The New England Revolution’s entire offseason has been dominated by two questions: Would they bring back Jermaine Jones, and, if not, how they would replace the out-of-contract US international?
GM Michael Burns and head coach Jay Heaps said all winter that they’d be open to Jones returning, but the 34-year-old’s apparent salary demands and six-game suspension to start 2016 made that outcome unlikely. They never definitively shut the door on the German-American, but they were clearly prepared to part ways with him.
With Jones doubtful to return to Gillette Stadium, Burns and Heaps set about finding his replacement. They grabbed him last week, when they announced the signing of 26-year-old holding midfielder Xavier Kouassi to a Designated Player pre-contract from Swiss club FC Sion.
The plan was for Kouassi to finish out the European season with Sion before moving to New England in July. Heaps would have to sort out who he’d slot in next to 2015 starter Scott Caldwell in front of the Revs’ backline for the first part of the year, but, with Kouassi on board, the Revs had appeared to solve their defensive midfield issue for 2016.
That idea had a giant wrench thrown in it over the weekend, however, when Kouassi went down with a reported ACL injury. Sion announced on Tuesday that he’ll miss the rest of the European season, and Heaps told media in Foxborough on Wednesday that the Ivorian will have knee surgery next week. If the injury is a tear – there’s been no official word yet – he could possibly be out for the entire 2016 MLS campaign.
Kouassi is young and signed to a multi-year deal; he’ll no doubt suit up for New England at some point, and, given his solid pedigree, should make an impact. That’s a silver lining, but it’s a small comfort for the 2016 Revs, who are now back to square one at defensive midfield.
Heaps has used a 4-2-3-1 formation for several seasons, and, while Caldwell is currently the only true holding mid on the roster, it doesn’t seem realistic for the Revs to move to a one-defensive midfielder setup. Midfielders Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez and Teal Bunbury are all very talented attackers, but none are in the league for their defensive prowess. Lining up Caldwell alone behind any combination of those four would be borderline ridiculous.
Indications around the Revs are that veteran Daigo Kobayashi would likely start alongside Caldwell in a 4-2-3-1 if the season began tomorrow. He’s played a deeper role at times with New England, but has spent most of his career as more of an attacking player. The club is trying to convert Steve Neumann to more of a box-to-box role as well, but he and 20-year-old Homegrown Zachary Herivaux, naturally a deeper player, are both inexperienced.
Playing a mix of Kobayashi, Neumann and Herivaux next to Caldwell for an entire season doesn’t seem sustainable for a team that is aiming for MLS Cup. If Heaps wants to stay in the 4-2-3-1 formation, he and Burns will need to find another quality holding midfielder, and fast. Even in in the event that they land that player tomorrow, he’ll still need time to integrate into the team, a fact that could cause some early issues for the Revs, who kickoff the season in three-and-a-half weeks at Houston.
Which brings us back around to Jones. Heaps told reporters on Wednesday that the club is not treating Kouassi and Jones as either/or propositions this season.
“For us, it’s two separate things," he said. "Either way, [Kouassi] is going to be joining us at some point. With that, like I’ve said before, there’s dialogue [with Jones] and we’re going to see how that plays out.”
Jones doesn’t seem to have many options abroad at the moment. He’s made noise about how his suspension has scared away potential German suitors, and with the European season slowly winding down, is facing the prospect of being without a club until the summer.
Desperation has a funny way of bringing people together, however, and the clock is ticking on both the Revs and Jones. New England has to find a defensive midfielder for 2016, and Jones has to find a club. They're very familiar with each other, and, a moment of madness in last fall's playoffs at D.C. notwithstanding, have shared a good deal of success. If they can make the numbers work (a big if) and if Jones comes to terms with the fact of his suspension, it would make a lot of sense for them to end up back together again.