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Know Thy Enemy: This Isn’t the 2015 Revs (Or the 2020/21 Crew) Edition

Before checking in with Massive Report and the Columbus Crew, we need a brief take check on the Revs season.

New England Revolution v Columbus Crew SC Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Alright, before the New England Revolution take on the Columbus Crew tonight at 730pm at Gillette Stadium (coverage on TV38, MyRITV, 98.5 Sports Hub and ESPN+) we need to establish a line in the sand about some rumblings I’ve seen on the hashtag.

Yes, the Revs season has been disappointing. Yes, there have been injuries. Yes, Bruce Arena maybe hasn’t done as well as managing his reduced squad like he did last year when he literally pushed every button correctly and the Revs conjured late magic regularly to win games.

No, this is absolutely not a repeat of the Revs 2015 offseason following their MLS Cup Final loss. I’m not going to name names, you know who you are, and stop it. Stop it, right now.

There is no need for the torches and pitchforks despite how bad the Revs have been this year, which has taken a significantly worse step back than that 2015 team made so far...the Revs did actually make positive improvements to the squad over the winter. Yes, it was always nearly assured the Revs were going to take a step back after the best MLS regular season number ever with the guaranteed loss of two regional international superstar players. When you add in the injury bug and handful of extra games...the recipe for disaster was made perfectly.

Now, whether or not those additions have done well on the field (certainly not the case with Omar Gonzalez), Bruce Arena and the Revs did plug in several key spots on the depth chart. Yes, two of those signings occurred closer to the end of the transfer window in GK Djordje Petrovic and MF Dylan Borrero and ideally could have been more beneficial to the team earlier, but at least the Revs to an extent are being proactive.

That didn’t happen in 2015, when the Revs failed to capitalize on Jermaine Jones and Lee Nguyen’s MVP caliber seasons but literally not replacing a starter on the backline and making only one major signing (getting Juan Agudelo back from Stoke/Utrecht counts as a major signing) for the entire year. This year New England did get a starting caliber central midfielder in Sebastian Lletget who is trying very hard to replace Tajon Buchanan when he is quite clearly a different player operating a much different role.

I might have more on this next week, but after lamenting for weeks that Matt Polster needed some help at the holding midfield spot, the Revs unleashed this very aesthetically pleasing 4-2-3-1 last week:

Ideally, Lletget would have upgraded the platooned role in the Revs midfield usually led by Tommy McNamara freeing up the Revs utility player to help lock down games off the bench. This would mean signing a starter capable #6/8 type to play with Lletget or next to Polster. Despite the plethora of midfield options, the Revs have spent more games misfiring with their formation and tactics than getting it right, something that was rarely an issue last year even as New England seemed to frustratingly manage to only win by one goal every time.

Having Petrovic signed and available to cover Matt Turner’s absence would have been beneficial but at least he gets a few weeks of training to get acclimated to the team. Obviously Gonzalez and Altidore perhaps were force into too much starting minutes early in the year when they were clearly signed as more depth options. But that is still several more veteran players on the roster than the singular signing in that department years ago.

Injuries and a heavily congested schedule dealt the Revs a bad hand to start the year and quite honestly I don’t think the team played their cards well either. But 2022 was always going to be an odd year with the winter World Cup and the departures of Buchanan and Turner (and possibly Buksa if/when that happens too).

The Revs identifying and responding to their poor start quickly with two signings late in the primary window is an encouraging sign that the Revs have changed their ways from regimes past rather than waiting for the summer window or doing nothing at all. It is not unrealistic given the international schedule that the Revs wouldn’t really be able to utilize their full transfer war chest until the 2022 offseason into the 2023 season right after the World Cup. Also, perhaps the Borrero signing and the squad of Brazilian internationals at Revs II are a sign New England wants to utilize the U22 Initiative over big Designated Player deals.

There are more positive signs that New England does know what they’re doing right now then in 2015...when there were few positive signs and the downslide began culminating in the Arena Era revival.

Either way, the Revs are getting healthier and are starting to string together good performances and most importantly wins. Surely they want to keep that going today and enter today’s opponent the Columbus Crew. Rumor is Horse Guy is going to be there which is always a tremendous morale boost

As always we have sought after an expert with our good friends over at Massive Report and Thomas Costello was as helpful as he could be given the circumstances. Which is to say there are a lot of very, very important questions about the Crew right now and not a lot of concrete answers to go around as far as their road performance the last few years and up top at striker but we appreciate Thomas’ efforts nonetheless.

