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Revolution need a game-changer if they’re going to compete in 2019

Here’s what went wrong in 2018.

MLS: New England Revolution at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, no playoffs.

When I saw the lineups on TV before the latest Rev-Toronto game, my first reaction was like a kid on the playground when he finds himself on the weaker side: “These teams aren’t fair!” I couldn’t imagine the Revs successfully dealing with the quartet of Bradley, Vazquez, Giovinco, and Altidore (keep in mind, of course, that the total salary of these four is more than three times the sum total of the whole Rev squad). Even though the Revs scored first, and even with Altidore exiting the game early in the first half with an injury, the Revs couldn’t cope with the remaining trio. The 4-1 final score was fair. Indeed, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Toronto had scored a couple more. In short, the Revs were overwhelmed, especially in the second half.

Frank Dell’Apa wrote excellent Rev columns in the Globe on Oct 4 and 9, pointing out clearly why the Revs are having difficulties competing with other teams in the league. He lists a host of players who have left the team for a variety of reasons, many of them likely avoidable if the Rev administration had been willing to compete financially by putting more money into higher player salaries and by building a soccer-specific stadium. Midfielders Nguyen and Jones, defenders Laurentowitz, Parkhurst, Soares, and Goncalves are all among the departers. Dell’Apa also hones in on the team weakness at left back, with Rowe (playing out of position), Somi, Tierney (injured but too slow in any case), Dielna, and Bye all unable to solidify that position. He notes that the addition of Mancienne at center back has not been the problem-solver the Rev brass desired. I would add that Farrell, at right back, has not been the offensive contributor needed at this position, as a result of his weakness at crossing and, especially, shooting.

All these elements contribute to the Revs’ signature problem in stopping opponents’ fast breaks. The Rev offensive pressure in combination with a high defensive line did not result in the desired result of scoring goals. Their forwards’ high-pressure offense looked really promising at the beginning of the season – Coach Friedel was clearly intentional in pushing it – but in the long run their team offense just wasn’t good enough to put the ball in the net. And then the defense got killed on the counter-attack, because they just weren’t speedy or disciplined enough to man a successful high defensive line. The failure of this system was most notable when Toronto cut through butter to sink their fourth goal.

So the Revs are out of the playoffs for the third straight year. Why? Well, in my opinion, mainly because they haven’t been given a full fighting chance. They need a more ambitious administration, ownership in particular. They need a soccer-specific stadium, a larger scouting staff to identify new players, and above all more money to attract new and keep old players. At this time, these qualities aren’t there.

After watching the first-half Rev performance vs. Real Salt Lake, I was persuaded that New England’s main deficiency is player quality. The team lacks a problem solver – someone who has the savvy, skill, experience, poise, and leadership to find a solution to the problem the Revs had in this half, which was almost a complete lack of ball possession. Players who can fill this role are actually quite plentiful. Go find an over-the-hill European or South American superstar – a Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović, or Jermaine Jones, for example – but the Rev brass have to swallow hard and foot the bill to get one or two. It will be expensive, but well worth the money, as it will almost ensure the Revs’ making the playoffs next year.

In default of a field general, here is the Revs’ quandary: their top 15 or so players are competent and, for the most part, hard-working – but none has the qualities of the true problem-solver. A few years ago Fagundez, Rowe, Agudelo, Farrell, and Caldwell all arrived on the team to great acclaim. Each was good for a year or more, but now the game seems to have passed them by; they have not improved as anticipated. I’m not 100% ready to decide if this failure should be laid on the players themselves, or if someone (probably an assistant coach) needs to be hired who can provide effective professional-level instruction, but ball possession remains a big problem (against Real Salt Lake, they had big problems stringing simple passes together), the offensive players among these five are a step too slow to take opposing defenders on with speed, and their defensive counterparts lack finesse and problem-solving sophistication.

As it is highly unlikely that a field general will be home-grown through the Rev academies (age and experience are the basic sine qua non’s here), getting one from abroad or from a trade are the only realistic (and expensive!) options. The Revs came close with Cristian Penilla, this year’s fully-deserving MVP, but he wasn’t enough. The team needs a midfielder to command the play all over the field. Do you remember Jermaine Jones being called a coach on the field?

In sum, the Rev players, with the possible exception of Penilla, are all complementary players, not game-changers. They have the potential to raise their level of play when corralled by a generalissimo, but they won’t get it done by themselves. The team’s future is squarely in the hands – and pocketbook – of management.