New England Revolution: Positional overviews
Now, in the final part of our four-part series, we'll take a look at the forwards: Juan Agudelo, Chad Barrett, Jerry Bengtson, Charlie Davies, Matt Horth and Dimitry Imbongo.
Overview: Entering the 2013 season, there were plenty of questions surrounding all four positions for the Revolution. But the one with the fewest appeared to be the forward corps.
After all, last year's leading scorer -- Saer Sene -- was back, even if he'd have to spend the first few weeks rehabbing the ACL injury he suffered the previous August. So was Jerry Bengtson, the man who couldn't stop scoring for Honduras during World Cup qualifying. For depth, the Revolution brought in proven veteran Chad Barrett and added Matt Horth, who was coming off a 10-goal campaign with the Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL). And with Imbongo, a raw but talented striker returning for a second season, it appeared that the most settled roster situation was up top.
Or so it seemed. After Bengtson scored in the 62nd minute of their season-opening 1-0 win at Chicago, the Revolution offense promptly proceeded to go silent for the next 539 minutes. During that time, Bengtson failed to put away chances, while Diego Fagundez, Chad Barrett and Juan Toja, who all saw minutes in the withdrawn forward's role, only succeeded at becoming nonfactors. Suddenly, the stability the club thought it had up top was quickly crumbling into uncertainty.
By mid-April, it was clear something needed to be done. Sene was slowly getting back to fitness, but it was obvious he wouldn't be operating at full capacity until the summer, while Bengtson kept watching chances fall by the side of the road. Recognizing this, the front office pulled the trigger on a trade it hoped would reverse their fortunes up front -- and fast.
Agudelo arrived in Foxboro shortly after he was acquired by the Revolution on May 2, but a groin injury delayed his debut. That debut, however, was worth the wait: After coming on in the 35th minute of a May 18 contest in Houston, Agudelo scored in the 86th minute to help lead the Revolution to a hard-fought 2-0 win.
With Agudelo in the mix, the offense flourished. In their next two games, the Revolution outscored their opponents 7-0 and lit up the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy for five goals on June 2. By all accounts, New England's scoring woes seen in the opening weeks were a thing of the past.
But Agudelo found himself back on the shelf for much of the summer when he sustained a knee injury in a June 26 Open Cup contest. Bengtson, Barrett and Imbongo all filled in during his absence, but replicating what the talented 20-year-old brought to the table -- toughness, strength and class -- proved difficult. While the midfield picked up some of the slack on offense, it was obvious the attack wasn't firing on all cylinders.
There was no question Agudelo was an impact player -- the kind of player who drew European interest even before the May 2 trade. And on Aug. 9, EPL side Stoke City signed Agudelo to a pre-contract that would send the striker to England after the conclusion of the MLS season. The news was bittersweet for Revolution fans: While they were proud to say that one of their own was going to play in one of the best leagues in the world, they had to accept that their star striker wouldn't stick around for another season.
Nevertheless, Agudelo returned to the pitch in time to help send the Revolution to a 4-0-2 finish down the stretch, reminding peers and opponents alike why he was destined for a bigger stage. By season's end, the Agudelo effect was a real phenomenon: In the 14 games he saw the field, the club averaged 2.14 goals per game. In the 12 games he was forced to watch, the club averaged 1.25 goals per game.
Agudelo wasn't the only one scoring, either. Imbongo found his stride late in the season and became a regular by season's end with him and Agudelo rotating between the lone-striker and right midfielder roles. Barrett provided muscle up top and in the midfield, and was called upon to pound rather than poach more often than not.
Meanwhile, Bengtson's inability to find the back of the net plagued him all season. His opening-week goal stood as his lone strike in 16 regular-season games. Horth spent the season on loan to Rochester, where he incidentally recorded the same striker ratio for the Rhinos. Davies, acquired via loan in August, saw only 16 minutes of action as he tried to acclimate to a new role: winger.
Outlook: With Agudelo on his way out, and Bengtson's return unlikely, the Revolution might as well be back at square one up top. Imbongo provided glimpses of his potential, but doesn't yet have the quality to become an impact player. Davies' return appears to be a given, though it appears head coach Jay Heaps has visions of the former BC Eagle out on the wing rather than at center-forward. Horth and Barrett could both be searching for jobs in the offseason, as neither made strong cases for another year in New England. While the Revolution won't be as reliant on their forwards as they were in 2012 given the talent in the midfield, they're going to need a strong presence up top to allow the likes of Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe to find the back of the net as often as they did this season.
