Skeptics worried that New England Revolution manager Steve Nicol would prefer English "route one" soccer, where defenders launch the ball over the midfield to the strike pair, when he was appointed midway through 2002.
After a period where defensive shape and solidity was emphasized, the Revolution shifted gradually towards a penetrating, skillful style. They begin 2005 with a new formation and a modified philosophy that suits the personnel of a team that is adept in attack and resolute in defense.
Adjusting to a side stocked with quality in midfield, Nicol has chosen a 3-5-2 formation to suit his charges. More telling is the emphasis to possess the ball at every possible opportunity.
"Our whole offseason breakdown was keeping possession," said Revolution defender Jay Heaps. "We know that we can play it into Shalrie [Joseph]. He's strong and he'll keep the ball in the middle of the field. We know everyone feels comfortable on the ball."
Joseph and Clint Dempsey provide a fulcrum for defense and attack in their deep-lying midfield positions.
"With five in the middle, we try to keep it up the field," said Joseph. "We try and keep possession and dominate the flow of the game."
Joseph reinforced the need to distribute to attacking players, principally playmaker Jose Cancela, to get the ball forward to provide service to strikers Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman.
"We want to possess the ball through the middle of the field," said Joseph. "I want to get the ball to Clint or Pepe [Cancela] so they can distribute. I want to combine with the wide players to get the ball out there. During preseason, the emphasis was in possessing the ball."
As for the wide players, rookie winger James Riley contends that swinging the ball into the box to the predatory duo Twellman and Noonan is the first priority.
"My first option is to get it forward to Noonan and Twellman," said Riley. "Taylor is encouraging me in practice to find him in the box. He does what he does best in making runs and getting behind the defense."
Heaps is confident that the new possession-based system will yield results because the Revolution have a multitude of players that can hold the ball comfortably, a trait not found in past New England sides.
"As teams start to watch film on us, they realize they can't rush at us because we're smart and we can keep the ball in possession," said Heaps.
Kyle McCarthy is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.