A lot has been made of the lead-in to the 2013 season for the New England Revolution. For most of the key players on the squad, this represents a year where they've all been a part of nearly the entire preseason process, something that was certainly not the case last year, and probably hasn't really been the case in several seasons. The chemistry and familiarity that builds is something that cannot be overstated and must the centerpiece to any preview of the Revs' season.
Before delving into the sorts of things people can hope and expect to see from New England in this new season, let's first reflect on a few basics:
Key Additions: Jose Goncalves, DF; Kalifa Cisse, MF; Andy Dorman, MF; Chad Barrett, FW; Andrew Farrell, DF; Scott Caldwell, MF
The Revs signed several more players than this (4 others at the time of this writing), but those aforementioned figure to be the biggest impact additions, at least early on. Andrew Farrell was the big-news pickup, coming in as the SuperDraft's first selection, but the real heavy lifting this year is going to be done by Goncalves and Cisse. Both veterans of the pressure-cooker that is big-league European soccer, they will be expected to be leaders on the pitch as well as enforcers with their size and tenacity. Dorman, a former Rev from the glory days, will also be expected to have a leadership presence.
Key Losses: Benny Feilhaber, SKC; Fernando Cardenas, Santa Fe; Blake Brettschneider, Rochester; Flo Lechner, out of contract
Turnover at the club this offseason was not nearly as horrendous or all-encompassing as it was from 2011-12, and it was tough to find key contributors among those let go. Feilhaber is obviously the big name, but the perceived void he leaves is overstated. Feilhaber never played well for the Revs - especially in 2012 - and the best move for both parties was a clean break. Cardenas, Brettschneider, and Lechner each contributed in their own ways, but, for better or for worse, shouldn't be difficult to replace in terms of production.
Given the new arrivals and those who are still in Foxboro from last season, head coach Jay Heaps actually has arguably the deepest midfield in MLS to draw from. He's going to have serious selection headaches week-to-week, especially if everyone stays healthy.
How he solves those weekly dilemmas will have as much to do with his formation and philosophy as it will with the talent he has to work with. In preseason, Heaps has experimented with a 4-4-2 double-pivot midfield (placing Cisse and Clyde Simms together in the center), a more traditional 4-4-2 with a defensive mid and an attacking mid, and variations on the 4-4-1-1 and 4-5-1. Assuming everyone is totally healthy (including Saer Sene), here's a peak at what we might see:
Predicted XI (R to L): Reis; Farrell, Goncalves, Soares, Alston; Toja, Simms, Cisse, Nguyen; Bengtson, Sene
Toja and Nguyen would have the ability (and probably the free license) to swap wings at will, since both players are at home on either side of the pitch. With all that defensive muscle in the middle, Farrell and Kevin Alston should have the freedom to use their speed and overlap on the wings, which will be key, since the wingers will have to be cutting in a lot to fill the void between midfield and attack left by the two deep-lying central mids.
The real weakness to this formation is up top. Neither Sene nor Jerry Bengtson are particularly good at holding up the ball and bringing others into the play; however, they are both too good at what they do (scoring goals) to be left on the bench when healthy and available. This is going to increase the workload of Toja and Nguyen especially, but it also gives some sizeable targets to aim for when Alston and Farrell cross from the flanks.
There's undeniable talent on this roster. Sene is a double-digit goalscorer; Bengtson is the hottest striker in CONCACAF; Lee Nguyen was last season's team MVP; Cisse and Goncalves have gotten it done at the highest levels, and everyone else in that starting XI brings at least something fairly exceptional to the table.
Unlike last season, the roster has depth. If someone in midfield goes down, proven commodities like Dorman or Kelyn Rowe can step in, or exciting new prospects like Scott Caldwell. Up top, Chad Barrett, a seasoned MLS veteran, is probably next off the bench. In the back, last-year's starter Stephen McCarthy and the ever-dependable Darrius Barnes lie in the wait, while Bobby Shuttleworth will back up Matt Reis after posting a 0.71 GAA in 7 games in 2012.
With all that, making the playoffs is something the Revs should be shooting for, and they should have a realistic expectation of getting there. Furthermore, a U.S. Open Cup win should be an absolute priority for this club, as any opportunity to collect silverware and compete in the CONCACAF Champions' League is desirable at this point. If they can put it together, a playoff appearance and a cup trophy could very well be the fruits of 2013.
There was undeniable talent on last season's roster. After a solid start to the season, the Revs wasted away in the heat of summer, going 10 games winless at one point. Some of their wins at the end of the season did nothing but pad the stats, and though they weren't mathematically eliminated from the playoffs until five matches before the end, they were realistically out of it weeks - if not months - previous.
The mental mistakes that plagued the Revs in 2011 weren't addressed, or at best, they migrated to other aspects of the game. This is still a young team, and still a team with question marks at forward as long as Bengtson continues to flounder in club play and the extent of Sene's ability to return from injury is in doubt.
If Bengtson can't get his club form up to speed and Sene can't get right again, the goals will basically be nonexistent. Further, if the Revs haven't finally learned to deal with physical play - their undoing in 2012 - then they will continue to outplay opponents and still lose, passing it around at will without producing anything in the final third. Lastly, a repeat of 2012's ghastly performance on set pieces, both defending and attacking, will see the Revs anchored solidly in one of the bottom three places in the East with no escape in sight.
With the luck Revolution fans have had in recent years, it's tough not to expect the worst.