2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
On paper, it was an attack to be feared.
A lineup that featured 2015 MLS MVP runner-up Kei Kamara and 2014 third-place finisher Lee Nguyen. A player with plenty of talent in Juan Agudelo. A highly regarded attacking pair in Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe. And it was an attack that had produced before, with a run to the MLS Cup final in 2014 — albeit with a few different pieces mixed in.
Yet it was an attack that simply was not producing up to its potential for most of 2016.
“It was across the board,” New England Revolution coach Jay Heaps told Goal. “I think maybe we got a little stagnant. Maybe we didn’t adapt well enough. Maybe we became too predictable.”
Through 27 games, the Revolution scored 29 goals. Their 1.07 goals per game was second-worst in the league. New England averaged 1.44 goals in 2015, and while a half-goal a game may not seem like a huge drop, keep in mind the Revolution missed the playoff last season by eight tallies on the goal-difference tiebreaker.
“We’d had some lucky moments in years before that got us through and kind of pushed us forward,” Rowe said. “Those lucky moments you need to get through didn’t happen for us last year and, in some cases, went the other way for us.”
The Revolution had been lining up with one striker centrally, in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. The team made a change in September, moving to a 4-4-2 diamond, with two strikers and the midfielders playing closer together in the middle of the field.
“When we decided to make the change, it felt like a big change because of how we’d been playing and we’d had such success in the other formation,” Heaps said. “But in reality, the players took to it really well.”
It was a revelation. New England scored 15 goals while posting five wins against two losses. That late run brought the Revolution to the brink of the playoffs for the fourth straight season, though they fell just short.
“We had spent a lot of time working on it, so when we did make the switch, players were revitalized, showing up in a little different positions, creating a little different angles for themselves,” Heaps added. “The passing lanes became different and we had to be a little tougher defensively.”
Why did a formation that had taken the Revolution to the brink of an MLS Cup struggle for effectiveness with largely the same team, plus a big midseason acquisition in Kamara? Nguyen believes part of the problem was in a player the Revolution struggled to replace in 2016, U.S. international Jermaine Jones.
“He gave players like myself and some other attackers freedom to go forward,” Nguyen told Goal. “At the same time, not only was he destroying plays in midfield, he was also a big key in linking passes up from defense to offense. We lost a player like that when he left, so trying to find a way to get that connection between the defense, midfield and forwards, I think was tough.”
Jones’ replacement, Xavier Kouassi, never saw the field in 2016, missing the campaign after suffering a knee injury in Switzerland before his move to the Revolution. The combination of Gershon Koffie and Scott Caldwell simply couldn’t re-create the success Caldwell and Jones had, both defensively and offensively, forcing New England into looking at a change.
Rather than players, it came from the setup.
“Before you had the two wingers which stayed out wide and then it was just me and the striker,” Nguyen said. “Now when you add one more guy to the triangle, it adds another piece to the attack, which can be very dangerous when everyone has to go one-on-one against us.”
Agudelo concurred with importance of not having one attacker marked by two defenders.
“I believe it gave players a little more freedom to roam. We were occupying the center backs and making their jobs a lot harder,” Agudelo said. “With one striker, sometimes, we made it easy for two defenders to mark one striker.”
Beyond just positioning, the players liked their setup in the 4-4-2. Rowe relishes his position at the tip of the diamond, where he can makes runs in behind the strikers and interchange with the forwards. Nguyen, meanwhile, enjoys the freedom to roam and combine.
Despite the success after the switch, the Revolution still expect to use multiple formations this season, depending on the situation. For one, Heaps doesn’t believe the surge was entirely thanks to the formation change. Agudelo was hurt in a U.S. Open Cup match June 29 and did not return until Aug. 13, missing seven games. When he did come back, he did so with a vengeance — scoring four times in those final seven contests of the year.
Even if the team doesn’t always line up in the 4-4-2, that formation has given the players a greater understanding of what they need to do to succeed. Heaps identified how the defensive midfielder in the diamond, for example, learned to better stick to his responsibilities.
“When we played with the diamond, the No. 6 stayed as the No. 6, and really stayed and protected the two center backs,” Heaps said. “I think we’ll incorporate that more across all formations.”
Offensively, the key is making sure that even if the team plays with wide attackers, the players don’t isolate themselves and keep their movement fluid — essential aspects to keeping any defense off-balance.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play in any position, midfield, up front. That flow of the game, whether that’d be running in from the No. 10, going out wide or going up top and then the forward dropping into the No. 10 spot, those little changes are going to create holes and gaps in the defense,” Rowe said. “That’s what’s going to move us forward and, in the end, we’re going to have four at the back. And no matter the formation in front of them, they have a job to do and they know that.”
For Heaps, all of that can be summed up in one word: fluidity.
“The fluidity is where we have to be at our best,” Heaps said. “I think when you’re playing a 4-3-3 or a diamond, the interchange is key. Sometimes you can get stagnant in a 4-3-3 if you’re playing with just one lone No. 9, the midfielders aren’t close enough and the wing forwards are isolated.
“I think the diamond formation brought everyone tighter together, a little closer and the interchange became fluid again. That’s really important for us in every formation. When we had our success in ‘14 and ‘15 and even ‘13, it came from the fluidity of movement of our attacking group.”