Bottom line: The trade that sent Agudelo to New England was a masterstroke, and it appears another one will be necessary to avoid another forward crisis. While it might be tempting to look overseas to fill Agudelo's shoes, a case should be made for trading within MLS. After all, one need only look at Bengtson to see that an overseas signing is hardly a guarantee. The MLS trade market for strikers is difficult to gauge (see Golden Boot runner-up Mike Magee, who was traded to Chicago in May), but the Revolution would be wise to find out what it would take to get an Ryan Johnson, Eddie Johnson or even a Steven Lenhart to add the muscle and ability Agudelo showcased this season. In the alternative, Sene, who suffered a gruesome ankle injury late in the season, could be called upon to reclaim his role as striker. Either way, there's a sizable question mark hovering over the 9 spot. And the Revolution front office will be actively seeking the answer during the winter.
Now, in the third of a four-part series, we’ll take a look at the midfielders: Scott Caldwell, Andy Dorman, Diego Fagundez, Ryan Guy, Gabe Latigue, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Saer Sene, Clyde Simms, Donnie Smith and Juan Toja.
Overview: The axiom about the best laid plans could’ve very well have been written in reference to the Revolution midfield prior to the start of the 2013 season.
During the offseason, the club acquired Kalifa Cisse, an experienced defensive midfielder who spent the entirety of his career in top European leagues, to add strength and sharpness in the middle of the park. And they didn’t stop there: the return of Andy Dorman, who played for the Revolution from 2004-07 before embarking on a five-year trek through Europe, signaled that coach Jay Heaps meant business about building a seasoned and physical midfield in 2013.
Well, at least that was the idea. Not long after the First Kick, Cisse suffered a right groin injury that sidelined him for weeks, while Dorman inexplicably struggled to crack the starting lineup. Then there was Juan Toja, the former MLS All-Star, who quickly became a shadow of his former self. Given their limited contributions, Heaps overhauled the midfield -- and never looked back.
Weeks into the regular season, the four-man midfield was a memory. In its place, a five-man look that featured rookie Scott Caldwell in Cisse’s spot, Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen in the center, with Diego Fagundez and Ryan Guy out wide. Experience? If you were searching for it, the Revolution’s midfield didn’t have much to spare.
It was a gamble that could’ve backfired and sent the Revolution season, which was already losing altitude after a 2-4-4 start, into a complete tailspin. Instead, it sent the squad on its way to one of its most successful seasons in recent memory.
Despite his inexperience, Caldwell’s crisp passing provided traction to an offense that spent the opening weeks of the season spinning its wheels. With a solid link between the back four and the front four attacking players, Fagundez thrived along the wing and scored five times in a seven-game span between Apr. 27 and Jun. 2. On the opposite wing, Guy provided a reliable service and stretched the field to open up space in the final third.
Centrally, the Revolution were just as formidable. Knowing the 5-8, 150 lbs. Caldwell couldn’t absorb the pressure of the defensive midfield role all by himself, Nguyen partnered with him and became a classic box-to-box midfielder. The former winger added physicality near the defensive edges of the midfield, but was just as quick to jumpstart the attack. After a slow start, Rowe used his Open Cup form to catapult him into a regular in league action.
However, for all things that went the Revolution’s way in the midfield, there were noticeable hiccups. By midsummer, Heaps might as well have put a turnstyle in front of the right flank, with Guy, Saer Sene, Chad Barrett, Dimitry Imbongo and even Juan Agudelo getting starts at the spot. Sene, a striker by trade, was perhaps the most dangerous in that role, but separate injuries beset him at the start and finish of the season. Barrett, another striker-turned-winger, was often called upon to man the right to give the Revolution grit against physical teams. Injuries hampered Guy in the latter months, while Imbongo and Agudelo were forced into the role after Sene was shelved for the season.
For all the youth the Revolution boasted, rookies Donnie Smith and Gabe Latigue didn’t get much time to showcase their talents. Smith started the season opener, but quickly fell to the bottom of the depth chart. Latigue was loaned to Rochester to get regular playing time, and performed well before an ACL injury kept him from contributing to the first team down the stretch.
As for the veteran trio of Cisse, Dorman and Toja -- neither played up to expectations of the front office, coaching staff or the fans. Cisse played in six games before he was waived in August. Dorman was limited to three starts in 12 games, with two of those starts coming in the final weeks of the season. Toja never found his rhythm out wide or centrally, and injuries cast him as an afterthought by season’s end.
Outlook: All things considered, there were plenty of positives to be drawn from the Revolution midfield in 2013. Caldwell (23 starts), Fagundez (13 goals, 7 assists) and Rowe (7 goals, 8 assists) all put together strong campaigns, while Nguyen showed his versatility, something the club desperately needed. However, by season’s end, it was hard not to notice that the Revolution were getting overrun by teams both good (Sporting Kansas City) and bad (Columbus Crew). Some pointed to Caldwell hitting the proverbial rookie wall toward the end, but the absence of a bonafide ball-winner undoubtedly hampered the Revolution’s ability to tilt the possession scale in their favor. Another problem they ran into was a noticeable lack of width, something that held the offense back against teams like Chivas USA, D.C. and Toronto that often bunkered in for the draw.
