It’s been said that you can often tell what direction a team is headed in simply by watching how they handle a vulnerable opponent, especially during the waning stages of the regular season.
If the above is true, we may learn plenty about whether the New England Revolution (8-12-3, 27 points) truly have what it takes to make a postseason run on Saturday when they face a struggling Chivas USA (6-11-6, 24 points) side at Gillette Stadium.
To be fair, the Revolution haven’t played immeasurably better soccer than their success-starved opponent. While they’ve finally shaken the early-deficit hex that haunted them earlier this summer, grabbing the first goal is no longer enough to ensure victory. Up until recently, the Revolution were a perfect 7-for-7 when beating their adversary to the board. But after securing early leads in each of their last three, the Revolution have watched two of them vanish, with the latest occurrence coming in a 1-1 draw to Portland last week.
Although there’s plenty of room for improvement for the local XI, it’s hard to pinpoint where Chivas USA coach Wilmer Cabrera starts with his struggling side. The Goats currently rank at the bottom in a number of key categories, including possession (43.6 percent), pass success percentage (75.2 percent), shots per game (10) and, oh yeah, goals (21). A scoreless draw vs. Vancouver last week offered some hope that all isn’t completely lost, but it’s clear that the postseason isn’t in the cards for Cabrera’s squad this year.
With three points or bust the motto for the Revolution on Saturday, here’s what to watch for when the intra-conference clash kicks off on Saturday night.
-- No need to hit the panic button. Let’s be honest: there are plenty of things the Revolution haven’t done particularly well over the course of the last two-plus months. Team defending hasn’t been great, and goalscoring hasn’t exactly been the club’s forte, either. Despite their struggles, the squad’s plight is far from dire, according to striker Charlie Davies.
“I think we’ve done a great job in moments,” Davies said. “But it’s putting those moments all together for 90 minutes, and I think that’s the big issue at the moment. It’s not like we have a lot of work to do; it’s just little things we need to manage better.”
-- Will Davies’ goalscoring touch remain intact? No one will debate that the offense has hit the doldrums this summer. But one positive development for the attack has been the emergence of Davies, who spent much of the first half of the season overcoming injuries. Now healthy, and playing his preferred position at the tip of the spear, the Boston College alum has scored in each of the last two games. While the rest of the offense needs to do its part to follow suit, especially against a defensively frail Chivas USA, there’s little doubt that Davies will be counted upon to grab the wheel again this week.
-- Tightening it up during a critical timeframe. In each of their last three games, the Revolution have exited the locker room at halftime with a lead. But on two occasions, that lead was gone by the time they returned after conceding in the early stages of the second half. A common remark from coach Jay Heaps is that he likes to see how critical moments unfold on film, but the overhead projector isn’t needed to see that his team needs to tighten up its form between the 46th and 65th minutes.
“In the last two games, we haven’t been good enough in that timeframe,” Heaps told the media on Thursday, “and we’ve lost basically five points during that stretch.”
-- Will another change to the back four expose the Revolution? With Kevin Alston listed on the injury report as questionable, Darrius Barnes will likely get the nod at left back this week. While Barnes is a steady defender who’s proven himself countless times during his career, the move itself would force Heaps to employ his ninth different starting backline group this season. Although Chivas is, by no means, an offensive juggernaut, striker Erick “Cubo” Torres is always a threat. Should the backline fail to gel, it could be a busier evening than expected for the hosts.
-- The best defense is a good offense. For all the talk about defensive lapses costing the Revolution points, the attack’s inability to produce is one of the primary reasons why the squad resides below the red playoff line. While the Revolution have been able to secure first half leads, building upon them has proven to be a difficult task. To that end, midfielder Lee Nguyen recently suggested that protecting the lead isn’t just about playing sound defense.
“You have to keep putting the gas to the pedal,” Nguyen told the media on Thursday. “When we get our chances, we have to put them away, and then basically take the pressure off us as soon as we can.”