Be sure to check out my answers to Thomas’ questions over on their site.

TBM: The past few years the Crew have been a very dominant home team...and a not so great road team. Is there a major difference in the way the team plays outside of Columbus and are there any easy fixes for the Crew’s road woes?

TC: Woes is a good way to put it. Columbus can’t seem to shake things up enough on the road to pull out a victory away from Lower.Com Field. The Crew didn’t win a single away match in 2020 (the only team with this “achievement” and win MLS Cup) and in 2021 they won three.

Head coach Caleb Porter does adopt a more conservative gameplan on the road compared to home. There’s not as much pressing and a little bit more sitting back and waiting for their moments to attack. Unfortunately, that’s not always worked. Teams will capitalize on any small mistake, and mistakes are what have hurt Columbus this year. Most of those mistakes also come in the form of missed assignments on set pieces.

Lineup-wise, minus a potential absence from fullback Steven Moreira, Porter will play his usual side. When his players are healthy, his players will start, but expect the tactics to not be as aggressive as he’d employ at home.

TBM: Everyone should know about Lucas Zelarayan’s goal scoring prowess, and Derrick Etienne and Darlington Nagbe have been racking them up as well. With Gyasi Zardes now in Colorado, who is the Crew’s true second option/starting striker and how important is it to get more of the supporting cast involved in the scoring for Columbus?

TC: I wanted to ask you the same question, to see if you knew. Just kidding. That’s been the hot button discussion in the Black & Gold circles in 2022. Late last season, Columbus brought Miguel Berry back from a USL loan to help an injured Crew side. Berry came in and scored big moment goals. In just 844 minutes, Berry tallied eight goals, averaging .85 goals per 90 minutes. This season, Berry’s received all but one MLS regular season start, with Zardes receiving the lone outlier.

That led to the Zardes trade but unfortunately for the Crew, 2022 Berry hasn’t been the same as 2021 Berry. It feels like equal parts defense figuring the young forward out and a lack of confidence with a slow start to the season. Berry is the starting striker for the Crew, until something changes. Porter’s said publicly that the front office is searching for a young Designated Player option for goal scoring, so stay tuned.

Around Berry, Zelarayán’s scoring, outside of Columbus’ 3-0 victory against D.C. United, is the strongest cog in the Crew’s offensive machine. Etienne’s season started promising, already outscoring his 2021 goal total, but someone to watch is loanee James Igbekeme.

Columbus brought Igbekeme in for his versatility to play midfield or on the wing. Over the past two weeks, Igbekeme broke into the starting 11 with new winger signing Yaw Yeboah not producing yet this season. Igbekeme hasn’t scored yet but the moves he’s made so far in 2022 shows signs that he’ll be creating them if he continues his current trajectory.

TBM: Columbus is just two years removed from an MLS Cup win, but missed the playoffs last year and are currently the last team in the Eastern Playoffs with a lot of soccer left to play. So are the 2022 Crew closer to the MLS Cup team or the team that missed the playoffs?

TC: Don’t take this as a non-answer, but I’m going with option C. This season has struggles all on its own that don’t align with the difficulties of 2021 or in line with the 2020 MLS Cup winning year.

In 2021, Columbus’ difficulty was keeping people healthy and on the field. The Crew didn’t start the same 11 twice throughout the year. Every position, minus Darlington Nagbe in the midfield, had turnover due to injury. Only one center back played more than 20 regular season matches all season. Porter had midfield loanee Liam Fraser playing center back for a spell.

This 2022 season has issues all on its own. Teams found out that if they play openly against the Crew, Columbus can hurt them. Porter’s mission now is finding out how to break through defenses that are sitting back and letting the Crew make all the moves. Mistakes have bit the Crew, whether its a player slipping on defense or goalkeeper Eloy Room accidentally dropping a ball into his own net, making them play from behind in all but two matches where a goal was scored.

An area that does reflect the 2020 MLS Cup winning side is on defense. Columbus has nine goals against in nine matches so far this season, when last season the Crew gave up 1.32 goals per game. In 2020, the Black & Gold’s success came in stopping their opponents. While the sample size of 2020 is lower than a normal season, Columbus gave up just .91 goals per match. If new center back Miloš Degenek continues his adjustments to the league, or Josh Williams stays healthy, the duo of Jonathan Mensah and either of those two in front of Room puts them in the playoff picture again.