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Five ways to fix the Revolution

It hasn’t been good so far.

SOCCER: AUG 08 MLS - Philadelphia Union at New England Revolution Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Revolution lost their fifth game of the 2022 season when they were beaten 3-2 by D.C. United. They’re now 13th in the East Conference with a record of 2-5-1.

I asked head coach Bruce Arena about the early season struggles after Saturday’s loss. Here’s what he said:

“Well, playing better is a starting point. I mean, there are too many crucial mistakes being made that have cost us games. And made by players, that’s our 11 almost every game. So, you can’t just blame it on injuries, but we do have two players that are going to come in and help us, I believe. We just have to get healthier, obviously, get our new payers adjusted to our team, and play better. You know, at the end of the day, if we played a little bit better today, I don’t think we walk off the field losing the game.”

It’s been a difficult two months, but that doesn’t mean the 2022 season is a wash. Here are five things the Revs can do to get the season back on track:

1. Solidify their defensive shape

The Revs push a lot of players into the attack, including their central midfielders and outside backs. This makes them susceptible on the counter and requires the center backs to defend in space. This play against Miami FC from Apr. 9 is an example.

Andrew Farrell gets the play right and successfully neutralizes Miami’s fast break. Farrell is good at this type of defending (this clip shows him doing it against D.C. United on Apr. 24), but it’s certainly a difficult spot for any center back to be in. Plays like those can lead to goals.

Related to this is the idea that the Revs have to be safer when they’re in possession of the ball. Take a look at the play below from the Apr. 2 game against the New York Red Bulls. A square ball is picked off to initiate the counterattack. The Revs don’t have a lot of defensive structure at this moment, but Farrell is there to push the attacker out wide.

DC’s second goal on Apr. 24 looks similar. Matt Polster’s pass is intercepted, which allows DC to push forward. The home team doesn’t play with much urgency (unlike the Red Bulls), but the Revs aren’t well organized. Emmanuel Boateng allows a blind slide run then Omar Gonzalez fails to track his man. This allows DC to score the go-ahead goal. The issue this time is that the Revs don’t track their runners.

This all comes down to the Revs needing to be safer when they have the ball and more disciplined when they don’t.

2. Get Henry Kessler on the field

It’s been a difficult season for the third-year center back as he’s only logged 270 minutes over four appearances. Kessler was dealing with a hamstring injury during the first part of the season and he missed last week’s game against Charlotte FC because of illness.

Arena was asked about Kessler before the Charlotte game and he said, “We’ve made too many mistakes in the back and to get Henry back in is very important for our team.”

Kessler is important because he’s a physical and agile ball winner. The Revs center backs often step forward to put pressure on opposing attackers. It’s a strategy that lets them commit players forward, but it’s also one that can go wrong. Omar Gonzalez was burnt on a play like that when the Revs visited Charlotte on Mar. 19. Something similar happened when the Revs played D.C. on Apr. 23.

Gonazlez ended the game against DC 0/0 on ground duels and 0/1 on aerial duels. Meanwhile, Kessler was 1/1 on ground duels and 6/7 on aerial duels. These stats are taken from FotMob (click the link for a full breakdown). The clip below isn’t perfect but it highlights what Kessler can do when the ball is in the air.

Kessler’s mobility and fight are key to how the Revs play. Like Farrell, he is able to track runners if things go wrong. Take a look at this simple, but effective, play from the DC game.

3. Get everyone healthy

Kessler isn’t the only player who has struggled to stay on the field this year. Matt Turner hasn’t played a game and Gustavo Bou has only featured in two league games.

Let’s start with Turner. The reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year is an elite shot-stopper, which is why he’s heading to Arsenal in July. Last year, Arena said, “Matt never loses a game and often wins us some games, so over a season that’s a real plus for a team.”

That is certainly the case. This article from MLSsoccer.com shows that in 2021 Turner’s expected goals allowed was 40.95. The netminder only allowed 35, which means that his expected goals allowed was 5.95 (positive is good!).

The league has an article analyzing this year’s goalkeepers but it only shows data for the first seven weeks (we just completed week eight). Brad Knighton’s expected goals allowed before the DC game was 2.38 and he allowed five, giving him an expected goals allowed of -2.62. Earl Edwards Jr.’s expected goals allowed is 7.2 and he’s allowed eight, so his expected goals allowed is -.8.

Knighton and Edwards Jr. have made some world-class saves and it’s unfair to say that they’re the problem. Instead, I’m using these numbers to show that Turner is an elite goalkeeper. Getting him back, even if it’s for a short time, will help the Revs. It appears that Turner will be back soon.

