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Saturday, July 16, 2011
Revs have plenty to prove vs. first-place Philly

By Brian O'Connell

Fresh off a 12-day respite from league action, the last-place New England Revolution (3-8-7, 16 points) will face a fierce challenge on Sunday night when they host first-place Philadelphia Union (7-4-7, 28 points) at Gillette Stadium.

Sunday’s match will kick off at 7 p.m. and will be televised live on Comcast Sportsnet New England. A radio broadcast will be available to listeners on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

The Revs will attempt to snap an eight-game winless streak against a team they’ve never beaten -- albeit in its only two meetings. Last season, the Revs settled for a 1-1 draw against the expansion Union on July 31 at PPL Park. But in the second leg of the series, Aug. 28 at Gillette Stadium, the Union beat the Revs 2-1.

New England enters the match with a lot to prove against the top team in the east. Two weeks ago, the Revs and Real Salt Lake traded blows in a chaotic 3-3 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium. Although the Revs jumped to an early 2-0 lead against their undermanned hosts, New England failed to close it out, and watched Salt Lake come back with only 10 men. The guests reclaimed the lead with a 63rd-minute goal from Shalrie Joseph, but Salt Lake equalized with an 83rd-minute Fabian Espindola goal as the Revs once again missed out on a golden opportunity to climb out of the Eastern Conference basement.

On the other hand, Philadelphia arrives in Foxborough with its own set of struggles: namely, the bone-dry well that is their offense. Last week, the Union battled the Earthquakes to a scoreless draw, despite the fact that the Union appeared ready and capable to put one on the board. But, as has been the case all season, the Union’s defense rescued them from defeat. With a conference-best 16 goals against, the Union don’t torch their opponents with offense; they suffocate them with an air-tight defense.

With a smart, disciplined defense in town, the Revs will have to do the following to force Philadelphia’s wall to crack.

1. See the ball, hold the ball. The Revs were taken to the woodshed in the possession department against a 10-man Salt Lake team on July 4. They can’t afford a repeat performance against an opponent that relies on its midfielders and defenders to play keep-away. New England’s midfielders must be collected and calm throughout, lest they find themselves getting overrun for the second game in a row.

2. Re-deploy the 4-4-2. After seeing success in the 4-4-2 at home, Revolution manager Steve Nicol returned to the 4-5-1 on the road against Seattle and Salt Lake, perhaps playing for the valuable road point against a pair of high-powered offenses. But, with the season well into the summer months, the Revs cannot afford to leave more points on the pitch. The 4-5-1 hasn’t worked. If the Revs harbor any hopes of taking three points from Philadelphia, their best option is the 4-4-2, a formation that produced far greater opportunities in the attacking third against Toronto and Chicago last month.

3. Find success on set pieces. Now that the Revs have passed the halfway point of the season, one thing has become patently obvious: The goals, however scarce, are not arriving from the run of play. Rather, they’re showing up in set pieces. Therefore, the Revs have to be particularly sharp on dead-ball situations, especially without Shalrie Joseph available due to yellow card accumulation. Otherwise, it could be another week without a win.

At this point in the season, each match on the schedule carries even greater urgency, especially for a last-place team. The Revs have the chance to shock an opponent with an obvious weakness. In order to do so, they’ll have to show the same disciplined form that kept Manchester United off the board for the first half of Wednesday’s friendly.