The Tweet and Lowdown:
The core that led New England to four MLS Cup finals in the ’00s is mostly gone, replaced by a young, speedy generation. Will it work?
Setting the Scene:
After nearly a decade as one of MLS’s powerhouse sides, the New England Revolution are no longer fearsome. The 2009 season finally showed that head coach Steve Nicol’s unique brand of football “Taoism” could not last forever. The consistency and team core that had buttressed the club’s recent success were suddenly replaced with ups-and-downs and a sometimes-disjointed influx of new faces.
The key problems were injuries, specifically to captain Steve Ralston, goalkeeper Matt Reis and to goal machine Taylor Twellman. Ralston missed 10 games, Reis missed six and Twellman was limited to only two appearances. Zimbabwean Kheli Dube did his best to pick up the slack, notching eight goals, but the Revolution still finished with the second-lowest goal total in the league.
Not that Shalrie Joseph noticed. The big Grenadian had his best season ever, marshalling the midfield, scoring eight goals and adding 8 assists. And rookie defenders Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston stepped right into starting roles.
But it was never going to be enough. The talent drain of the likes of Clint Dempsey, Andy Dorman, and Michael Parkhurst in recent years finally took its toll. The Revs snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and fell 3-0 on aggregate to nemesis Chicago Fire in the first round.
Players in: Preston Burpo (Colorado Rapids), Cory Gibbs (Colorado Rapids), Joseph Niouky (Port Autonome), Zach Schilawski (Wake Forest), Seth Sinovic (Creighton),
Players Out: Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado Rapids), Wells Thompson (Colorado Rapids), Steve Ralston (AC St. Louis), Chris Albright (New York Red Bulls), Brad Knighton (Philadelphia Union), Jay Heaps (retired)
Star Attraction: Shalrie Joseph
Depending on your taste, Joseph is either a very, very good midfield general or the best player in MLS. Tall, skillful, tough and possessed of the character found only in great leaders, the 31-year-old Grenadian international sometimes seems to will his side to fight for a result. In short, he is worth more than the price of admission.
Following the acrimonious off-season departure of Steve Ralston, Joseph assumes the Revs’ captaincy in 2010. Revs fans take solace in this solution, though they hope he won’t have to carry the scoring burden again this year.
Unsung Hero: Darrius Barnes
Statline: Barnes was the only player to play every minute of every match. As a rookie. And while his backline partner Kevin Alston got a call-up to the national team, it was Barnes who held the defense together for most of the season. Comparisons to his predecessor, Parkhurst, seem to arrive daily.
Fatigue saw Barnes’s play flag toward the end. But with a full season under his belt and the addition of experienced defender Cory Gibbs, Barnes should again be the ironman in the backline.
Ready for Primetime: Kenny Mansally
Three years after arriving from Gambia, Mansally still ripples with potential. His raw power and hard ambition are evident every time he takes the field.
Now is the time for the 21-year-old to turn that potential energy into kinetic output. Lacking a true position—left mid or second striker?—has hurt him, but just on pure talent he should have more to his name than four goals in 43 career appearances.
Storylines to Watch:
With the veteran exodus over the past two years, the Revolution are now one of the youngest—and fastest—sides in MLS. Established youngsters like Mansally, Barnes, Alston and Sainey Nyassi are joined this year by impressive rookie Zach Schilawski. Youth can be effective, but in MLS it has rarely led to any hardware.
For the better part of the last ten years, Matt Reis has been MLS’ most consistent goalkeepers. But 2009 saw the 12-year veteran struggle with injuries and on-field mishaps. His injury and the loss of Brad Knighton in the expansion draft required the Revs to acquire Preston Burpo from Colorado, in exchange for midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. Once Reis is healthy, will there be a goalkeeper controversy at Gillette Stadium?
The Twellman Watch will begin on day one. Will he last the whole season? Will he still have the scoring touch?
What He Said:
“Sometimes youth is courageous. They don't think about the problems, they just want to play.”
—Revolution coach Steve Nicol, speaking to Comcast SportsNet
If everything goes right:
To say the least, the 2010 Revolution will be interesting. The reality is they are not quite ready to contend for any trophies, but at the same time they won’t be an easy three points for anyone. The presence of Joseph alone makes them a formidable challenge, and if Twellman is healthy and back to his old nasty self, Nicol’s lads could cause some havoc down the stretch.
Prediction for 2010 finish: 4th in the East