The Revs also need to get Bou back on the field. The Argentine striker has yet to find the back of the net in 2022, but we know all about his talent. He has 29 goals and 14 assists since joining the Revs in Jun. 2019. Last year he collected 15 tallies and 9 helpers.

Bou is always looking to shoot, which means that opponents have to keep a close on him. In 2021, Bou had 91 shots, the sixth most in the league (Adam Buksa had the second most with 111). Bou’s expected goal difference was +2.53, which highlights his ability to score on low-chance opportunities.

Bou’s attacking prowess opens up space for his teammates, including Gil. Bou is also able to play provider. It appears that Bou is also nearing his return.

Although they’re probably not starters, it’s worth mentioning that Jon Bell and Maciel have missed games due to injury. Bell played in 12 games (9 starts) in 2021 and showed that he’s a quick center back that can win aerial duels. His appearances this year have left something to be desired, but he’s still a talented prospect that would give Arena another option if Kessler or Farrell isn’t available.

Maciel was a starter in the midfield at the start of the 2021 season. He ultimately made 19 appearances, proving to be a competent passer (89.2% accuracy). Like Bell, Maciel is an option when healthy.

4. Hope the young transfers adapt quickly

The Revs recently made a pair of young signings. Djordje Petrovic is a 22-year-old goalkeeper who had 33 clean sheets and a 0.99 goals-against average during his 86-game stay with FK Čukarički. Dylan Borrero is a 20-year-old midfielder who made 50 appearances while playing for Independiente Santa Fe and Atletico Mineiro. Borrero has been compared to Tajon Buchanan.

I’m not going to pretend that I watched Petrovic in Serbia or Borrero in Brazil. I can tell you that Petrovic’s reel makes it look like he can make athletic saves and that Borrero’s reel makes him look speedy. If you want more on Petrovic then I suggest you read my article on goalkeeper which includes quotes from Ilija Stolica. Gustavo Lopes is the person to follow on Twitter if you want analysis of Borrero.

What I do know is that it can take time for players to adjust to life in the United States. Off the field, you’re dealing with a different language and culture. On the field, you’re facing a physical league that has a demanding travel schedule.

Stolica explains the difference in the article above (Did you read it?!): “I can tell you from my own perspective, that even at my age–I was at 33-34, let’s say a mature age with a family, with an organized life– I needed like at least two years to adapt myself to live in the U.S. It is a definite cultural difference between Europe and the U.S.”

Stolica admits that the Revs organization is different now versus when he was there in 2010 and 2011. For example. the club has multiple full-time staff members who help players transition in or out by assisting with travel, housing, and more. That said, it can take time for players to adjust. The Revs will be hoping that the transition is smooth for Petrovic and Borrero.

5. Be ready to adjust if things still aren’t going well by the midway point

If things still aren’t going well by the summer then Arena has to be ready to make changes. This could simply mean trying a new formation or tactic. Anyone who watched last year’s playoff game against NYCFC knows the shortcomings of the diamond. In short, it can leave Polster and the backline exposed. Arena could choose to go with a different formation to provide defensive stability (Hey, we’re back to point one!)

Arena could also decide to bring in new players.

The Revs didn’t make a single summer transfer last year, but they were quite active in 2020. That year the Revs added Matt Polster, Kekutah Manneh, Tommy McNamara, and Lee Nguyen. These moves were made to spark a team that was struggling, largely because Gil was injured. Arena could be active again in 2022. Maybe the Revs will find a way to bring in a defensive midfielder, outside midfielder, or center back.

The summer will also be interesting because Buksa has been the center of several transfer rumors over the last couple of years. If the striker goes, then Arena has to add an elite goal-scorer as soon as possible. But I’m not totally convinced that Buksa will leave in the summer as he might choose to stay in a comfortable setting since the World Cup is looming.

Conclusion

Listen, the Revs haven’t been good to start the season and it could be the case that they’ll continue to struggle. I’m willing to have some patience because the team has been dealing with a host of absences.

I never expected the Revs to win the Supporters Shield as they did in 2021. The team performed so well that year and also had some luck on their side. This year the performances haven’t been as good and the luck has certainly shifted (Remember the own goal against the Red Bulls?).

But the only thing that matters in MLS is that you’re playing your best soccer when the playoffs begin. The Revs still have time to find out what their best soccer looks like and the points above will be part of the process.