The New England Revolution came into the season with high expectations. Following a slow start, we are now seeing the side that was expected after a promising 2013.
This season didn't start out as expected, with New England stumbling out of the blocks without a win in its first three matches. That, coupled with rumblings of an unhappy captain in reigning Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves, made it look as though the Revs' season might implode before we ever really got to see the young and exciting team expected to take the league by storm.
It took some time, but that team has emerged, and the Revs are now looking every bit the dynamic force they were expected to be. They have gone on a 5-0-1 run in their past six matches, scoring 10 goals in impressive wins against Seattle and Philadelphia, and those early-season troubles have been replaced by some of the best soccer in the league.
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“They’re good, and they’re really good when it matters," Union coach John Hackworth said of the Revs after Saturday's 5-3 loss to New England. "In the final third they are exceptional right now. Their speed of play, their combination play the one-touch passing. Lee Nguyen is, for me right now, playing as well as anyone in this league, so credit to them.
"We didn’t deal with it well, but you’ve got to give them credit for how well they are playing."
"Guys are playing well individually, so that creates a lot of confidence in the group," Heaps told Goal USA after Saturday's win. "When we're running and playing well, we've got good options."
Leading the Revs' successful surge has been the outstanding play of Nguyen, who has been playing at an MLS Best XI-caliber level this season. The crafty playmaker was overshadowed a bit in 2013 by the goal-scoring exploits of Diego Fagundez and Juan Agudelo, and the overall play of Kelyn Rowe, but this year Nguyen has emerged as the unquestioned leader of the attack.
"I think it’s he’s confident," Heaps said of Nguyen. "He knows he can do it. I think last year he had glimpses of it. The year before he had glimpses of it. We signed him to a new contract in the offseason and I think he’s feeling pretty good about that.
"He’s a key part of our group. We ask him to do a lot and give him a lot of offensive influence. I think he feels that confidence and when he’s playing well he takes it to another level."
Nguyen credits the team's commitment to improving things defensively with helping the overall play, including the recent scoring surge.
“We’ve just been fighting as a team, and when you fight that hard you’re going to create chances for yourself and others," Nguyen told Goal USA. "I think the main thing is defensively we’ve been so strong together and that’s what has created chances on the offensive side.
"Right now we’re finishing our chances so that’s another difference between now and the rest of the season.”
Several players have played key parts in New England's unbeaten run. Rookie Patrick Mullins returned from an early-season injury and stepped into a starting role that he has thrived in. He has shown an ability to hold the ball up and circulate passes and also occupy defenders to create space for his teammates. Teal Bunbury has also settled in well playing in a wide role, which is a bit different than the target forward position he had become synonymous with earlier in his career.
Then you have the defense, which was in bad shape early on as Goncalves endured a shocking season opener before, according to sources, being benched. Andrew Farrell slid into central defense after spending his rookie season in 2013 at right back and has thrived there playing alongside A.J. Soares.
The Revs defense had not allowed more than one goal in nine straight matches before surrendering some late insurance goals in Saturday's 5-3 pasting of the Union.
Another less-publicized factor in New England's ability to overcome a rough start was how Heaps handled a disgrunted Goncalves, who came into the season unhappy with his contract status. Sources tell Goal USA that the situation came to a head after Week 1, with Heaps issuing an ultimatum to Goncalves that he either focus on playing and put aside his contract issues or sit out. Goncalves proceeded to miss the Revs' next match, which happened to be at Philadelphia.
The Revs lost that match, 1-0, but Heaps' handling of the situation seemed to galvanize the group as well. They are 6-1-2 since that loss to the Union, and this weekend recorded the first win at PPL Park in club history.
"Any time you go through adversity it’s a test," Heaps said. "I think more was made of (the Goncalves situation) than it was. There was never really an issue between the two of us. I think it was just a situation that (during) the offseason there was some unrest, and getting back and getting through that. Getting everyone’s mentality back on, that there are going to be opportunities for contracts and other things, but there’s a time and a place for that.
"Ultimately the more you play and the better you play, those things really do take care of themselves. It’s never easy, but at the same time, any time you have some adversity it took a lot of time to try and find a way to move forward."
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Heaps is careful to avoid such buzz at this point in the season, but he acknowledges the Revs are playing at a very high level right now.
"There are peaks and valleys in this league so you’ve got to take your points when you can, and seal up defensively when you can," Heaps said. "It’s so early in the year that I think for us it’s taking it one game at a time. You can’t get too high, or can’t get too low."
"We are clicking right now but we're still not all the way there yet," said Nguyen. "But it's good progress and we're heading in a good direction."
MLS WRAP WEEKLY AWARDS
Player of the Week: Federico Higuain. The Columbus Crew maestro went into Portland and showed why he's one of the league's best. His chip goal on Donovan Ricketts was first-class, and he also had a hand in the Crew's other two goals.
Rookie of the Week: Patrick Mullins. The New England forward continued his strong run of form since returning from injury, netting his third goal of the season (one in each of the past three matches) and playing the target role well in the Revs' blowout win.
Team of the Week: New England Revolution. The Revs took a 5-1 lead on Philadelphia on the road before letting the foot off the gas in an eventual 5-3 victory. Their level of play in recent weeks has been second to none, and Saturday's offensive outburst made them the easy pick this week.