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Hopefully you watched Wednesday night's game in Atlanta. The Five Stripes ran wild, putting together a comprehensive and thoroughly entertaining 7-0 beat-down of the Revs – a loss that effectively ended New England's season. From a neutral's perspective, you can't ask for much more than this:
For Revs fans, though, this was the bloody end. They're now six points behind the Red Bulls (who have a game in hand), and have arguably the league's toughest remaining schedule. The 2017 season, for all intents and purposes, came to a close for New England last night.
So what exactly happened to the New England Revolution? This group was supposed to be one of the teams of the back-half of this decade, building upon their nearly MLS Cup-winning success in 2014 to become a cross between Kreis-era RSL and Stevie Nicol's great Revs teams of the aughts. Maybe they wouldn't win a bunch, but they'd play fun soccer and get damn close, right?
That... hasn't happened. New England finished on 55 points back in 2014, fifth in the league and second in the East, before making that run to the Cup. In 2015, this young and hungry and creative team with MLS Cup experience finished on... 50 points. Then they got bounced out of the playoffs in the Knockout Round. Year-over-year, they went backwards.
In 2016 that number dropped to 42 points. The season was somewhat salvaged by a run to the US Open Cup final and a good first 20 minutes in that game, at FC Dallas. But then Gershon Koffie got hurt and the Revs fell apart, losing 4-2. Nonetheless they won five of their final seven games and only missed the playoffs by virtue of goal differential.
Now 2017 has happened, and there is no silver lining. There will be no postseason, there was no Open Cup run, and it looks entirely possible that there will not be a single away win this calendar year.
How did this happen to a team that still has so many of the parts from 2014's magical group? It requires a multi-faceted answer:
1) The 2014 team wasn't that good
This isn't to say they weren't good at all – they clearly were. But people have forgotten how insanely lights-out Bobby Shuttleworth was down the stretch and into the playoffs that year. Lee Nguyen was a deserved MVP candidate, Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez were constant fun on the flanks, and the central midfield combo of Jermaine Jones and Scott Caldwell had an almost perfectly symbiotic relationship. All those guys got a ton of ink, as did Charlie Davies up top.
Shuttleworth was the MVP of that late-season run, though. He's about a league-average 'keeper who turned into Kasey Keller-against-Brazil any time New England were protecting a result, right up until Robbie Keane beat him in the 111th minute at StubHub Center.
A hot goalkeeper can paper over some defensive cracks. Still, New England were young and had just gained more experience and should've been better in 2015 even as Shuttleworth regressed to the mean. Except...
2) They lost their vocal defensive organizer, A.J. Soares
Soares was as unsung in 2014 as Shuttleworth, but talk to anyone involved with the Revs from then and they'll tell you he was a key component of that team. He was tough and good in the air (lack of aerial ability in central defense killed the Revs in 2015 and 2016), and a constant talker from the middle of that backline.
As soon as he left, New England became a significantly worse defensive team, and 2013 Defender of the Year Jose Gonçalves in particular suffered without him. Gonçalves became a liability in 2015, and by the end of 2016 he was justifiably not part of New England's future plans. He's now, at age 31, plying his trade in India.
A vocal, active, engaged backline organizer is essential. The Revs let Soares walk after the 2014 season and still haven't replaced him.
3) Injuries and inconsistency in central midfield
Jones came on the scene like a thunderbolt in 2014, and he went full-throttle for basically all of the 921 minutes he played that year between the regular season and playoffs. Between injuries and age, he could not keep that up in 2015 (or 2016 or 2017, as Rapids and Galaxy fans will attest).
The Revs decided to replace Jones in that box-to-box/part-time d-mid role in 2016 with Xavier Kouassi, who got hurt before he could play a single game. He's been mostly hurt ever since, and has not been an especially effective player when he's been healthy. Koffie had a very nice run in August and September of 2016 playing at the back point of a 4-4-2 diamond, but A) he's been lost in every other formation Jay Heaps has tried, and B) like Jones and Kouassi, he's been injury prone.
4) The fullback issue
You could've argued, in 2014, that the Revs had the league's best fullback duo in Chris Tierney and Andrew Farrell. Tierney is now, however, on the other side of the 30 and is playing in a league with more "get behind the overlapping fullback!" wingers than the one that existed in 2014. MLS has, in other words, veered directly toward Tierney's biggest weakness – his lack of foot speed.
As for Farrell, the Revs decided to build upon a promising first two years at fullback from him by... switching him to a different position. They decided he was a center back
Soon enough, there was ample evidence that wasn't his best spot. After about half a season he was moved back to right back, and his improvement curve has flatlined – I'd even argue he's regressed.
Fullback, which was a strength in 2014, has become a weakness.
5) Scouting and preparation is better now
From 2013 through 2016 the Revs played one of the most distinct styles in the league:
– They hit more long-balls from the back than any other team in the league
– They possessed the ball more in the final third than any other team in the league
I give Heaps credit for his inventiveness here, especially in a league that had turned more and more toward high pressing. New England essentially didn't bother with midfield for about three years, instead just punting the ball over the press up to the front line, winning the second ball and then – through the incredibly elusive and skillful trio of Nguyen, Rowe and Fagundez – stringing together intricate final-third sequences that no other team in the league can replicate.
It wasn't the type of avalanche that Atlanta unleashed upon them last night, generated from high pressure or busted offside traps. Rather, it was a kind of complex dance to which only they knew the steps.
Other teams now have four years of film on that dance. Everybody knows the steps, and while that hasn't stopped Nguyen from having another Best XI-caliber season, it's certainly stopped New England from demoralizing opponents the way they did in late 2014 and the first half of 2015.
6) Underperformance at the top end
Other than Nguyen, are any of the guys named above in the top 10 in MLS at their respective position? Top 15?
7) Lack of development and new blood
I'm still bullish on Rowe and Fagundez as high-level players. I still have some Juan Agudelo stock, and Caldwell is obviously a useful, starting-caliber player in the right scheme and with the right partner. Farrell has struggled, but there's still talent there.
All are in their early-to-mid 20s, and none is perceptibly better than three years ago. Alarm bells should be going off.
Beyond that, two of the above guys came through the draft, and two others via the academy system. New England haven't added an impact player via either mechanism in nearly half-a-decade.
I don't know if this is rock-bottom for the Revs. I'd hope it is because this is a group of players I've enjoyed watching for a long time, and there's still more than enough talent on hand to construct a winning team.
But it's not really a mystery as to how they got here. Bad personnel decisions chipped away at what they had built, and bad luck did for the rest.
That's what happened to the 2014 Revs.