2015 ASA Preview: New England Revolution / by Drew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)

It is not an overstatement to say that New England had the most up and down season in MLS last year. Just take a moment to look at the season progression chart above. Seriously, I’ll wait.

Here’s another way of looking at it, taken from the league results map:

Let’s put that in perspective. After week 12, the Revs had the 2nd best record in MLS. They were on a five game winning streak that included some of the best teams in MLS. In order, they won 2-0 over Kansas City, 2-1 over Toronto FC, 5-0 (!!) over eventual Supporters’ Shield winners Seattle, 3-5 over Philadelphia, and 2-1 over eventual Eastern Conference winners DC United. That is maximum points over one of the most difficult stretches of their schedule. So what did the team do? It responded by losing eight consecutive games, including losses to lowly Montreal and Chicago. Montreal finished the season with 28 points in 34 games. New England had 22 points in week 12. 

But New England also had 22 points after week 21. Matthias wrote about their roller coaster ride while it was happening, and came to the conclusion that giving the Revolution a 60% chance of making the playoffs was probably too high. Presumably, he would have also said the odds of another five game winning streak were even lower than 60%, so that’s what they did. Twice. If you include the playoffs, the Revs went 12-2-3 over their last 17 games, with one of those two losses being in MLS Cup.

So how good was this team? Was it the explosive and creative team that started and ended the season, or the smoldering tire fire that played during the summer? The answer is somewhere in the middle. While the summer addition of Jermaine Jones may have coincided with their second winning streak, he was not the only reason for it. Our expected goals model showed New England with a 0.01 xGD and a -0.11xGD when the score is tied and both teams are even on players. In other words, based on where they and their opponents were taking shots from, this was an about average team on the whole for the season. But some other numbers suggest it was no fluke. No team possessed the ball in their opponent’s final third more than the Revs last year, (despite them averaging only 46% possession for the season) and no team in the East averaged more shots on goal per game.

Finishing 2nd in the East and making it to MLS Cup is a great accomplishment, one that will be difficult to repeat in 2015. That said, nearly the same team returns, and improvements have been made. The goal for this season is simple: bring some silverware back to Foxboro.

Defense

It starts in back with Bobby Shuttleworth between the sticks. Our xG for last season show he allowed about four fewer goals than the typical keeper would have expected based on the shots he faced, which was good for 6th best among keepers with at least 20 games played. His backup Brad Knighton saw limited time last season, but was about average in 2013 and doesn't figure to challenge for the starting job.

While Shuttleworth proved capable last season, it is the defense upon which Coach Jay Heaps’ system was built. It all starts with former Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves, who finished 7th in MLS with 219 clearances last season, despite playing in only 27 games. With A.J. Soares, who led the team in appearances last season gone to Norway, 2013 number one overall pick Andrew Farrell will transition from outside back to pair with Goncalves in the center. Still only 22, Farrell is loaded with potential. And while he saw some limited time in the middle last season, Heaps is now making the move permanent, and the ability of his defense to prevent goals may depend on it.

On the left will be Revs institution Chris Tierney, who had a phenomenal 2014 season which culminated with his goal in MLS Cup. On the other side, it looks like a competition between Kevin Alston and Jeremy Hall, who comes over from Toronto. Hall mostly played in the midfield for the last three seasons, but based on the preseason Heaps has him pegged at right back. With only two appearances for Toronto last season, Hall will be relied on to find his form again quickly if he starts. Alston is the more likely candidate, despite only 11 appearances last year as he made his inspirational return from Leukemia.

If Farrell can manage his move to the center and the new right back fits in seamlessly, we can continue to expect a lot from this defensive unit. But the loss of Soares and the question marks hovering over Hall and Alston suggest we’re likely to see a dip in quality on the backline.

Midfield

The center of the field is mostly credited for getting New England to MLS Cup last season, and it is unchanged for 2015. Jermaine Jones, coming of his successful World Cup, provided an important defensive cover when he came to the team towards the end of the season. With fewer than 1000 minutes played it is difficult to judge his quality in MLS, but he will undoubtedly be an important defensive piece in front of Heaps’ newly reformed backline. That said, Jones is 34 and doesn't figure to get any younger. He also didn't appear in the preseason after having sports-hernia surgery last month.

Next to Jones in front of the defense will be homegrown player Scott Caldwell, who nailed down his starting spot in the 2nd half of the season. He was dribbled past more than any other player on the team last season (1.2 times per game), so will need to continue to learn to keep attackers in front of him. Still, he was solid if unspectacular last season, and at 23 will only continue to improve. 

While Jones was the big name signing that got the headlines, it was MVP finalist Lee Nguyen that provided the heart and soul of the Revs. He had 18 goals, nine more than our model suggested he should expect, which was the biggest difference in the league. Did he just get lucky or is he just a better finisher than everyone else? The quality of some of his goals imply the latter, but this season may tell us. Like Jones, he hasn't appeared in preseason, but hopes to play in the season opener. If New England are to make another through the playoffs, Nguyen will need to again be at his best.

Teal Bunbury is back, and will again be the third wheel in the midfield. He’ll streak up the right, and create space for Nguyen to operate in the center. Leaving Kansas City seems to have been a good move for Bunbury, and he’ll hope to continue to improve on last year. Kelyn Rowe, the Revs’ 3rd pick in 2012, will slot in on the left side but has shown to be versatile; he played in every midfield position at some point last year.

Daigo Kobayashi, whose 86% pass completion rate was best on the team last year, and the once-touted Diego Fagundez, are the favorites to be Heaps’ first subs off the bench. Both players have impressed in the preseason, and will see their share of time.

Forwards

While Charlie Davies returns, his three goals last year were a disappointment. Heaps knew he needed an upgrade, and in comes familiar face Juan Agudelo. Still only 22, Agudelo will bring a new threat, and hopes to return to his goalscoring ways after playing only 14 competitive games in the last year. His nine goals in 2013 were 3.4 more than his 5.6 xG, so he will look to convert at a similar clip.

Prognosis

The Revolution are the preseason pick by many to return to MLS cup from the East, and it’s not an unreasonable expectation. If the realigned defense works out and this is the same Agudelo that averaged a goal every other game in 2013, then New England will be a force to be reckoned with. Still, they seemed to over-perform their expected goals last season, and a regression to the mean seems likely. The loss of Soares is certain to be felt, and we still don’t know how Farrell will fit into the middle of defense. A playoff spot seems certain, but another top two seed will be difficult to come by.