The New England Revolution began a new era in 2018. Former coach and legendary Revs player Jay Heaps had pushed the team all the way to the MLS Cup Final in 2014, but the team hit a multi-year slide from then on, ending with his dismissal in 2017. Brad Friedel, former Premier League and USMNT goalkeeper, was hired to start fresh and instill a new culture in the club. Friedel’s squads were able to get lots of results early in the year, but New England had a miserable summer, netting two draws and six losses in July and August.
Friedel’s first season in charge brought plenty of off-field stories as well, and for much of the season, the players that weren’t playing generated as many headlines as those who did. But after a year of roster changes and an infusion of attackers, this is 100% Friedel’s team, and the Revolution will look to make a statement that their brand of soccer can make an impact in a league that’s become a bit more top heavy than just a few years ago.
2018 In Review
Even before the Revolution played a minute in 2018, the headlines coming out of preseason camp were not good. Star American playmaker Lee Nguyen held out of preseason camp, demanding a trade elsewhere in the league. Friedel and General Manager Mike Burns refused this request, and eventually Nguyen participated in team activities and never even saw the bench for the Revs again. Initially, Friedel got a lot of flak for essentially holding Nguyen hostage; he was an enormously valuable asset in the trade market, and obviously would not be contributing on the field. But the Revolution jumped to a very fast start in March and April, proving that the team could be successful without their star midfielder from years past. This must have been a huge boon to negotiations, and Nguyen was finally traded to LAFC at the stroke of the deadline for a minimum of $700k in allocation money.
In some ways, excluding Nguyen might have been the best choice for Friedel’s vision even without his holdout. The Revolution scored fewer goals than average in the league, but they created those goals in a very unique way. Friedel’s teams completely avoided possession and passing based buildup to create their chances, instead pressing teams high and capitalizing on their mistakes. This is very obvious from looking at the xBuildup numbers for New England players (amount of team’s xG that resulted from buildup where a player didn’t take the final shot or make the final pass). For example, at the very extreme end of the spectrum, Ilie Sanchez had an xGChain score of 32.09 in 2018. Coming in 98 places lower with an xBuildup of 13.94 was New England’s top ranking player, Luis Caicedo. To put that in context, if Caicedo had been on Atlanta, he would have been 10th on his team in cumulative xBuildup for 2018. Colorado was the only other team to have only one player in the top 100 of xBuildup, but even Jack Price earned 17.66 xB. The New England attack was disjointed by design, and you’ll read more about the Revs’ high press further down.
After the initial surge of good results and good vibes, things took a downward turn during the summer, with the team netting two points out of a possible 24 in July and August. That stretch pulled them down the table, and while the Revs were technically in the wildcard playoff picture into the end of the season, the chances were never great. However, the underlying numbers during this period weren’t as completely awful as you’d expect. The Revs scored 11 goals on 10.4 xG, while allowing 18 goals from 13.6 xGA. While that’s still indicative of losing soccer, I wouldn’t look at those numbers and expect such a terrible record. Minnesota United had similar expected goal numbers during the exact same stretch of the season (10.6 xGF, 14.4 xGA) and they grabbed 10 points from their available 24. That eight point difference would have put the Revs one point shy of the Philadelphia Union for the 6th playoff spot. In that light, it’s fair to say that the Revs weren’t a playoff team because of some bad luck and a few individual errors. There’s plenty of measurable improvement to be made over 2018, but there’s no immediate reason to doubt that the Revolution are going to be better in 2019.
D – Chris Tierney (308 min)
D – Claude Dielna (1,334 min)
D – Nicolas Samayoa (0 min)
D/M – Mark Segbers (45 min)
M – Guillermo Hauche (175 min)
M – Cristhian Machado (119 min)
M – Kelyn Rowe (1,611 min)
F – Femi Hollinger-Janzen (0 min)
The vast majority of these players simply had their contracts expire or options declined by the team. The only major contributors in 2018 were Claude Dielna and Kelyn Rowe, who seemed to be on the wrong side of the culture line being prioritized by the coach and management. Dielna was simply left off all match day squads after being a consistent starter for the first half of the year. His option was declined, and his rights were traded to the Timbers for $100k in GAM, with another $100k coming if Dielna is traded again and plays for another MLS team. Rowe, who was another playmaking midfielder in the vein of Nguyen, was traded to the Colorado Rapids for Edgar Castillo, and then passed on to Sporting Kansas City.
D – Edgar Castillo (trade from Colorado Rapids)
M – Nicolas Firmino (Homegrown)
M – Tajon Buchanan (SuperDraft)
F – Juan Fernando Caicedo (loan from Independiente Medellín)
F – Carles Gil (transfer from Deportivo La Coruña)
F – Justin Rennicks (Homegrown)
This is a relatively small incoming list, and it’s possible that the Revolution will continue to make moves into the spring and in the summer window. Three of the six players are unknown quantities at the professional level, and will have to impress Friedel to get on the field.
Edgar Castillo is a major acquisition, as he was one of the very few bright spots in a dismal 2018 for the Colorado Rapids. Castillo can play as both a true left back and a wingback, and you can count on him to bring attacking flair, catching opposing midfielders off guard with his speed and technical dribbling. He also scored three…
…from shots that only added up to 1.1 expected goals for the year. I expect he’ll knock in some more from the edge of the box for New England.
