If, back in March, you had told me that the New England Revolution would be first place in the East at this point, I probably would have shrugged and said "OK."
If you added the caveat that the Revs would be top despite missing José Gonçalves for most of the year, and Kelyn Rowe for most of the year, and having Diego Fagundez underperform after last season's break-out, and still not having a surefire replacement for Juan Agudelo, then I would have laughed at you.
Gonçalves, Agudelo, Fagundez and Rowe were, in that order, the four best players on the Revs last year. They've had to find new answers so far in 2014, and as Saturday's 2-1 win at Toronto FC showed, they're getting them through defensive aggression, tactical adjustments, and individual brilliance:
1. Selling Out To Turn Them Back
I watched the first half of the win over Toronto with the pause button and GIF maker handy. It was incredible just how defensive New England were in trying to keep the Reds pinned.
Those two tackles fom Andy Dorman – first on Jermain Defoe, then on Michael Bradley – are high risk, because if he misses either of them then Toronto's on a break-out. That remains the only phase of the game in which they're a dangerous team, so I kept thinking, "The Revs would be better off playing more conservatively, and just trying to turn them back, not necessarily trying to turn them over."
Force them into backpasses. Play the break-out lanes. Don't overcommit. That's what other teams have done to TFC to be successful.
Not the Revs, though. They completely sold out for the outlet pass, diving into everything. Time and time again it looked like they were about to get burned for their enthusiasm.
I could have made 10 more of these just from the first half, and as you can see from the bottom one, it took a bit of heroics from Bobby Shuttleworth to keep Toronto from adding a second goal. Any of these plays could have – maybe even should have – been No. 2 for the home team.
Instead of giving TFC the feeling that the door was ajar, however, it seemed to give them the yips. They stopped turning away from pressure and started hitting those back-passes, becoming much easier to contain in the second 45.
New England won the psychological battle.
2. The Target Winger
Devin Pleuler, who is not at all a rational human being when it comes to the Revs and is prone to saying stuff like this to me during games...
Angry Revs fan friend of mine: "Where did 5 minutes of stoppage come from? the league office?" Tee hee.— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) May 3, 2014
...pointed out last month that MLS teams that play the 4-3-3 tend to use what he calls a "target winger." Kei Kamara, who's gone now but was the most dominant physical presence in the league when he played for Sporting KC, is the archetype.
The advantage of using a player with target man capabilities on the wing comes in the potential 90-minute mismatch against fullbacks, who are usually smaller and less able to defend against physical attacking play than central defenders.
Over the last two games, Jay Heaps has used Teal Bunbury – often overmatched as a target forward – as a target winger. Bunbury has rewarded his manager with a game-winning goal darting in from the flank last week, and a solid, endline-to-endline performance this week.
Here is the perfect example of how you want to use a target winger:
The play is started by Lee Nguyen – who we'll get to in a minute – dragging the TFC defense toward him on the left touchline. Patrick Mullins, who probably earned himself another five starts as a target forward after today's excellent display, goes toward Nguyen, bringing the remaining Toronto central defender with him. That leaves Bunbury isolated on left back Justin Morrow, dead center at the top of the 18.
Obviously Bunbury needs to finish this look. But just as obviously, if the Revs are able to get him consistently isolated on fullbacks, they will be in very good shape.
3. The Best Player You're Not Watching
There's been a disappointing lack of buzz for Nguyen so far this year, given that he's been playing at a Best XI level. I had him No. 2 on my April Player of the Month ballot, and if today's game is any indication he has a real chance to be No. 1 in the voting for the month of May.
Nguyen has always had great close control and skill on the ball, which you can get a little taste of in that GIF of Bunbury's miss above. Click HERE to see the start of the play, which begins with Nguyen chasing down TFC right back Mark Bloom and forcing him into a hurried, aimless clearance upfield.
It's a little thing – really another example of the Revs selling out defensively – but it's important. Making something as simple as backline distribution that uncomfortable is how you make up for missing guys like Gonçalves, Rowe and Agudelo. Nguyen does a ton of defensive harrying from up there.
That's only part of the work he's doing, however. He's become masterful at controling where on the field the game is played, operating offset in either channel and pulling strings while letting the majority of tempo work fall to Daigo Kobayashi and Dorman. That forces opposing defenses to become unbalanced, and opens room for the rest of the New England attack.
This is very similar to how Javier Morales has operated in midfield for RSL over the last seven seasons:
Nguyen's positioning and close-quarters skill unbalanced Toronto today, and his ability to get out of those close quarters and into space is what changed the game after the first 15 minutes. He ended up outplaying Bradley, becoming more influential as the game went on and tilting most of the best chances towards the Revs even as possession tipped 60-40 to TFC.
He is the best player in MLS that nobody is talking about at the moment. But after this weekend, that should change.