What’s wrong with the New England Revolution?
A miserable 2-0 home loss to expansion club FC Cincinnati on Sunday and subsequent comments from head coach Brad Friedel and center back Antonio Delamea slamming the team for their poor work rate have put the club under an uncomfortable spotlight. They’re only four games into 2019, but it already feels like the Revs are teetering on the brink of a fourth-straight disappointing season. Another poor effort in their home match against Minnesota on Saturday (2 pm ET | TV & streaming info), and a playoff berth could start looking out of reach.
“The two halves were completely different. You had one half that we probably had five or six players that lacked any kind of desire to work,” a frustrated Friedel told reporters after Sunday’s loss.
That lack of effort would be concerning for any coach. For one who has talked at length about increasing the intensity and creating a more demanding culture within his team, it’s downright alarming. Friedel made sweeping changes when he arrived in New England last winter, but the club only added seven players this offseason, four of whom are rookies. He's acquired a lot of the team’s key players, and he’s had some of them, including Wilfried Zahibo, Cristian Penilla and Luis Caicedo, for 15 months. Friedel, like any coach, deserves time to change his roster and implement his system. But if his team is having issues with effort and following his game plan more than a year into his tenure, where should we place the blame?
“Whenever we have to talk about effort with the players and not tactics or technical abilities, the very first thing that comes to mind is what can we do better as a staff in order to ensure that all the players are fighting fit for the day,” Friedel told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Tuesday night. “In any soccer match around the world, first and foremost you have to match or better the intensity of the other team and then hopefully your technical abilities and your creativity in the attacking end and a little bit of luck goes your way. But the bare minimum would be the effort. That’s the easiest thing and that’s the most controllable aspect of an individual performance. And when that doesn’t happen, we take it on board personally and we blame ourselves [as a staff.]”
Friedel relayed that message to his team on Tuesday morning in a lengthier-than-usual meeting prior to training. He believes they’ve put in the proper effort for most of the season, and he thinks their issues with work rate will be corrected in Week 5 on Saturday. That’s likely a fair assumption considering the Revs didn’t appear to have any problems with their effort in their 1-1 Week 1 draw at Dallas or in their 3-2 loss at Toronto on March 17.
But what happens after the work rate and professionalism get back up to par? Does this team have a clear idea of how they want to play? Are they talented enough to seriously compete with the rest of the league?
There’s a lot of uncertainty around both of those questions. The Revs began the Friedel era committed to pressing high and hard, a tactic that got them off to a fast start in 2018 but looked to have worn them down over the course of the season. Friedel is aware that his team ran out of gas in the second half of last year, and he’s adjusted his tactics this season. With new Designated Player Carles Gil on board and playing well at attacking midfielder, New England no longer feel like they need to be so reliant on turning over teams to create chances. They’ve been more selective with their pressing and have looked to build more from their own possession this season.
“A lot was made last year of us being a pressing team – yes, I like to press, but it doesn’t mean I like to always press all over the field. If you look at the history of where I played and where I learned, attacking was a big part of all those clubs,” Friedel said. “Stylistically, I would like our teams to always be looking for that gap to go forward and create the overloads, create the space, be able to get in areas to score. Thus far, in our first four games, we’ve been OK in the second half looking to score. We still haven’t scored a goal at home. Away from home we’ve looked pretty solid. Going forward with this team, I would like to be able to control the tempo much better, go forward more, not so much get into track meets if you like, but when we do, we want to attack quickly.”
As Friedel noted, the attacking results haven’t been there for New England thus far. The Revs have gotten into plenty of good crossing positions, but they haven’t connected on them efficiently, as they have completed just 16.07 percent of their open play crosses (the league average is 20.37). They have also struggled to create through the middle, particularly after they fell behind in their losses to Cincinnati and Columbus and faced a deeper defensive block. Their 1.24 expected goals per game is the seventh-lowest average in MLS.
Which brings us to the overall level of talent. Friedel is more than aware of his team’s attacking issues. He believes that the current group can and will improve, but, as he’s mentioned on several occasions in the last month or so, he’s also looking for external help. He reiterated on Tuesday that the club will sign an attacking Designated Player in the coming months.
The player, who Friedel did not name, has already been identified and effectively agreed to the move. The only question is when he’ll arrive. The Revs are working with the player’s European club to get him to New England before the MLS primary transfer window closes on May 7, but there’s a real chance his team will keep him past the deadline and through the end of their season. If that happens, Friedel said the player would join the team as soon as the secondary transfer window opens on July 9. He wouldn’t specify what position the player plays, but noted that he will “obviously help in the attacking area” and “help control the tempo of the game.”
“Getting players, very good players out of Europe midseason is hard. It’s very, very hard,” he said. “We were really lucky with how things transpired with Carles. It was just one of those situations where everything fell into place. The other Designated Player that we are going for is a little bit different. We’re trying very hard to get him signed prior to the May 7 deadline, and if we can’t, it’ll be early on in July. In my opinion, it’s more important to wait for the right player as opposed to any player. We’re working diligently to get the player out of contract at this time, but it might be where it’s in the summertime which is the time where it’s much easier to sign a player from Europe.”
Friedel indicated the club is also looking to add at several other spots, though he wouldn’t specify what positions, only noting that “if anyone sees our roster, there are a couple of places that we need to bolster… and we will bolster those areas.” Once the additions are in place, he sees New England being “very, very competitive.”
But can the Revs stay above water until reinforcements arrive? Will they hold together long enough for their new recruits to have a chance to push the club into the postseason? Friedel has faith they will, even if he knows many around MLS are viewing him and his team skeptically after their tough start.
“The biggest goal that we have is we want players that each and every day want to play for the club, want to turn up for the club, that are committed to the club and that will work to play to the culture of the club that we create over time,” he said.
“That is an ongoing process to get players to do that and that’s a challenge, but I can tell you that’s the most fun part of the job... and that’s the hardest part of the job -- the work that goes into that. And while you’re trying to create a new roster and trying to get results, there can be some bumpy roads. We’re in one right now. But we have to believe, we have to focus as an entire group and, as long as we put the hard work in, I have no doubt that we’ll get to successful endings.”