Last year was a season of mystery for the New England Revolution. Once again the team was hampered by injuries and once again they found a way to plug in rookies and rely on a few hardened veterans to fight their way into the playoffs before being bounced in the opening round by the Chicago Fire... again.
2010 could be more of the same, but with another group of strong performers moving on to greener pastures, the Revs will have to put their faith in an even younger squad to keep Steve Nicol's impressive run of playoff appearances going.
Shalrie Joseph and Steve Ralston were the steadying forces in a team hampered by injuries throughout the campaign. Young stars emerged at the back and in the middle of the pitch, but the Revs goal scoring woes were plainly evident throughout the season without star forward Taylor Twellman running the front line.
The injuries were drastic enough that for much of the season Nicol abandoned his favored 3-5-2 alignment and went with the more balanced 4-4-2 setup to keep his defense in tact while allowing Joseph and Ralston the freedom to try and find some goals. The tactic worked just well enough for the Revolution to fight their way into the playoffs as the last automatic qualifier out of the Eastern Conference.
By all accounts it was a down year for New England, and the offseason changes signaled the changing of the guard.
The Revs, as has been the case over the last half decade, lost some major parts in the offseason, and one just before the season ended that may have just as big an impact.
Gone is assistant coach Paul Mariner who took over at Plymouth Argyle just before the end of the 2009 campaign. Mariner may not have been the most notable person gone from the Revs staff, but only time will tell how much he will be missed on the sidelines. Steve Nicol's longtime number one has long been credited as a great developer of talent, and the Revs could certainly use that in the coming months.
Steve Ralston called time on his Revs stay. Ralston's career in Major League Soccer places him among the best to ever grace the league and his unceremonious departure from the Revs (though few details have come out, it was widely rumored to be an exit unfitting of a legend) leaves a gap that will be incredibly hard to fill be it in the middle of the park, up front, or out on the wing.
Jeff Larentowicz also headed for hills, literally, when he was traded to the Colorado Rapids. The Red half of New England's Red and Dred midfield was slowly becoming one of the better defensive midfielders in the league and leaves a big void if the Revs intend to have Joseph drifting forward this season as well.
The Revolution also lost stalwart fullback Jay Heaps who retired to pursue other business opportunities. While he may never be remembered as the best fullback to grace the MLS pitches, Heaps was unquestionably one of the vocal and emotion leaders of the squad over the course of his career.
On the other side of the backline Chris Albright was sent to New York, but that loss will be much easier to take given the fact that Albright was a non-factor during the 2009 season.
The offseason was business as usual for New England. Despite the rash of high quality departures the team failed to bring in much in the way of replacements and focused on strengthening more through the draft than with big name signings.
The big addition to the squad that came away from the MLS SuperDraft is defender Cory Gibbs who was acquired in the Larentowicz trade and should slot into Heaps' old spot on the defensive line. Gibbs adds a good deal of experience to a backline that should be fairly stable considering the success of 2009's rookie defenders Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston.
The Revs also have high hopes for rookie striker Zack Schilawski who has has a bright preseason and may be asked to carry a large part of the load up front.
Preston Burpo was brought in from the trade with Colorado, and though he has long been one of the top backups in the league and New England has had a consistent star between the pipes in Matt Reis, Burpo will have to man the box for the opening part of the season as Reis tries to recover from offseason surgeries.
Preston Burpo- GK: Burpo should be in the net until Reis returns in May.
Cory Gibbs- LB: Gibbs will replace Heaps on the left and give the Revs and added veteran presence.
Darrius Barnes- CB: Barnes re-signed with the team earlier in March and played every minute of the MLS season in his rookie year. The towering defender should be even better in his second season.
Emmanuel Osei- CB: Osei is the Revs best on-ball defender. His erratic play can be cause for concern from time to time but more often than not he has proven to be a steady force at the back.
Kevin Alston- RB: The second year back did enough in his first professional season to catch the eye of the US National Team staff and has the blazing speed to be a threat running up the right flank. Like Barnes, Alston has the potential to be a star for years to come.
Kenny Mansally- LM: Played primarily as a striker in his first season, Mansally carved out a bit of a spot for himself on the left wing toward the end of 2009. The competition for the spot is tight though, as Mauricio Castro and and Chris Tierney could both push for starts throughout the year.
Shalrie Joseph- CM: Barring injury, Joseph should be in the running for league MVP honors once again.
Pat Phelan- CM: The question is who will play beside Joseph in the middle. Phelan is the defensive option who would slot in most naturally to Larentowicz' spot, but Nico Colaluca and Michael Videira both provide more attack minded options should the Revs decide to leave Joseph as the lone holding mid.
Sainey Nyassi- RM: The Gambian should join his countryman Mansally in the midfield as the two of them run the flanks and open up the field with loads of pace.
Taylor Twellman- F: Who knows if he will be fit enough to start the season, but when Twellman is ready to play one of the forward spots is his.
Kheli Dube- F: My money is on Dube to start the season, but Edgaras Jankauskas and the rookie Schilawski could supplant him or slot into Twellman's spot if he is not fit.
Best Of The Rest:
Edgaras Jankauskas: The big forward adds a bit of class when he is on the pitch ans showed flashes of great ability in his time last season.
Nico Colaluca: The young attacking mid is a threat on the dribble and may force his way into the starting lineup.
Michael Videira: Another attacking midfielder who lacks experience, between Videira and Colaluca the Revs have some options in the middle of the pitch.
Chris Tierney: A natural left-footer, Tierney is a great ball striker and can provide service from the left as either a midfielder or defender.
Shalrie Joseph's MVP Chase. He was deserving of the honor last season and should be one of the front-runners heading into 2010
Where will the goals come from? Unfortunately Joseph had to do the goalscoring last year, and that isn't a great note for the team as a whole. With Twellman still a doubt and Ralston gone, the Revs need to find a consistent threat up top.
Can the playoff streak continue? At some point the loss of so many key players has to lead to a downturn right? This may actually eb the year that the Revs can't chip out enough results to make it to the post season.
Predicted Placement: Expect the playoff run to come to an end. In fact, the Revs, on paper, shouldn't be in the top five in the East. Unfortunately for the Eastern Conference, the Revs haven't been great on paper for the last two years and still slipped into the postseason so expect the Revs to come up just short of the final playoff spot.
Did You Know?: Gillette Stadium has upgraded the field turf to a newer model which was actually designed with international soccer in mind, but the team's first training session on the surface didn't take place until Tuesday morning.
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