Talking ’bout a Revolution: New England heading for the playoffs
A few weeks ago I wrote a post examining the prospects of the most likely challengers for MLS Cup. By not mentioning New England Revolution, I had quietly written the off – quite logical, given their poor start and the continued absence of Taylor Twellman – and condemned them to a season of disappointment and introspection.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I’m pleased to be eating humble pie on this one.
The Revolution got off to an unsure start in the 2009 Major League Soccer season, defeating only the abject duo of San Jose Earthquakes and FC Dallas before finally securing a noteworthy win against DC United at the end of May.
A six-game winless run threatened to derail their season and the continued absence of Taylor Twellman became an excuse rather than an explanation. Winless streak snapped, inconsistency reigned until the points started to rack up in the middle of July.
And now, the Revs are flying. They’re proving the doubters wrong and – ominously for the rest of the league – hitting winning form at just the right time.
About the Revs
New England Revolution are one of Major League Soccer’s great ‘nearly’ teams. After losing out to LA Galaxy on home soil in the 2002 MLS Cup Final, the Revs have the unenviable record of adding another three consecutive MLS Cup Final defeats between 2005 and 2007. The Galaxy ensured lightning struck twice in Texas in 2005 before the new Houston Dynamo franchise defeated New England in 2006 and 2007. To date, New England have still not won MLS Cup, though the honours list does feature the 2007 US Open Cup and the 2008 Superliga. MLS Cup in 2009?
The Revolution have been managed by some big names from world football, including Frank Stapleton and Walter Zenga. The current head coach is former Liverpool player Steve Nicol, who has been in charge since 2002.
When a coach has been in his job as long as Nicol, his team begins to play in a consistent style and get a reputation. In this case, that means ‘Nicol-ball’. Critics of the Revolution’s style of play argue somewhat unfairly that the side is defensive and unattractive, especially when they go a goal ahead. It is undeniable that New England can park the bus, but they play some decent stuff on occasion and even their defensive football isn’t necessarily unattractive.
Nicol-ball is sometimes criticised because, for all its functionality, it has brought no success in MLS. But it has got the team close on four occasions, including one runners-up spot for Supporters’ Shield, and that should not be dismissed too easily.
Having defeated the Quakes in Week 1 and Dallas in Week 3, the Revolution embarked on a six-match winless streak which included losses to Houston Dynamo and Toronto FC and a 6-0 hiding at the hands of Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto. DC United and New York Red Bulls were then beaten before an embarrassing defeat to Kansas City Wizards kicked off another three-game winless run. At that point New England looked some distance short of playoff quality, but huge improvement was just around the corner.
Five wins in the last seven have dragged the Revolution kicking and screaming into serious contention, and indeed into a playoff spot at the time of writing. Chivas USA, Dynamo, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake are all strong sides, but have been dispatched along with San Jose in the last few weeks. Toronto snatched a draw at New England’s Gillette Stadium, and the Galaxy hosted the Revs in the middle of their own resurgent run and ran out 2-1 winners.
When I prematurely wrote New England off, my post received a comment warning me that if Taylor Twellman could be kept fit I would be proved wrong. It makes sense: Twellman has scored over 100 Major League Soccer goals and his return to the USA from Germany coincided with the Revs’ run of four MLS Cup Final appearances between 2002 and 2007. He was also named the league’s MVP in 2005. Sure enough, the Revolution have proved me wrong – and yet Twellman has played only 109 minutes this season (but scoring twice). So what’s happened?
Shalrie takes responsibility
Several Revolution players are in excellent form at the moment. Kenny Mansally gets plenty of time on the ball, Steve Ralston is his usual reliable self and Kevin Alston is making a name for himself bombing up and down the right wing and linking up with the forward men. Most recently, Zimbabwean striker Kheli Dube has been in a rich goalscoring vein.
But one man has put himself on Twellman’s level over the years, and he’s been in scintillating form in 2009. Shalrie Joseph is a Grenadian midfielder who has excelled in the Revs side this season despite playing much of it out of position. His versatility is a real asset and he has been used by Nicol as everything from defensive midfielder to makeshift striker. And this year, he’s been the Revolution’s imposing talisman, dominating matches and helping his side turn around their fortunes.
Linking well with Ralston and Alston in particular, Joseph has the statistics to back up his superb play this term. In 16 starts and three appearances as a substitute, he has scored six goals and made eight, a return fitting of his reputation and status. New England have really needed him to shine this season and he’s delivered that plus interest.
With nine games to go, New England are finally in great shape for a playoff spot. Columbus continue to look strong and should take one of the top two spots in the East, but DC United are nosediving and Chicago are always vulnerable at home. With late-season momentum on their side, you’d be a fool to bet against the Revs. You can quote me on that.