Defense takes backseat to Mansally’s goals

Kenny Mansally’s game-winning performance was made possible by some solid defensive work

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – Second-half substitute Kenny Mansally will undoubtedly steal the headlines on a night when his two-goal performance lifted the New England Revolution to a 2-0 victory over heated rival D.C. United at RFK Stadium, and deservedly so.

But perhaps lost in the background of Mansally’s double was the steady work of the Revolution’s backline, which limited D.C. to a series of half-chances and earned its first shutout of the 2010 season.

With a clean sheet against United on Saturday night, the Revs now haven’t conceded a goal since the sixth minute of last weekend’s season opener against the LA Galaxy, while they’ve yet to allow a goal from the run of play this season. Combined, the backline of Kevin Alston, Emmanuel Osei, Cory Gibbs and Seth Sinovic – along with goalkeeper Preston Burpo – has gone 174 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal.

“I don’t think anyone was questioning how good our defense was going to be this year,” said Pat Phelan, who locked down the central midfield alongside Joseph Niouky on Saturday night. “Whoever is in there – we’ve got some veteran guys, some younger athletic guys – they’re a great group. I think [defense] is going to be the strength of our team.”

That certainly looked to be the case against United, as the Revolution allowed D.C. to register just three shots on goal. Of those, only one shot truly tested Burpo, who made a fantastic kick save on Santino Quaranta’s 14th-minute free kick.

According to Burpo – who earned his first shutout since Sept. 26, 2009, when he was with Colorado – credit must be given to the group in front of him for limiting United’s opportunities.

“I don’t think they got too many clear-cut chances – a couple of free kicks” he said. “Give credit to the guys in front of me, that’s for sure.”

Head coach Steve Nicol was similarly pleased with his team’s defensive performance, as the club largely limited the opportunities for the dangerous forward combo of Jaime Moreno – an historical Rev-killer – and Chris Pontius.

As Nicol pointed out, a defense has to be considered to be doing its job when it doesn’t allow clear-cut scoring chances.

“I don’t remember a chance they had where you’re thinking they should’ve scored,” he said. “It was all challenges and bits and bobs, so from that point of view, we were great defensively.”

Admittedly, the Revs were on their heels early for the second straight week, conceding much of the possession to D.C. the same way they did to the LA Galaxy in the season opener last weekend. But while they allowed an early goal to the Galaxy, the Revs held firm against United and grew steadier and more confident as the game wore on.

“We need to start games off better, but overall it was good,” said Cory Gibbs, who has captained the Revolution in the first two games of the season while playing central defense. “Mostly I’m excited about the clean sheet. I’m proud of the defense and our team shape.”

Phelan agreed with Gibbs’ assessment, almost matching his evaluation word-for-word.

“We weathered the storm for a little bit when we needed to,” he said. “I thought our defensive shape was pretty good.”

A bit of those early jitters can be contributed to the Revolution’s youth, combined with the fact that two of the main cogs in the defense – center back Gibbs and goalkeeper Burpo – were just acquired this past offseason. Along with rookie left back Sinovic, three of the five defensive players on the field were new to the team, with Alston and Osei representing the only returnees.

Now with last year’s rookie revelation, Darrius Barnes, returning to health – enough so that he made a late substitute appearance against United – Nicol will have a personnel decision to make next week against Toronto FC.

But considering how well the defensive corps has played thus far, it’s a safe bet that the Revs will be solid in the back no matter who is on the field.

And according to Alston, the performances will only improve with time.

“It’s progressively getting better,” he said of the team’s defensive play. “I think we’re just starting to figure out each other’s tendencies and play more as a team.”