Nicol & Co. rebuilding the Revolution

February, 3, 2010

How's this for a lineup: Brad Knighton, Chris Albright, Jay Heaps, Michael Parkhurst, Avery John, Steve Ralston, Andy Dorman, Jeff Larentowicz, Khano Smith, Pat Noonan, Clint Dempsey (and substitutes James Riley, Wells Thompson, Amaechi Igwe and Rob Valentino)?

It's a squad that features eight full internationals as well as seven first-round draft picks. It's also a list of players who have departed New England since January 2007.

The decision of Steve Ralston to leave the Revolution last week was the latest chapter in an offseason that has left Steve Nicol with a squad that is almost unrecognizable from the one that reached three straight MLS Cups in the middle of the last decade.

Ralston has signed with his hometown team, AC St. Louis of the NASL, and good luck to him. One of the league's classiest guys, both on and off the field, the 35-year-old holds a number of MLS records -- including most assists, games and minutes played -- that will take some breaking. While he looks ahead to his new challenge, his former club is rebuilding.

As his unparalleled record of eight straight playoff appearances shows, Nicol knows exactly what it takes to get a team playing well at the right time and the wily Scot will relish this latest opportunity to prove why he is, arguably, the league's best coach.

Not that it will be easy. Paul Mariner, his right-hand man for five years, left for Plymouth last October. Nicol is also facing the prospect of starting the new season without two of his remaining talismans: Matt Reis is recovering from shoulder surgery while Taylor Twellman continues his slow comeback from issues relating to a concussion he suffered in a game back in August 2008.

On a more positive note, a trade to acquire Preston Burpo and Cory Gibbs from Colorado should prove beneficial, while the continued presence of Shalrie Joseph in the middle of the field automatically makes New England a team to be reckoned with. Two more veterans, Edgaras Jankauskas and Mauricio Castro, will also be effective, if they can stay fit.

The Gambian duo of Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi has to be more consistently creative, while two of last year's rookies, Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes, should continue to build on the promise they showed. Nicol will have high hopes for his top pick of 2010, Zach Schilawski, a Wake Forest product who follows in the footsteps of other Demon Deacons who landed in Foxborough: Michael Parkhurst, James Riley and Wells Thompson.

Additional signings may boost the Revs' squad further down the line, but for now Nicol will likely have to make do with what he has. Given his ability to get the best out of hitherto unknown or unfancied players, I certainly won't be betting against him doing it again and making it nine postseason berths in a row this October.

A thing that made me go hmmm …

U.S. fans who watched the recently concluded Africa Cup of Nations can be forgiven for being unsure as to what sort of opposition Algeria will present to Bob Bradley's side when the nations meet in Pretoria on June 23.

Having been thrashed by Malawi in its opening game, Algeria rebounded with a win and a draw to qualify for the last eight, where it saw off the much-fancied Ivory Coast. The resurgence, however, came to a shuddering halt at the semifinal stage in the form of a 4-0 defeat at the hands of bitter rival Egypt.

Three red cards were a contributing factor to the game getting away from the Algerians, who will need to be more disciplined in South Africa. Also required will be greater consistency. At the back, the Desert Foxes allowed 10 goals in six games, although nine of those were conceded in three matches.

Meanwhile, having scored just once in group play, Rabah Saadane's men struck three times in 53 minutes against Ivory Coast, only to then be shut out in both the semifinal and third-place match. Given Algeria's Jekyll-and-Hyde qualities, U.S. Soccer officials would be well-served to scout a wide sample of its games.

Well played, young man

Before Algeria becomes the main focus for the U.S. national team, there is the small matter of the opening Group C game against England. On Tuesday night, Jozy Altidore was involved in a matchup that provided a small dress rehearsal for the June 12 encounter when he took on Chelsea and, in particular, John Terry.

To this observer, Altidore earned a B grade for his endeavors. Sure, his play when facing the opposing goal, as well as his goal threat, remains a work in progress. However, playing up front for Hull is a tough task, and his work rate was impressive while his physical prowess earned a number of free kicks, from which the Tigers were dangerous all night.

One of the fouls Altidore suffered also saw Terry served a yellow card, which gives the embattled England captain something (else) to think about ahead of the pair's next meeting in four months.



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