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Friday, November 15, 2013
Revs overview: Defense

By Brian O'Connell

On Wednesday, we took a glance at the Revolution’s goalkeeping crew in the first of a four-part series examining each area of the field and what the organization needs to do to address it during the winter.

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.

Farrell
Rookie Andrew Farrell overcame some growing pains to regularly flash his speed and strength along the right side.
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.

Jose Goncalves
Jose Goncalves was the key to the Revs' success on defense this season, but his return next season is uncertain.
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.