FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England's continued struggles in the final third have prompted Revolution coach Jay Heaps to contemplate and pursue alternatives to rectify the situation.
Heaps recently shifted to a 4-1-4-1 setup in order to produce more opportunities in front of goal and provide Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe with the latitude to operate more freely in midfield. Those alterations created more width and generated more scoring chances, but they also reduced the number of berths available for specialist strikers in the starting XI.
The switch – plus last week's arrival of Juan Agudelo from Chivas USA – increases the pressure on Chad Barrett (returning to full fitness after a left hamstring strain), Jerry Bengtson, Dimitry Imbongo and Saër Sène (still limited after his return from left knee surgery) to stake their claims for a place in the side.
“We want guys to push each other,” Heaps told MLSsoccer.com. “We want there to be competition there. We haven't scored a ton of goals. There's opportunity there.”
Heaps said he has seen plenty of growth from Sène since the French striker returned to first-team action in mid-April.
“Two weeks ago, it was day by day,” Heaps told MLSsoccer.com “Now it's a couple of sessions by [a couple of] sessions. We're trying to push him to get to full fitness. That is where he is at. He's trying to get 100 percent comfortable doing everything he can do. His fitness level needs to be a little bit better.”
Imbongo claimed the spot and relegated Bengtson – without a goal since the first match of the season – to the bench for Saturday's 1-1 draw with New York. The burly target forward earned his first start of the season after some polished displays on the training field, according to Heaps.
Although Imbongo did not place his name on the scoresheet against the Red Bulls, he offered some of the buildup work required to help the cause and toiled away earnestly for the cause during his 74 minutes on the field. His display drew praise from Heaps after the match, but his place in the team remains uncertain ahead of the trip to Houston this weekend.
New England could use Sene, version 2012 (11 goals, three assists in 25 appearances), to bolster its sputtering attack, but it cannot afford to accelerate his gradual return to action in order to wring a couple of extra goals and risk a potential setback.
“Right now, we're still relying on our medical staff to decide how many minutes they think are still good for him,” Heaps said. “We use our strength and conditioning coaches to monitor where he is at from a fitness standpoint, too. You're not just worried about the knee at this point, you're worried about the other muscles. We're still week-to-week on how many minutes he can play. The last thing you want to do is start a guy you know you're going to have to take out after 40 or 50 minutes.”
That reasonable belief creates some tension because Sène still needs those protracted appearances to move forward along his own path. Heaps said he plans to employ patience to ensure Sene's recovery continues in the proper fashion.
Heaps also said he evaluates all of his candidates on a variety of criteria – scoring goals naturally ranks first, but there are other demands placed upon the position in this setup – and then names his starter accordingly.
One other factor, however, also warrants some special consideration at this stage, particularly in light of Imbongo's contributions last weekend.
“I like when players get their opportunity and take it,” Heaps said.