Set pieces prove to be a difference maker

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Playing its third game in eight days with just 14 healthy field players, the New England Revolution knew it would take a brave effort to grind out a result last weekend against a D.C. United side spurred on by the recent firing of its head coach.

The Revs withstood an early wave of pressure from the visitors and largely limited United’s chances, although goalkeeper Matt Reis registered a season-high six saves and was massive when called upon. Using a slightly makeshift backline with central defender Emmanuel Osei positioned at right back, the Revolution put forth another solid defensive effort and claimed a fifth shutout in the last seven games in all competitions.

Yet a clean sheet alone couldn’t earn the three points the Revs so desperately needed to get back into the playoff hunt. To do that, the Revolution had to find a way to break through United’s rearguard and put the ball in the back of the net.

Enter the set piece.

Just as it appeared the teams would go into halftime scoreless following a largely uneventful first half, Pat Phelan got on the end of Chris Tierney’s long free kick and nodded home his first career goal in the 42nd minute. It was the timeliest of goals and helped secure a plucky 1-0 victory on a night when the Revolution wasn’t at its best.

“Clearly, the sharpness wasn’t there,” head coach Steve Nicol said of the Revolution’s performance last Saturday night. “The SuperLiga games have definitely taken it out of us. The injury situation means we can’t rest as many guys as we’d like to, but at the end of the day, guys turned up and gave us everything they had, and that’s what got us the points.”

Success from dead-ball situations can often be the difference between winning and losing, and that was certainly the case against United. While the Revs repelled four D.C. corner kicks and eight free kicks in the attacking half of the field, they capitalized through a combination of Tierney’s perfect service and Phelan’s opportunism in the box.

“Set pieces make a difference in the game,” said captain Shalrie Joseph, one of the Revolution’s biggest targets on free kicks and corner kicks. “Teams live and breathe off of that and for us it worked that we got one against D.C. When you’re not playing well, sometimes you’ve got to rely on ugly goals, hard work and set pieces, and that’s what we did last week.”

Phelan’s goal continued a recent trend for the Revs, who have been deadly on set pieces during the current seven-game unbeaten streak. Four of the Revolution’s eight goals since the beginning of July have been the result of a set piece, including two direct free kicks off the left foot of Marko Perovic. Since the start of the season, the Revs have turned set pieces into goals five times in all competitions.

That’s a noticeable increase from the 2009 campaign, when the Revs didn’t convert a set piece until their 28th game of the regular season. New England finished last year with just two goals from dead-ball situations.

While the addition of Perovic has given the Revs a free-kick specialist, this year’s set-piece success is down to more than just one individual player, as evidenced by last weekend’s Tierney-to-Phelan combination.

“I think we just want it more (this year),” said Joseph. “In the box, it comes down to who wants it more and who’s going to do whatever it takes to get that goal. I think we’ve come to a point where guys realize if we work hard … then we’re going to get on the end of something and it’s been going in for us this year.”

The obvious benefit of the improvement on set pieces is the resulting goals, but being dangerous on dead-ball situations can also provide an advantage from the run of play. As opponents become aware of the Revolution’s ability from free kicks, they may be more hesitant in their challenges around the box for fear of conceding fouls in dangerous areas. As a result, space could open up in the attacking third.

“If you’re a threat on set pieces, it’s just another thing the other team has to worry about,” said Phelan. “That opens up space on the second line at the top of the box for short set pieces, or trick plays – whatever you want to call them. I think to have that in our arsenal is huge for us.”