Overview: For all the preseason talk about attacking and sharpening the offense, the most improved area of the field in 2012 turned out to be the defense.
Of course, few would have banked on that happening. Sure, the Revolution signed veteran center back John Lozano to act as a pillar in the rear. And yes, they drafted Tyler Polak high in the second round. But between injuries and inexperience, neither player featured as often as many expected.
A series of knocks to Lozano forced some serious improvisation -- namely, sliding second-year midfielder Stephen McCarthy to center back, a position that McCarthy had never played at the professional level. Despite some early growing pains, the 2011 second-round pick brought an imposing presence to the rear, and used his height (6-foot-5) to outduel his opponents in the air. By mid-season, the job was his, as Lozano had his mid-season option declined.
Pairing with McCarthy for much of the season was fellow second-year pro A.J. Soares. The 24-year-old center back helped smooth the rough edges by developing an immediate rapport with his new line mate. Though, as the season progressed, Soares encountered some struggles, which opened the door for veteran Darrius Barnes to reclaim one of the center back spots. Injuries plagued Soares and McCarthy in the latter portion of the season, but Barnes’ presence provided stability inside the heart of the defense.
Out on the wings, Kevin Alston brought speed and savvy to the right back’s spot. On the opposite flank, Chris Tierney was his usual steady self at left back. While Alston avoided the injury bug by and large, Tierney picked up a lingering knee injury down the stretch, forcing Alston -- who played left back in college -- to slide into Tierney’s role for the team’s final eight games. The reassignment showed a different side of Alston -- a player who added greater width, not to mention sharper crosses, even on his “weaker” left foot. Polak saw the bulk of his action in Reserve League, yet never truly emerged as a contender for additional first-team minutes.
Meanwhile, Flo Lechner provided welcome experience to the back line. The versatile -- and vocal -- defender flashed some moments of brilliance during the middle of the season before the injury bug bit him as well.
It may not have gone according to script, but all things considered, the Revolution's defense performed admirably. While injuries forced numerous lineup changes, the back four rarely veered off course, and cut down the goals-allowed total from 2011 (58) by 24 percent in 2012 (44).
Outlook: The picture is certainly promising, one year removed from a disastrous 2011 season. The partnership between Soares and McCarthy helped anchor the Revolution's defense, while Alston and Tierney have both proven their worth out on the wings. However, the general inexperience in the middle may have the organization searching for a veteran center back. Polak appears to be the future at left back for now, but a disappointing rookie campaign saw his stock drop, especially with Alston’s surprising form on the left. Tierney is the club’s set piece specialist, but only by default, as free kicks and corner kicks were an obvious problem area in 2012.
Bottom line: Bet on the Revolution to look for a veteran center back, and perhaps a speedier option on the wing. A defender who’s good in dead-ball situations would be a plus, especially in light of the ongoing set-piece struggles. The college drafts may also produce a few more options in the rear, especially with the fourth and 21st overall picks at the Revolution’s disposal.