Voices: Joseph Lowery

What is wrong with the New England Revolution?

“It’s another gift.”

That’s how Bruce Arena described his team’s 3-2 loss to previously-winless Inter Miami CF on Saturday. The New England Revolution, who gave up a late winner to complete Leonardo Campana’s historic hat trick, are now on a four-game losing streak in MLS and a five-game losing streak if you factor in their defeat to Liga MX’s Pumas UNAM in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals last month.

Arena is right. The Revs have been in the giving mood this season – they’ve given up three game-winners in the 88th minute or later. They’ve been so giving, in fact, that somewhere along the line New England started forgetting to take points for themselves. With just four points through six MLS games (1W-4L-1D record), the Revolution are sitting in 13th in the Eastern Conference standings and they look like a much different team than the one that won the Supporters’ Shield and collected a league-record 73 points last season.

It’s early and there is plenty of time for things to change, but the question still needs to be answered: What is wrong with the New England Revolution?

Let’s take a look.

What's wrong with New England?

Injuries and absences

Through their first eight games of the season in all competitions, the Revs have only played with their trio of star attackers in the starting lineup four times. Between fixture congestion, an injury to Gustavo Bou, Adam Buksa’s trip to Poland for international duty and his red card against the New York Red Bulls, New England haven’t been getting a ton of combined minutes from their Designated Players.

Looking at non-penalty expected goals and assists, Carles Gil, Bou and Buksa were three of the 11 most effective players in MLS last year on a per-90-minute basis, according to FBRef. And when you scrap the per-90 filter, they were four of the top five non-penalty xG+xA getters in the league in 2021. Add in center back injuries to Henry Kessler and Andrew Farrell and the natural squad rotation that comes from balancing CCL games with MLS play, it becomes clear the Revs have rarely been at full strength this season.

Gustavo Bou Carles Gil NE
Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou, New England's leading scorers in 2021, are yet to score an MLS goal in 2022.

Still, the team that broke MLS’s single-season points record should have the depth to fight through a crowded calendar, shouldn’t they? No one expected the Revolution to win every game across both competitions. But expecting them to collect more than 0.67 points per game in MLS? That seems fair.

No matter how hard I try, it’s impossible for me to separate New England’s historic 2021 season from the early-season struggles they’re having right now. When comparing last year to this year, it’s important to remember the Revs were a very good team in 2021…who also got very lucky at times. According to American Soccer Analysis expected points metric, the Revolution’s numbers painted them as a 54-point team rather than a 73-point team. How did they manage to so widely outperform their underlying points total?

Enter New England’s most important injured player: Matt Turner.

They miss Matt Turner!

Gil won last year’s Landon Donovan MLS MVP award and put together a truly phenomenal season, but he wasn’t the most valuable player in MLS. He wasn’t even the most valuable player on his own team, at least not according to ASA’s goals added metric. That honor goes to Turner, who put on a shot-stopping clinic for large stretches of last season and added more value than anyone not named Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union).

So far this year, Turner hasn’t been there to clean things up for the Revs. Instead, he’s been recovering from two different foot injuries, the latest of which came during a preseason game against LAFC. Without Turner, New England have gone from one of the best shot-stopping teams in MLS to one of the worst.

Per FBref, the Revs were fifth in MLS in post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed last year. This year they’ve dropped to 21st in that same metric. Instead of getting plays like this from their goalkeeper…

Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year - Matt Turner

…the Revs are getting plays like this.

New England could really use a healthy Turner for at least a handful of games before he heads off to Arsenal at the end of June. Though they have already forecasted the US men’s national teamer’s eventual departure, signing rising Serbian international Djordje Petrovic last week.

Stagnant attack

Setting their injuries and other various absences aside, New England have really struggled to find chances in 2022. They are in (or near) the bottom third in MLS in open-play xG per 90 minutes and in open-play shot quality – and when comparing this year to last year, it’s obvious the Revs’ attack has declined. Their open-play xG per 90 is down from 1.06 in 2021 to 0.7 in 2022 and their open-play shot quality is down from 0.11 to 0.09.

A big factor behind the statistical decline is that New England have become increasingly one-dimensional and stagnant with the ball. Through six games, the Revs are extremely cross-heavy, even more so than last year: no team in MLS attempts more crosses per 90 minutes, particularly with fullbacks DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye having the liberty to get forward. Crossing the ball is all well and good when your crosses are turning into high-quality shots…but New England’s crosses aren’t doing that. In 2022, the Revs are averaging just 0.12 xG on shots created by crosses, which puts them 20th in the league.

The Revolution love to cross the ball, but they’re not creating nearly enough from those crosses. They’re too predictable and that’s a problem. Canadian international Tajon Buchanan, who moved from the Revolution to Club Brugge in Belgium during the offseason, gave New England an extremely valuable change of pace last year. With his dribbling ability and ball progression, Buchanan was in the 98th percentile in the league in forward distance traveled per touch among players with at least 1,000 minutes in 2021. He regularly unbalanced defenses to create space for attacks to unfold around him.

Tajon Buchanan New England Revolution
Tajon Buchanan had 8g/5a in New England's 2021 campaign.

This year, the Revs don’t have anyone in Buchanan’s range, which is putting even more pressure on Gil to create some magic with the ball at his feet. They brought in midfielder Sebastian Lletget (trade with LA Galaxy) and Jozy Altidore (free agency, last at Toronto FC), but they’re different kinds of players and certainly not a like-for-like replacement.

Upping their off-ball runs, which have dropped significantly from last year to this year, could help provide more passing options in the attacking half. Showing more patience on the ball could help, too. So far in 2022, no one spends less time on the ball per touch than New England.

Creating chances during the run of play has been an issue for the Revs this season and, unfortunately for New England, their set pieces haven’t been good either. The Revolution are 25th in MLS in average xG created from free kicks and corner kicks and 24th in MLS in total xG created from those restarts. They’re only creating half as much xG on each restart in 2022 (0.006) as they did in 2021 (0.011).

Transition defense

It’s hard to string results together when you’re having trouble creating chances. It’s even harder to string results together when you’re also having trouble stopping your opponents from creating chances. That’s the difficult situation that the Revolution are in right now.

In 2022, Arena’s team is allowing the fifth most open-play xG per 90 minutes (1.1, up from 0.82 last year) in the league. Their organized defending has actually been slightly more effective at limiting chances this year than last year, but their transition defense has taken a massive hit. Only three teams have given up more xG in transition than New England (0.67 per 90) and no other team has given up more shots in transition than the Revs (5.8 per 90).

You can’t afford to give up counter-attacking goals like this one if you’re the Revolution, or any other team in MLS for that matter. Failing to stop the ball multiple times and leaving the opposition’s No. 9 totally free on the back side of the box? That’s not good.

Lowery: Campana Revs analysis

Once their quality players get some consistent reps together in the starting lineup, New England will almost certainly turn out to be better than the 0.67 PPG team that they are right now, even without Turner. But if they want to get anywhere close to their level from 2021, the Revs have to start diversifying their attacks, creating something on set pieces and solidifying their transition defense.

If those things don’t happen, the New England Revolution are going to keep giving points away.