By Coleman Larned (@thesoccerswell)
It was a disappointing 2016 campaign for the New England Revolution, as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Starting slow out of the gates with one win in their first 11 games, the Revs' instability was found at both ends of the pitch.
The back line was consistently unsettled, which resulted in the interchanging of central and wide defenders out of their native positions. Conceding 54 GA (6th worst in MLS) out of a predicted 55.5 xGA (3rd worst in MLS) was a product of a constant search for a comfortable, defensive mixture. Andrew Farrell, Jose Goncalves and London Woodberry all took their turns at CB, with Kelyn Rowe even taking a stab at the RB position.
Offensively, coach Jay Heaps struggled to find the right combination within their talented pool. Three of the Revs' attackers were in the bottom 25 players of G-xG (Teal Bunbury -3.96, Kei Kamara -2.3 and Juan Agudelo -1.68) representing almost eight goals unrepresented on the pitch. Although these numbers might incrementally be negligible, amassed as a whole eight goals could propel a team into the playoffs. It's hard to say if that was just a bit of unluckiness, or if it was a product of Heaps' system for attack.
The streaks of poor performances defined last season for the Revs. Not only were they slow to start, but in a crucial run in the middle of the competition saw the club post a record of 2-2-8. Although Agudelo and Kamara started firing toward the end of the season, the hole was too deep to dig themselves out of.
Gershon Koffie – Although Koffie only had a short stint in New England, his impact was significant and immediate after he arrived for the 2016 season. His presence will be missed, but the Revs enjoy positional competition in the middle of the park with the likes of Xavier Kouassi, Scott Caldwell, Daigo Kobayashi and homegrown talent Zachary Herivaux all vying for time. Kouassi will most likely fill Koffie's role as a physical presence who has the fortitude and the freedom to exploit advanced, offensive spaces.
Bobby Shuttleworth – A member of the Revs since 2009 and a starter since 2013, Shuttleworth has been a soldier for New England. His departure comes off of the back of a mediocre season which saw him conceding a goal every 48 minutes, his worst rate since winning the starting job.
Antonio Delamea – As one half of a potential starting CB pairing, Delamea comes to New England as a ball winning, no nonsense defender. The Slovenian's high tackle success rate, ability to vertically distribute and leadership qualities should improve the Rev's defensive core.
Benjamin Angoua – The other half of aforementioned potential CB pairing, Angoua bring versatility and experience to a back line that needs to settle quickly in the upcoming season. Although CB is where Jay Heaps will prefer to play Angoua, he can play anywhere along the backline.
A change in formation at the end of the 2016 season saw a sharp improvement in spacing, personnel matching and ultimately performance on the field. Heaps changed from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 diamond near the end of the campaign which should be the template he draws from this season.
Goalkeeper – After some offseason shifting, Cody Cropper should have solidified himself as the Revs starting 'keeper for the 2017 season. With seven years in Europe primarily spent as the number two in systems that built out of the back, starting with tempo in possession from the GK. The US youth international is eager to impress with his athleticism and distribution now that he's back on American soil with a chance to play regularly.
Defenders – The Revs need and should see a dramatic personnel change in a department that was the 15th most porous in 2016. Chris Tierney and Farrell should return to their starting roles as outside backs (at left and right back, respectively) and be provided with more central stability. Although Tierney has been a lock at LB, consistency as a RB should help Farrell with his positional identity after being frequently shifted along the Revs back line last season.
Enter the 2017 New England Revolution centerback experiment. One part Slovenia and one part Ivory Coast, the expected pairing should be Delamea and Angoua. Notably the weakest space on the field in 2016, the Revs addressed the position with experience and complimentary skill-sets. Both internationally experienced, Delamea should be the more mobile of the pair, in terms of freedom of expression. The 25 year old has shown the ability to perform well in open space when defending, and to exploit space in possession.
Midfield – Fluidity is a concept that New England tries to exploit through their midfield and attack. With players that want to show for the ball and be involved in possession toward the center channel, the effective interchanging of positions is important.
With Koffie leaving, Kouassi getting healthy and the emergence of Caldwell, the Revs have the base of their midfield fairly lined up. If Heaps does decide to revert to a 4-2-3-1, the pair would be the obvious choice as the protection above the back four. If Heaps chooses to progress with the 4-4-2 diamond, Caldwell's competency in distribution and selfless work rate makes him a fit in the number four hole. Although he split most of the duties in possession with Koffie in 2016 (46.6 passes per game), because the Revs don't want to possess deep in their formation the onset of touches will be a challenge to manage.
Kouassi will plug in as a like for like replacement for Koffie. The mobile, biting midfielder will provide defensive hardness with the ability to be opportunistic and bomb on into the offensive third.
Familiar faces will populate the left and right edges of the midfield diamond, and they have to produce if the Revs' offense is going to be effective. It is time for Diego Fagundez to prove to the league that he not only has the talent to be an elite winger, but that he is simply progressing in his development rather than regressing. After his worst goal tally (3) in four seasons in league play he will once again feature in midfield. Although Rowe should see some time as a number ten, he will more frequently feature in deeper parts of the diamond. This is a product of necessity, as Heaps is forced to accommodate Lee Nguyen, Agudelo and Kamara in advanced positions.
Reigniting Nguyen is on the mind of Jay Heaps, I just don't know if the current Revs personnel can accomplish it. Nguyen will be given many chances in multiple roles to see if he can find glimpses of his 2014 form, mostly interchanging from the tip of the midfield diamond to a second forward. Rowe has earned the right to be given a chance in Nguyen's customary spot, which will jeopardize his stability in the starting XI.
Attack – Can Agudelo and Kamara exist as a successful, attacking duo? Kamara was originally brought in as an opportunity to add an elite, MLS talent to quickly turn a foul season around. Unfortunately fit was disregarded, as the Revs were bulging with forwards with unique styles – Agudelo, Charlie Davies and Bunbury. The addition of Kamara would force Heaps' hand to play him along with another striker, unlike Kamara's solitary role in Columbus.
Although the pair was successful at the tail end of last season, Heaps has been tinkering with his forward pairs in preseason. Nguyen has been inserted as Kai's complement as Agudelo has slid underneath as a number ten. Although positional fluidity is obviously encouraged, Agudelo's additional defensive responsibility has led to their shape being exposed as other midfielders are drawn out to compensate.
The upcoming season should see an uptick in offensive performance and defensive stability for New England. The East should be a stronger conference overall in 2017, as the likes of Toronto, NYCFC, Columbus should only get stronger along with the addition of an exciting Atlanta United side. This will put pressure on New England to be more efficient in front of net, and the settle the potentially new CB pairing quickly.
I don't see the Revs challenging for top spot in the East, rather squeezing into one of the last MLS playoff spots in the conference. Kamara and Agudelo should produce more as their partnership matures. Rowe should see a more prominent role as Nguyen might get phased out as the primary, offensive provider of service. Caldwell will attempt to be New England's version of Perry Kitchen, but the league will realize that the skill set might not be as diverse nor as dynamic, but his heart and soldier like attitude will plug in nicely as he's surrounded by players who want the limelight.
The unit will improve, the defense will be more cohesive and stubborn, and the offense will fire more efficiently – just not with the best of them.