The moment the New England Revolution have anxiously awaited since last November’s heart-wrenching overtime defeat to Sporting Kansas City in the conference semifinals finally arrives on Saturday with their First Kick clash against the Houston Dynamo on tap.
Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m. ET, and will mark the start of the club’s 19th season in MLS.
Here’s what to watch for during the club’s 2014 debut:
Starting off on the right foot. The Revolution enter the 2014 season only months removed from their first postseason berth since 2009, and are favorites to make a return trip in November. But coach Jay Heaps wants to see more from his club this year -- most notably, a stronger start to the season. The Revs stumbled through a 2-4-4 record during the early part of the 2013 season.
“We’re looking at the first part of the season, and what points we need (in order) to gain a more blended season, so we don’t have to risk so much at the end of the year with every game meaning everything,” Heaps said earlier this week.
Ailing out of the gate. With every new season comes new challenges, as the Revolution’s injury report show. After staying remarkably healthy for much of last season, the club’s core of starters has been ravaged by injuries this winter.
Club captain Jose Goncalves (quadriceps strain), along with regulars Andrew Farrell (tibial stress reaction), Chris Tierney (hamstring strain) and Lee Nguyen are all listed on the injury report this week. Heaps will likely turn to newly acquired midfielder Daigo Kobayashi to man Nguyen’s spot, while veterans Darrius Barnes, Kevin Alston and Stephen McCarthy could all be called upon to start in the rear.
Grit and finesse rolled into one. If there’s one thing that Saturday’s clash is almost sure to deliver on, it’s a unique combination of physicality and inventive play. All three of last year’s meetings between the former playoff rivals featured a fair share bold tackles, high elbows, and quick shoves. But as gritty as these clashes were, they also featured some spectacular moments. Diego Fagundez scored a brilliant give-and-go effort on May 18, while Adam Moffat hit a pair of long-distance strikes on July 13. In essence, both clubs are capable of flipping the switch and going physical -- or playing pretty -- when the situation demands it.
“They can play both sides of the game, they are a physical team and they always bring it,” Nguyen said. “But at the same time, they have the guys who can change the game, like Will Bruin, Brad Davis, Giles Barnes and Boniek Garcia. So we have to be wary of all those guys. But we also have the same kind guys on our team, too. It’s going to be a fistfight.”
Banking on Bunbury. Teal Bunbury might be tall and technically sound like the departed Juan Agudelo, but that’s where the comparisons end. The 24-year-old forward is his own player, capable of creating opportunities with his speed and finishing abilities rather than locking horns inside the box and playing with his back to the goal. And that’s just fine with Heaps. Bunbury brings a skill set that, on paper, complements those of Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe and Scott Caldwell. After scoring twice during the preseason, all eyes will be fixated on the former Sporting Kansas City striker.
Go bold, or go home. If there’s one thing Heaps wants to see from his team on Saturday, it’s a relentless and unwavering approach from his front four. And with good reason.
The club will have proven commodities on the pitch with Fagundez, Rowe and Bunbury manning their respective areas, while Kobayashi adds another enterprising element to the bunch. Factor in Caldwell’s cunning passes, along with the smart runs and passes that rookie Patrick Mullins regularly showcased during the preseason, and you have a team that has no excuse not to press for success.
“We’re a bold group,” Heaps said. “I think we showed that last year. What I want us to be this year is bold and go after games, go after teams. it may not be the same group every week, but we’re going to use our depth to our advantage.”