FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The prospect of shifting Kevin Alston to left back popped into New England coach Jay Heaps' mind well before he decided to play him there.
It made sense to Heaps. Alston (above, left) played the position for a couple of years at Indiana. He possessed the qualities to make the switch once again. And, as Heaps could personally attest after making the move himself during his playing career, the transition is manageable.
Heaps didn't need to seriously weigh the option until Chris Tierney missed a match with muscle tightness in early September. Tierney earned his place in the starting XI by contributing to the Revs' work in possession, creating chances with his delivery from crosses and set pieces and performing his defensive duties. But Tierney couldn't feature in the Sept. 1 match against Philadelphia and his vacancy left a gaping hole that needed filling.
In Heaps' mind, it was time to turn theory into reality.
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“Speaking to [Alston] and making the switch initially, he had played there before,” Heaps told MLSsoccer.com. “That was his position growing up. There was some comfort there.
"Having done the same thing in my career, you know there is a little different thought process playing on the left versus the right, a different physical component to your angles and to how you approach the game from a physical standpoint and your body position.”
The idea of altering those particulars and flipping sides didn't faze Alston. He had pretty much exclusively played right back since joining the Revs in 2009, but he didn't forget the old days of patrolling the left side for the Hoosiers. He also thought the new spot might give him an opportunity to add a bit more diversity to his attacking forays from the back.
“I think the runs and the movement are kind of similar,” Alston said. “It just gives me that [new] dynamic. Sometimes, I'll go out wide. I feel pretty comfortable crossing with my left. Sometimes, the way it works – and it depends on who is out there, whether it's Lee [Nguyen, now out injured], Fernando [Cárdenas] or whoever is out there – is they give me the opportunity to come in and get a shot on the right foot.”
Alston's performances and Tierney's continued absence with left hamstring and left knee complaints turned this temporary measure into an extended arrangement. Alston has started the past six matches at left back and has earned positive reviews from Heaps for his displays.
“I think Kevin has done really well there,” Heaps said. “I think it has opened up his attacking mindset because it gives him two options: he can either go down to the left or to the right. I think when he was playing right back, he was just trying to get down to the byline and that was it. Coming inside, he wasn't as comfortable. When you have both options, it gives [you] a little bit more freedom.”
Alston said he relishes that leeway to influence the game in different ways. His long-term future at the position remains uncertain, but he said he would strive to push onwards for as long as he remains on the left side.
“I feel like I've done OK at times,” Alston said. “I feel like there's a lot of room for improvement in other areas. I think it's been up and down. … I'm always trying to get better.”
Kyle McCarthy covers the New England Revolution for MLSsoccer.com.