Set pieces a focus in Foxborough

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Set pieces have been a thorn in the side of the New England Revolution in recent years. While the Revs have seemed to lack a certain cutting edge on set plays in the attacking third of the field, they’ve also occasionally struggled to defend balls served into the box from free kicks and corner kicks.

Those concerns on the defensive side of set pieces came to the fore once again last weekend in Toronto, when Chad Barrett got on the end of Sam Cronin’s 53rd-minute corner kick and buried a header from six yards out. Barrett’s strike proved to be the only goal of the game as the Revs remained winless in four all-time trips to Canada.

“Every now and again something is going to happen on a set piece – that’s just a fact of life in soccer,” said goalkeeper Preston Burpo, who has played every minute of the Revolution’s 10 regular-season games this season. “But for us, it’s happened a little bit more than it should.”

Barrett’s header last Saturday afternoon was the second goal New England has conceded direct from a corner kick this season – Ike Opara’s header in San Jose on April 17 being the other – while the Revs have also allowed a pair of goals from indirect free kicks served into the box.

With defensive set pieces providing occasional difficulties for the Revs, it could be assumed that there are tactical reasons at the root of the problem. New England employs a unique combination of man-marking and zone defending on set pieces.

However, the overarching attitude in the Revolution locker room is that tactics aren’t the issue. It’s merely execution.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way we’re setting up,” said Chris Tierney, who has played every position along the backline this season, in addition to both left and central midfield. “We’re in the right spots. It’s just about attacking the ball. It’s the same thing when you’re trying to score goals, but you’ve got to be even more aggressive when you’re defending them. It’s just a mentality thing. It’s nothing tactical. We’ve just got to go attack the ball and we’ve got to make sure we want it more than the guys we’re marking. That’s pretty much all it comes down to.”

Burpo agrees that tactics aren’t the problem. Instead, he believes it comes down to individual assignments and an increased sense of focus.

“Guys have got to be on their toes,” he said. “If someone does run past you, maybe give them a bump to help the guy out in front of you. It’s a matter of making sure we’re in the right spot, (having the right) mentality, getting on your toes, attacking [the ball], being a man and throwing your body around when you have to.”

Because the issues can be traced to individual mistakes, correcting them is relatively simple.

“It’s very straightforward,” said head coach Steve Nicol. “We have to attack the ball, and we didn’t do it (in Toronto).”

While preventing goals from set pieces on the defensive end of the field is the top priority, the Revs will hope to parlay a similar mindset into success from dead-ball situations in the attacking end, where they’ve struggled to generate many serious threats this season.

The Revs only scored two goals from set pieces in the entire 2009 regular season, and it wasn’t until their 28th game that they capitalized from a dead-ball situation. When the Revolution scored two more goals from set pieces against the Chicago Fire in the MLS Cup Playoffs, it seemed like any issues on the offensive side of the ball had been swept away.

Those difficulties have arisen yet again this season, however, as 42 corner kicks and 51 free kicks in the attacking half of the field have resulted in just one goal – Marko Perovic’s fantastic free kick against the Colorado Rapids, which the Serbian deposited in the upper corner from 25 yards out. Not one of the Revolution’s 10 goals this season has come via header.

Rookie forward Zack Schilawski is one of the players trying to get on the end of corner kicks and free kicks, and he believes that the return of Shalrie Joseph will provide a major boost in that area.

“Obviously [set pieces are] the way a lot of goals happen,” said Schilawski. “That’s another thing [Shalrie] brings to the game. I thought against Toronto he was unlucky not to score a couple. He’s able to get his body in there, he’s always challenging the goalkeeper and he’s a threat.

“I think more guys have got to have that attitude,” he continued. “I think we’ve had a couple of times when balls have been served into the box and no one’s been around. The guys off the ball just need to have a little bit better mentality, attack the ball and try to make something happen.”

The term “mentality” came up yet again when Tierney was asked about offensive set pieces, which he is often charged with delivering with his wicked left foot.

“Again, it just comes down to a matter of having the right mentality when the ball’s coming into the box,” he said. “You’ve just got to be willing to put your body on the line. You might take a [few knocks] here and there, but goals are goals, and that’s what we need right now.”