Phelan fills defensive role admirably


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Nine games into the 2010 regular season, versatility has been the name of the game for the New England Revolution. A combination of injuries, suspensions and personal issues have forced the Revs into a variety of makeshift formations, with head coach Steve Nicol often asking his players to play out of position to plug the holes.

Chris Tierney – who spent his first two seasons in New England alternating between left back and left midfield – has added right back, center back and central midfielder to his repertoire in recent weeks. Rookie left back Seth Sinovic was pushed across the field to the right side for the May 8 match against the Columbus Crew, while midfielder Khano Smith filled in at left back. In last week’s U.S. Open Cup play-in match against the New York Red Bulls, forward Kheli Dube held down a defensive midfield role and midfielder Zak Boggs played on the right side of a four-man backline.

Now, midfielder Pat Phelan can add his name to the ever-expanding list of Revs who have taken versatility to a whole new level. The Wake Forest product made a name for himself as a rugged central midfielder during his first two professional seasons, but for the last two matches, he’s been called upon to play central defense.

It’s the absence of customary central defenders Darrius Barnes (R midfoot sprain) and Emmanuel Osei (R leg infection) which has called for Phelan’s assistance on the backline. With captain Cory Gibbs added to the list of unavailable players for last week’s Open Cup play-in match against New York, Phelan formed an improvised central defensive pairing with fellow midfielder Tierney. The Revs lost that match, 3-0.

When the Revolution returned to regular-season action for this past weekend’s visit from the San Jose Earthquakes, so did Gibbs. But with Barnes and Osei still sidelined, one central defensive slot was left unfilled. It was Phelan who was trusted with the task.

Phelan restored the coaching staff’s trust by helping the Revs earn their first shutout since April 3, as the Revolution and Earthquakes played out a scoreless draw.

The performance earned praise not only from Nicol, but from Phelan’s teammates along the backline, as well.

“I thought he did well,” said right back Kevin Alston, who made his return to the lineup after missing time with a right hamstring strain. “Pat’s a good player. He used to be a center back. He plays more defensively anyway, so I think he was used to that and he filled in well.”

As Alston mentioned, Phelan’s transition was aided by his prior experience playing central defense in college. Although he spent a portion of his senior year playing in a defensive midfield role, he spent the majority of his Wake Forest career playing as a central defender.

Oddly enough, had Phelan not briefly played defensive midfield for the Demon Deacons, he likely wouldn’t have been playing central defense for the Revolution last Saturday night.

“I’ve definitely had my fair share of practice (as a central defender),” he said. “It’s kind of ironic – I played a little holding midfield as a senior in college, and Stevie said had I not and been a true defender, he wouldn’t have [traded for] me. So here I am playing center back – and I know it’s out of necessity – but I think I did alright.

“There’s not much difference between being in a back four and a midfield four,” he continued. “(There are) more defensive responsibilities, but the basics are pretty much the same. It meant being in good spots, so it’s not too big of an adjustment.”

Phelan’s previous life as a central defender likely aided him most in containing San Jose’s energetic forward pairing of Ryan Johnson and Chris Wondolowski. Both are powerful forwards with deceptive speed and above-average finishing ability.

“(Johnson’s) a dynamic player at times,” Phelan said. “He’s somewhat predictable. So is Wondolowski. Their runs didn’t give us too many problems. That being said, if you fall asleep for a second, [they’ve] got the pace and the ability to burn you. [They] almost did a couple times when we had some lapses.

“On the whole, I think the communication with Cory and myself – and Kevin – was very good, so they didn’t give us too many problems,” he continued.

Nicol agreed that the center-back combination of Phelan and Gibbs did as well as could’ve been expected against an Earthquakes team which scored four goals in its previous match against the Red Bulls.

“[Pat] and Cory were great,” he said in his postgame press conference. “Johnson is a handful; he puts himself about. I don’t think we gave him a kick tonight, which is what we asked them to do. So from that point, we’re happy.”

Considering his performance against San Jose and the likelihood that both Barnes and Osei won’t be available for this weekend’s trip to Toronto, it’s possible that Phelan will line up in central defense against his former team on Saturday afternoon. He was drafted 10th overall by TFC in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, but was traded to New England in June of that year before playing a minute for the Reds.

Should that be the case, Phelan will happily oblige – although he’s quick to point out that he’s looking forward to the eventual opportunity to return to his natural position.

“I prefer the midfield,” he said. “I feel like I did half as much running (playing defense) as I normally do playing in the midfield. But wherever they need me at this point for the team, I’m glad to play there.”