By Ian L. (@the16thdoc)
Before I get started I feel that I need to disclose two very important things for the sake of transparency. The first is that at the time of my writing, the Lee Nguyen situation has not resolved itself, and that’s obviously going to be a huge factor in whatever happens with New England in the forthcoming campaign. The second thing is that while I know it’s incredibly unlikely, I’m wishing with all of my heart and soul that somehow Lee Nguyen winds up at Roma or Lazio for no other reason than I could then write something with the headline “Nguyen in Rome”. Now that you know my qualifications, let’s begin.
2017 in Review
I don’t know that there was any team in 2017 that so often made me stop and ask myself if they were very good or very bad. This wasn't just something considered lightly either. Honest to goodness soul searching I swear -- and here’s the thing, there was a perfectly good reason to be confused. Yes friends, there were two New England Revolutions! J’Accuse! What a plot twist. This is even more unbelievable than the ending to the Prestige. (Editor’s note: if you haven’t seen the ending to the Prestige he kind of just spoiled it for you. Sorry).
Playing at home the Revs were not only good and productive, they were VERY good and VERY productive. If we only counted home matches, New England would have finished 4th in Supporters Shield standings. They would have had the fourth best goal differential, scored the third most goals, and allowed the fifth fewest! Now how could a team like this not make the playoffs? This is where we have to do the twist and introduce you to the evil twin of "Playing at Home New England Revolution", “Playing Away From Home New England Revolution”.
Playing Away from Home New England Revolution were very, very bad. Amongst the worst in the league level bad. Losing away from home isn’t uncommon in Major League Soccer. Heck, losing a lot away from home isn't that uncommon either. But New England only earned one win away from home all season. Their take of six road points was only better than Colorado’s five.
So obviously insofar as “get better at playing soccer in other team’s stadiums” can be a game plan, it’s one that the Revs desperately need to work on in 2018. You can still be successful without winning a lot of road matches (see Houston), but you can’t afford to lose as many as the Revs did. Draws may only be worth a point but when five points is the difference between a playoff run and getting an extra few weeks of vacation, you need to take them wherever you can.
New England has been busy this offseason, and with so many new faces and a new manager, there are a lot of question marks regarding how the team will be line up next season. Xavier Kouassi’s sad tale finally draws to close in a tenure that will mostly be remembered for injuries. Kei Kamara leaves Foxborough having netted 19 times in 54 appearances. Additionally, fan favorites Je-Vaughn Watson and Daigo Kobayashi found themselves on the fringes of the squad last season and will be looking for new clubs. Benjamin Angoua, who logged over 2300 minutes last season, is the other major departure. Angoua had a rather up and down time in MLS, and with New England investing heavily in Claude Dielna, it’s not surprising to see New England going in a different direction.
Though there were some significant departures, there were also some big additions. Congratulations are in order to the New England Revolution who have won this season’s Jalil Anibaba sweepstakes The versatile defender is joining his fifth club in six seasons, and will likely be the first defender off the bench should any of the Revs defending corps need some time on the sidelines. Jalil is the kind of signing that you hope doesn’t get to see a lot of minutes, but despite coming off a career low for minutes last season, he still has quite a knack for finding himself on the pitch, averaging just under 1800 minutes per season.
Also adding to the back line, Gabriel Somi comes in on a free transfer from Ostersunds FK. The Syrian has played at both left back and left wing in Sweden and is the presumptive starter on match day one. Draft picks Nicolas Samayoa and Brandon Bye round out the defensive reinforcements.
Wilfried Zahibo is a defensive midfielder that will look to fill the gap in New England’s midfield left by an outgoing Kouassi. At 24 years of age, Zahibo already has some nice entries on his resume, logging a handful of appearances with Valencia and Gimnastic in Spain. He’ll be looking to cement a place in New England’s first team and build off what has, thus far, been unrealized potential.
