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Monday, November 18, 2013
Revs overview: Midfield

By Brian O'Connell

On Friday, we took a glance at the Revolution’s defenders in the second part of a four-part series examining each area of the field and what the organization needs to do to address it during the offseason.

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.