The other two big signings for 2019 are forward Juan Fernando Caicedo and winger/midfielder Carles Gil. Caicedo brings experience in both Colombia and Argentina, and had a fairly successful 2018 in Medellín with 11 goals across competitions (according to transfermarkt). Gil is a little more head-scratching on the surface, but it’s possible he is a great fit for Friedel’s system. Gil had a rough 2017/18 season in La Liga with Coruña, with the season ending in relegation, and he’s only scored one goal in 960 second division minutes his season (Coruña currently sits at third in the table). With a sizable transfer fee rumored to be more than a million Euros, he’ll have something to prove to fans.
2019 Roster Outlook
The Revolution will probably stick with the 4-2-3-1 that they used in 2018, though Friedel looks like he will experiment with a 4-4-2 he’s tested in preseason. Even if the formation occasionally changes, one thing will not – Friedel is committed to high defensive pressure.
Though it didn’t necessarily result in success on the field for them in 2018, it appears to have done the job. Take a look at the image below, which shows how New England performed based on a few important defensive variables. In short, blue areas mean they performed better than most teams in that area, red means they performed worse.
As you can see, the Revs had lots of defensive actions in their opponent’s half, and that press forced plenty of back passes and long balls. It also led to a much lower pass success rate by their opponents. In short, their press worked pretty well. They forced their opponents away from their goal and into difficult passes, which were completed at lower rates than the rest of the league. Given Friedel’s system appears to have worked, it begs the question: why weren’t they better? You’d think a team whose aggressive press appears to have worked so well would have finished better than 7th in the Eastern Conference.
The Revs’ total of 53.6 xGA was 6th worst in the league, but the devil is in the details. I believe it was Aristotle who first said “set pieces, set pieces, set pieces... They’ll kill ya, fam.” During the run of play, New England’s xGA was roughly league-average. But they committed an astronomical 513 fouls last season (more than 15 per game), the most by any MLS team since 2006. Revs’ opponents took 121 shots from set pieces (directly or indirectly), and New England ended up allowing 7.2 xGA from free kicks and penalties. Only Montreal allowed more.
So while the press seems to have worked out alright during the run of play, their aggressive defense also led to a lot of set pieces. Things broke down when the Revolution defense wasn’t able to handle the ensuing plays particularly well. If New England is going to make the pressing system work in 2019 (and given what they’ve shown in preseason, they’re certainly trying), they’ll need to find a way to make it harder for their opponents to get chances via set plays. Given this will be their second year under the system, there’s reason to believe the players will be able to execute Friedel’s vision with a bit more aplomb in 2019.
Matt Turner looks poised to reclaim the starting goalkeeper spot he had at the start of 2018, then lost to Brad Knighton. A quality shot stopper - Turner finished with the 4th best GA-xGA last season – he sometimes gets himself into trouble with the ball at his feet. Knighton was fine as the starter, but unremarkable. Given Turner is only 24, ten years younger than Knighton, he should get every opportunity to be the starter. Regardless, Knighton and Cody Cropper are decent depth players who will be ready to step in if Turner falters.
Andrew Farrell has played some centerback in the preseason, but he’ll still be starting opposite Edgar Castillo at fullback once the season starts. Both will be expected to be important parts of the attack getting forward. Michael Mancienne and Antonio Delamea will likely be the central defenders, with trialist Giles Phillips (whose signing has already been reported by one shady London tabloid) providing depth and potentially challenging for a starting spot.
Luis Caicedo will again anchor the midfield alongside some combination of Wilfried Zahibo and Scott Caldwell. Friedel seemed to favor Zahibo last season, though Caldwell has gotten the captain’s armband in preseason, so the spot seems to still be up for grabs.
The biggest change in 2019 looks to be the addition of the left footed DP Carles Gil into the number 10 spot, a position that Fagundez played most of last season. Despite a plethora of attacking talent, the Revs scored the 8th fewest goals last season. Gil will look to unlock the offense as a creator, but also works hard on the defensive side, which figures to fit well with the Revs’ unique style. Gill taking over in the middle will move Fagundez out wide, opposite Cristian Penilla, who led the team with 12 goals last year (though his 7.7 xG suggests he may have been a bit fortunate). Homegrown signing Justin Rennicks has shown well in preseason and should get some minutes, especially when they’re using the 4-4-2 formation.
Teal Bunbury started 30 games and scored 12 goals last year, but he will have competition for the starting striker job in 2019. Fagundez moving to the wing will probably push Agudelo to compete for minutes at striker. Also notable is the addition of Juan Fernando Caicedo from Colombia, who may also challenge for minutes.
The Revs season will depend on the answers to two key questions: 1) Will a second year of experience under Friedel’s system lead to a corresponding improvement in execution and better understanding from the players? And 2) will the addition of Gil spark an offense that always seems to be on the edge of breaking out? If the answer to both questions is yes, then the Revs could see themselves challenging for a top five seed in the East. If they continue to struggle to prevent goals and Gil doesn’t fit in, then it seems even more likely that they will find themselves near the bottom of the Eastern Conference once again. One thing is for sure, Revs fans will be hoping Friedel has been reading his Aristotle.