Earthquakes present first test for new-look Revs

Season opener pits Revs against Western Conference foe

SAN JOSE, Calif. – A new era officially begins on Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium, where the New England Revolution – led by first-year head coach Jay Heaps – will finally kick off the 2012 season against the San Jose Earthquakes.

Kickoff between the Revs and Earthquakes is set for 10:30 p.m. ET and the match will be televised live in high definition on Comcast SportsNet New England, while the radio call will be available on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

Current Form: Promising preseason performances provide hope for both sides

Both the Revs and Earthquakes enter 2012 with aspirations of returning to the postseason after missing out on the playoffs last year. The Revolution managed just five wins and finished the season tied with the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps for the fewest points in the league (28), while the Earthquakes made a desperate late push only to finish eight points outside the playoff picture.

A second straight disappointing campaign prompted sweeping changes in New England, which appointed Heaps to replace longtime head coach Steve Nicol. Heaps has infused his side with an energetic approach and a possession-based playing style, which yielded dividends this preseason with an unbeaten record of 6-0-1. Standout rookie Kelyn Rowe was the Revolution’s surprising leader in preseason scoring, registering four goals and four assists.

San Jose found similar success in its preseason outings, dropping just one match (to Sporting Kansas City) en route to a 3-1-4 record. Chris Wondolowski continued the form which saw him capture the 2010 Golden Boot and tie for the league lead in goals last season, striking four times in five appearances, including the opening goal in a 5-0 win over Chivas USA in the preseason finale.

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Past Meetings: Earthquakes swept season series in 2011

The Revs suffered a pair of 2-1 losses to the Earthquakes last season, on May 21 at Buck Shaw Stadium and Oct. 8 at Gillette Stadium. It was Wondolowski who unsurprisingly did the damage in the most recent meeting, striking twice to overcome Benny Feilhaber’s acrobatic volley which temporarily knotted the score.

Last year’s setbacks extended New England’s winless run against San Jose to four games (0-3-1), including a pair of losses in the Bay Area. The Revs haven’t beaten the Earthquakes since sweeping the season series in 2009. Coincidentally, the Revs opened that season with a 1-0 win at Buck Shaw Stadium.

Injury Report: Key absences force Heaps to rely on depth

Both Saer Sène and Chris Tierney started the Revolution’s final preseason match, but neither will be available on Saturday night against the Earthquakes. Sène remained in Foxborough as he recovers from a bit of swelling in his left knee, while Tierney is suspended because of a red card he received in the 2011 season finale.

With Sène sidelined and Jose Moreno’s arrival not likely until next week, Heaps looks set to choose his forward pairing from the trio of Blake Brettschneider, Fernando Cardenas and Diego Fagundez, although Lee Nguyen and Michael Roach are potential forward options, as well. Darrius Barnes is the likeliest candidate to fill the left back berth left vacant by Tierney, with rookie Tyler Polak providing another option.

San Jose will most certainly be without Joey Gjertsen (R knee surgery), Alan Gordon (R hip surgery) and Tim Ward (L non-specific soft tissue injury), while both Victor Bernardez (R ankle sprain) and Jacob Hustedt (L ankle surgery) were listed as questionable on Tuesday’s injury report.

Key Player: Revolution central defender A.J. Soares

Much of the focus Saturday night will fall on the Revolution’s midfield quartet of the aforementioned Feilhaber and Rowe, along with the central duo of Shalrie Joseph and Clyde Simms. They’ll be charged with dictating the flow of the game and will be the focal point of New England’s new possession-based approach.

But the task of stopping the potent Wondolowski – not to mention his burly strike partner Steven Lenhart – falls primarily on the shoulders of the Revolution’s backline, led by second-year center back A.J. Soares. A popular pick for rookie of the year last season, Soares will have the opportunity to dispel the myth of the sophomore slump by limiting the effectiveness of one of the league’s top goal scorers.

“You can’t take your mind off the game for one second, otherwise he can kill you,” Soares said of Wondolowski. “He’s scored a lot of goals. There’s a big sign [at Buck Shaw Stadium] that says 2010 Golden Boot.

“We’re aware of that, but they’ve also got other players; Lenhart, big guys up there who are fast and athletic who can do a good job,” Soares added. “So we’re not just focusing on [Wondolowski], but we’re also aware that he’s a goal scorer and any time he’s going to get the ball, he’s going to be dangerous.”

Final Thoughts: Complete effort necessary on a night when emotions will run high

“San Jose is certainly a very difficult team,” said Heaps. “We’re coming to their stadium and their opening night, so the emotion’s going to be high. They have a good group of veteran players, but also they’ve made some offseason acquisitions in (Shea) Salinas and (Marvin) Chavez who are pretty dynamic players. Then they get the return of Steven Lenhart, who I think is just one of the key players in this league. He knows how to play hard and he knows how to play on every play.

“You cannot take your eye off anything in these games,” Heaps concluded. “You have to be turned on the entire time and that’s what our guys have to do in order to get a result here.”