2014 New England Revolution Preview: A team in search of some middle ground | Armchair Analyst
The problem solver: The thing about the Revs last year is that they weren't that great through the midfield in terms of retaining possession. If you could stop 'em from going forward, you could pretty much stop 'em. Their only real outlet was forward Juan Agudelo, who's now selling tulips or something. They need whoever claims that vacant center forward slot to be something close to as secure on the ball as Agudelo was, or they won't be able to push forward from midfield in waves. (Lots of jargon there, but take my word: This is significant.)
Happiness factor: José Gonçalves could have – maybe should have – won both MLS Defender of the Year and Newcomer of the Year in 2013. He was that good, and that influential. And right now, it's not clear if he's that happy thanks to contractual issues. "Mood" matters in soccer, and if your most important player is in a sulk, that could be contagious.
Making the leap: The Revs got seasons ranging from "very good" to "phenomenal" from a half-dozen youngsters, including two rookies and the highest-scoring teenager in league history. Can they keep that going and build from being the year's surprise package to a legitimate contender?
Star Attraction: Diego Fagundez
Fagundez put up 13 goals and seven assists last year as an 18-year-old. Those are numbers unmatched by any teenager in MLS history, including guys like Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Eddie Gaven. Fagundez is, to put it mildly, really good.
What makes it more impressive is that, once he got healthy and worked his way into the starting lineup at the end of April, he was amazingly consistent. He never went longer than three games without a goal or an assist, and didn't have a single multi-goal game. He was preternaturally good at finding and exploiting gaps week after week after week, avoiding the ups and downs that plagued most of the league's other top-scoring youngsters (Jack McInerney and Cubo Torres come to mind).
Fagundez does his damage, for now, darting in from the left flank of New England's usual 4-1-4-1, and then taking efficient touches around the box. He's trickier off the ball than on it, so his mixtape will never be the most exciting in the league.
Unless you're really into goals.
Probable Formation: 4-1-4-1
Major Acquisition: Teal Bunbury
The Revs didn't break the bank for big names from either overseas or within the league, like most of their Eastern Conference competitors did. Instead they decided to take a chance on a young, talented US forward who'd fallen on hard times thanks to injuries – injuries that had seen him fall out of the rotation for his club, and off the radar of the USMNT.
Basically, they're trying to recapture the same magic that they'd found last spring when pilfering Agudelo from Chivas USA.
It's a little different with Bunbury, though. Rather than the raft of niggling injuries that always slowed Agudelo down, he's still in the process of finding his form after 2012's ACL tear. He's also a different kind of player – a terrifying finisher on the break who lacks Agudelo's playmaking chops in possession.
Jay Heaps & Co. will hope that Bunbury's not asked to do that much playmaking, then. He doesn't need to be special on the ball, just solid with it and dangerous off it.
SEE MORE: Transaction page
What He Said
“That’s the exciting part about this year is we’re coming back in with a system that we all know very well, us returning guys. So in terms of how we want to play and what [Heaps] expects of me, that stuff comes pretty quickly.”
Fantasy Pick: Diego Fagundez ($8.0m/ selected by 28 percent of teams) – Had 13 goals and seven assists last season and all signs point to him eclipsing that mark in 2014. The departure of Juan Agudelo hurts a little, but he'll do just fine without him. With a core of dynamic talent surrounding him, it's possible he could be in the Golden Boot race discussion at some point throughout the season.
Players to watch: Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Teal Bunbury
The best-case scenario is that Gonçalves gets happy, first and foremost. If he's not a rock, the Revs are in trouble – especially because they're still trying to figure out who their No. 1 'keeper is now that Matt Reis has hung up his boots.
Beyond that, it comes down to the progression of Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen in central midfield, and how well Bunbury does in his hold-up play. Fagundez and Bunbury I've already addressed. Nguyen has turned into a savvy veteran who is as comfortable as they come in tight spaces, and often times seems the only Rev who knows where the brakes are.
That leaves Rowe, who is the x-factor. You can see him in that above GIF, gliding by a defender with almost disturbing ease, then keeping control in traffic before eventually giving Fagundez the tap-in. Rowe is one of the best in the league at taking his first touch north, then simply going past the defender like he's not even there, and he did it to the tune of seven goals and eight assists in his second season (three and five as a rookie).
That's the positive part of his game. The negative is that he's better on the ball going north-south than he is in simple possession. With Agudelo gone, New England need to be smarter and better in the central midfield, able to use the ball to kill the game off in ways that they didn't in 2013.
A lot of that falls on the shoulders of Rowe, who has the talent to be an MVP candidate. Seriously: He is one of my dark-horse picks this year, but only if he adds a third gear. Right now, it's all first or fifth.
If he gets it right, and everything shakes out with Gonçalves and the other kids, then New England are in the fight 'til the bitter end. But this is a young team, and it's hard to count on everything going right two years in a row. Nobody in the league has as big a gap between their best-case and worst-case scenarios.