year.

Christian Mafla will likely be one half of the Revs’ new look left flank. The Colombian defender signed from Atletico Nacional in his native country along with left midfielder Arnor Traustason will look to jump start a side of the field that struggled to impact the game particularly on the attacking end. If Carles Gil is going to play more of an incutting right wing position, Mafla will be tasked with balancing out the formation and giving the Revs more options and support from the other flank.

Even if Jones and Bye are not elite starters at fullback, they’re both well above average and incredible backup/platoon options with proven resumes in the league so far. No one would be upset seeing either player make 20+ appearances or 10+ starts this year as the Revs really have the depth to lean on this year across the boad. If Buchanan makes the full time transition to fullback, which I think he should, look for Arena to really use Bye and Jones off the bench frequently to move Buchanan higher up the field and/or to keep everyone on the backline fresh and healthy for a long season and playoff run.

For years prior to the SuperDraft I pleaded, begged, complained, etc., to the Revs for not drafting a centerback to replace AJ Soares. At long last, Kessler appears to be the answer with Farrell at centerback and a full year with a healthy holding midfield stable of Kaptoum, Caicedo, Polster, Scotty, and Tommy Mac in front of them should be very helpful as well.

Matt Turner is the best keeper in the league. The analytics say this and I know we’re biased so I will point out that the Revs do have a window for MLS Cup and one of the biggest reasons why will be Turner. How long the window stays open will depend on some of the offers the Revs start getting for their US international keeper. There should be several offers for at least seven figures coming in for an undrafted keeper out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (no I will not mention Turner’s alma mater and the arch nemesis of my beloved Rider Broncs by name) and the Revs can and should absolutely act on said offers.

Offseason Changes

IN: LB Christian Mafla, CB A.J. DeLaGarza, GK Earl Edwards Jr., CB Jon Bell

OUT: LB Alexander Buttner, LB Seth Sinovic, CB Antonio Delamea, CB Michael Mancienne, GK Jeff Caldwell

The Buttner offseason saga and his tenure in general will go down in Revs international signing lore. Between the pandemic and injuries, Buttner never really had time to settle in and his departure was not unexpected. I had high hopes for Buttner to replace Chris Tierney’s damn impressive left foot in the Revs set piece attack but alas it was not meant to be.

Either way, the Revs have already checked off most of their biggest needs on the backline: a third centerback and utility defender in AJD, a possible starting LB option in Mafla (since Buttner is leaving), and a third keeper in Edwards Jr who replaces Jeff Caldwell. As has been Bruce Arena’s style, everything has been handled well before the start of preseason. A significant departure from normal Revs history.

2021 Depth Chart/Overview

GK: Matt Turner, Brad Knighton, Earl Edwards Jr

LB: Christian Mafla, DeJuan Jones

CB: Andrew Farrell, Henry Kessler, Jon Bell, Collin Verfurth

RB: Tajon Buchanan, Brandon Bye

Utility: AJ DeLaGarza

Even if the Revs aren’t great at defending set pieces, this about as solid of a depth chart as you can get in MLS. My favorite part, it’s a throwback to the 2013/14 squads that had one standout international player (JoGo) and a whole lot of draft picks, domestic players, and/or MLS veterans. That worked out pretty well for those squads and the Revs look poised to capitalize on a similar roster build.

I don’t expect the Revs to stray from their usual four man backline. There were times last year when Mancienne came on as an additional centerback to help close out games and it’s possible someone else could step into that role. It also wouldn’t shock me to see Bell and Verfurth continue to see most of their minutes with Revs II.

Biggest Question Mark: Aerial Battles and Set Pieces

The Revs are somewhere between not good and horrendous at defending set pieces.

Late in games having a big body off the bench at either CB or CDM would be helpful and give Bruce Arena a lot of flexibility to really dominate tactically. If there’s one area that could make the Revs elite in 2021 it would be simply improving those set piece/corner numbers. If Kessler can really start to impact the game from this standpoint, using his 6’4’’ frame to become that aerial force in the middle, then this Revs team is absolutely ready to make a championship push.

The Revs have available senior roster spots for 2021, and I think it’s likely they might add another veteran centerback/utility defender via trade in the summer window. AJD is a solid option and could get playing time, but one more veteran back there (say Jalil Anibaba and his excellent shot blocking) would really round out this roster.