Bottom line: The first order of business for Heaps and general manager Michael Burns figures to be the addition of a veteran defensive midfielder. By season’s end, it became apparent that the Revolution needed a strong, physically-imposing presence in the defensive edge of the midfield -- something they thought they had in Cisse. Credit Caldwell for stepping in when needed, but his talents are better suited for the attack than defense. Nguyen, for all of his contributions centrally, is a non-presence in the air, and is better suited for the wing. The right side remains a question mark with Sene, should his option be picked up, likely to miss the early part of 2014. The salaries of Dorman ($125,000) and Toja ($295,000) could spell the end of their tenures with the Revolution, as the front office will likely search for budget-friendly alternatives to fill their roles. The midfield may be in better shape than it was a year ago, to be sure, but don’t be surprised if reinforcements are ordered during the offseason.
In the second of a four-part series, we’ll take a look at the Revolution defenders: Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes, Bilal Duckett, Andrew Farrell, Jose Goncalves, Stephen McCarthy, Tyler Polak, A.J. Soares, Chris Tierney and O’Brian Woodbine.
Overview: It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the Revolution would not have secured their first postseason berth in four years -- or finished third in the conference, for that matter -- without the strength of their defense.
After watching too many points slip away due to defensive breakdowns, the coaching staff and front office made the backline their priority during the winter.
They started in earnest by acquiring veteran center back Jose Goncalves via loan from Swiss side FC Sion, then traded up for the first overall pick at SuperDraft to select highly-touted Louisville right back Andrew Farrell. If there was any question that improving the defense was the objective, the front office answered it with the high-profile additions of Goncalves and Farrell.
It didn’t take long for the Revolution to reap the rewards of those acquisitions, either. While the attack struggled in the opening weeks of the season, the defense kept the ship from sinking. In their first six games, the Revolution offense mustered only one goal -- but somehow managed to claim five points in the process thanks to the three clean sheets the defense registered within that span.
As the season progressed, the attack eventually found its form, but by May it was evident that the Revolution’s ability to keep opponents off the board was no accident.
Goncalves exhibited a unique blend of physicality and vision in the defending third, and also brought a much-needed sense of leadership to the young defensive corps. Whether he was paired with A.J. Soares or Stephen McCarthy in the center, the defense never skipped a beat, thanks in large part to the Portuguese defender’s keen communication skills, which earned him the right to wear the captain’s armband shortly after the season started.Andrew
Meanwhile, Farrell showed why the team traded up for him by regularly flashing his speed and strength along the right. Although he wasn’t able to avoid the growing pains that all rookies encounter, he nevertheless held his own out on the right -- so much so that he started all but two of the team’s 34 regular-season games. By midsummer, it was clear that the right back spot belonged to Farrell, and Farrell alone.
While the additions of Goncalves and Farrell bolstered the back four significantly, left back Chris Tierney also deserves plenty of credit for shutting down opposing offenses. Widely considered as a utility player earlier in his career, Tierney truly came into his own as the club’s primary option on the left in 2013. Though the switch from a 4-4-2 to the 4-1-4-1 formation kept Tierney from uncorking more dangerous crosses down the flank, he proved his worth in the final third countless times.
Perhaps the only area in the back where questions loomed was the spot opposite Goncalves. An injury to McCarthy opened the door for Soares as the First Kick starter, but by mid-April McCarthy was back in the mix. He held onto the spot for much of the summer until coach Jay Heaps shook up his lineup following a comprehensive 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 10. While Soares finished the season as the starter, he was occasionally dogged by defensive blunders as the campaign came to a close.
Outlook: While Heaps will be the first say that the success achieved by his club in 2013 was a team-wide effort, it’s hard to ignore the importance of the defense, which registered a franchise-record 14 clean sheets. And perhaps no one player was more responsible for that benchmark than Goncalves, who played every minute of the regular season and playoffs, and led all center backs with 14 clean sheets.
But Goncalves’ return is far from certain. With his loan set to expire at the end of the year, the Revolution have been working behind the scenes to get a permanent deal done. Goncalves returned to Europe earlier this week and was expected to meet with his agent on Friday to discuss the situation.
Farrell should continue to improve in his second year, while Tierney, who signed a contract extension during the summer, projects as the starting left back in 2014. The Soares-McCarthy positional battle will likely carry into next season, with Heaps giving the spot to whoever looks the strongest in preseason competition.
Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes and Bilal Duckett could very well end up with different clubs next season when taking salary (Alston), opportunity (Barnes), and inexperience (Duckett) into consideration. Meanwhile, late-season signing O’Brian Woodbine could provide the Revolution with a versatile option on the wings, and at a budget-friendly price ($49,800). As for 2012 Generation Adidas pick Tyler Polak, it’ll be interesting to see how patient the club remains with the inexperienced left back, who’s only accrued a total of 30 first-team minutes during the past two seasons.
Bottom line: Without Goncalves, the Revolution may very well have to start from scratch on the defensive side. While the center back has expressed his desire to return next season, the truism that money talks certainly applies in this situation as Goncalves is fresh off a banner season. Whether the Revolution are willing to meet Goncalves’ demands remains to be seen. Given the performance that Goncalves put together in 2013, it’s clear that more is at stake than just his return. Without his leadership and exceptional defensive abilities, the Revolution may find it especially difficult to replicate the defensive success they attained this past season.
By most measures, the 2013 season was a certifiable success for the New England Revolution.
Whether you look at the unexpected run to the postseason (first since 2009), the third-place finish (highest since 2009), the 14 wins (most since 2007) or the +10 goal differential (best since 2005), few will argue that the Revolution didn’t take a significant step forward from their ninth-place finish in 2012.
Yet, for all the positive developments, the fact is that there’s still room for considerable improvement. Improvement that will be necessary to turn the Revolution from a postseason contender to a championship-caliber club. After all, isn’t that the ultimate goal?
The Revolution front office and coaching staff will take a hard look at its personnel at every position, and analyze what they need to do to strengthen their squad for 2014. We’ll follow suit, as well, and examine the roster in order to get a better understanding of what the Revolution need to find even more success next season.
In the first of a four-part series, we’ll take a look at the team’s goalkeepers: Matt Reis, Bobby Shuttleworth and Luis Soffner.
Overview: The 2013 season should’ve belonged to Shuttleworth. At least that’s what many felt as the Revolution entered preseason camp back in January.
The fifth-year veteran re-signed with the club during the offseason, and after a strong finish to the 2012 season, the starting keeper’s job was essentially Shuttleworth’s to lose. Unfortunately for Shuttleworth, that’s exactly what happened during the winter months.
After getting beat out by veteran Matt Reis during the preseason, Shuttleworth found himself on the bench for First Kick -- a sure sign that doubts remained about the understudy’s ability to take the reins between the sticks.
But it wasn’t long before he got another shot. Reis picked up a left knee injury soon after First Kick, opening the door for Shuttleworth to slide back into the starting role. From there, it looked like Shuttleworth would finally prove himself once and for all as the club’s best option between the sticks.
During a 16-game span that ran from late-April through early-August, Shuttleworth posted a sparkling 0.86 goals against average, and collected eight clean sheets within that span. At one juncture during July, he was ranked 12th on the Castrol Player Index, and was named as one of the club’s six candidates for the All-Star game.
Just when it seemed he was ready to guide the Revolution to the postseason, Shuttleworth’s began to struggle. He struggled to stop long-distance shots, and opponents quickly took notice. From Jun. 15 through Jul. 27, no fewer than seven shots from outside the area found their way past Shuttleworth. Back-to-back wins at Columbus and D.C. United allowed him to keep his job for the time being.
But after a humbling 3-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 10, the writing was on the wall: Shuttleworth was no longer assured of his starting spot.
Outlook: Reis’ injury presents a slew of question marks at the keeper’s spot. First and foremost: will the injury force the 38-year-old to hang up his boots? Is Shuttleworth capable of taking over Reis’ spot once and for all? Or will the Revolution look for a veteran keeper during the offseason? And can Luis Soffner step into the backup spot?
Despite an inconsistent campaign, Shuttleworth currently has the inside track for the starting keeper’s spot. He’s proven himself in the past, but needs to show he can play at a high level for an entire season. Over the last three years, Shuttleworth has looked strong at times, only for his form to eventually slide.
Soffner has the size to impose his presence inside the 18, but the second-round pick didn’t see a minute of action with the first team in his rookie season. He’ll attempt to elevate himself to second-string keeper after spending most of the 2013 season as the third-choice.
Bottom line: Whether Reis retires, or has his option declined, 2014 could be a sink-or-swim season for Shuttleworth in New England. After five seasons and at least three different chances to claim the starting spot, the job still isn’t his and his alone. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Revolution pick up a veteran to serve as both a mentor and competitor to push the streaky keeper during the preseason. Soffner’s spot on the roster isn’t assured, but if he remains on the roster next season, he’ll need to elevate his game in order to put himself in a position for his first MLS minutes.