It’s no secret that this is a big part of where New England’s attention needed to be this offseason. Bringing in Somi should help on the left, and Zahibo will provide some much needed cover for New England’s back four. Dielna returns for his first full season with New England, and evidently he’s impressed Brad Friedel and company with his leadership enough that he’s been wearing the armband throughout the Rev’s preseason campaign. Cody Cropper endured a somewhat trying first season as the the club’s number one, and he’ll desperately want to build on last season’s experiences to cement his place as the club’s uncontested starting GK. Cropper let in a worrying 50 goals last season (only poor Bobby Shuttleworth suffered more), which was 11.34 more than expected. That's the 2nd worst in ASA's dataset, so is cause for real concern if he doesn't start 2017 off better.
New England have a lot of good players going forward. Their midfield, when at full health (and morale), will look very well stocked with Zahibo, Nguyen (maybe), Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez, Teal Bunbury, Krisztian Nemeth and Scott Caldwell all looking to compete for minutes. Rowe missed nine games towards the end of the season, and New England fans might rightly wonder what may have been in the final stretch of the season had the US international been available. Fagundez set a career high in minutes last year on the back of seven goals and eight assists, and there's no reason to think his workload will decrease. Nguyen has reported back to training, but his situation still seems to be far from resolved, and it’s going to be interesting to see how he and Friedel handle it going forward.
The Kei Kamara era is over, and though 19 goals over a year and a half is a respectable tally, clearly New England was hoping to see more of that 2015 Kei than they got. The problem was that New England wasn't ever going to get that brand of Kei unless they fundamentally changed the way that they attacked. Kamara’s aerial ability is almost unrivaled amongst MLS attackers, and in 2015 he was getting twice as many headed shots than he did in 2017. In 2015, Columbus were attempting 26 crosses per game compared to the 15 per match New England attempted last season. Kei is a very talented player that probably just wasn't quite the right fit for the Revs.
So who is a good fit? New England have a few options. Juan Agudelo has consistently netted the Revs between 7-9 goals a season splitting his time up top and as a #10. Nguyen is New England’s most dangerous attacking player and has been successful in that forward position as well, though it's unclear if he'll play. Bunbury deputized off the bench last season, and Nemeth is also able to play there when needed. Another option is Cristian Penilla, whom New England have brought in as a TAM/DP level contract on loan from Pachucha. The Ecuadorian plays both wide and as a forward as he’s bounced around from loan to loan the last couple of years. Penilla has hardly been a prolific goalscorer in his career thus far so it remains to be seen if Friedel uses him more as a winger or a striker.
We don’t know a ton about Friedel’s management style, but based on his comments about New England needing to be the fittest side in the league to play his system, we can probably ascertain that he’s at least initially going to try and get New England to do a fashionable high press. This kind of system could potentially be very effective against MLS opposition should New England be able to pull it off. I have my doubts, but we’re just going to have to wait and see. I think it’s a reasonable goal for New England to make the playoffs this season. That can be a tough ask in a manager’s first season in charge, but even in a hyper competitive Eastern conference, New England should be in or thereabouts.
Still, the Eastern Conference is a dangerous place these days. Teams that could previously be counted on to languish are making considerable improvements to their roster this offseason. DC United is bringing in Yamil Asad to pair with a full season of Paul Arriola. Orlando brought in two of the league’s best midfielders in Justin Meram and Sacha Kljestan. Philadelphia added David Accam, and Montreal bolstered their attack with Jeisson Vargas and Saphir Taider. New England should still be ahead of these teams on paper, but they’re also facing a couple of potential pitfalls.
The first, and I know I keep bringing it up, is Lee Nguyen. A happy, healthy, motivated Nguyen would be welcome on any MLS team, but an unhappy one can create a troublesome situation for a team. We need look no farther than FC Dallas last year to understand how comprehensively a poor locker room can sink a team on the field.
The second is Friedel. It’s usually difficult for a first year manager, and especially one without any previous head coaching experience. If New England comes out of the gate limping and it takes a few months for him to get things right, it could already be too late for them to catch up.