FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The last time the New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids squared off at Gillette Stadium on May 16, 2009, Cory Gibbs, Preston Burpo, Jeff Larentowicz and Wells Thompson were all in the building. When the teams kick off their 2010 season series on Saturday night in Foxborough, all four players will once again be involved, only this time they’ll be wearing different shades of blue.
A January trade between the Revs and Rapids brought Gibbs and Burpo to New England - along with a third-round selection in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft and allocation money - in exchange for Larentowicz and Thompson. On Saturday night, they’ll have their first chance to face their former teams since the transaction.
“It’ll be a good, competitive match,” said Gibbs when asked about lining up against the team that traded him, quelling any ideas of redemption or extra motivation. “I think Colorado’s a strong side. Definitely the two up top are the foundation of their team, and also Pablo [Mastroeni] in the middle. We’re just going to have to play hard and expect a good challenge.”
The forward pairing which Gibbs refers to is the duo of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, widely regarded as one of the most dangerous attacking tandems in the league. Casey is an aerial threat and a commanding physical presence at 6-foot-1, while Cummings is a speedster with deadly finishing ability.
Casey and Cummings have already combined for five goals in the Rapids’ first four games this season, with Casey converting a trio of penalty kicks and Cummings adding a pair of strikes from the run of play.
“They’re a handful,” said defender Darrius Barnes, who is likely to find himself in the starting lineup for the second straight week while Emmanuel Osei deals with a leg injury. “When you have a big target like Conor up there to flick the ball on to a fast guy like Omar, that’s definitely going to be lethal and dangerous. We just have to do our best to keep them in front of us, and communication is going to be key - just passing them off and staying with runners.”
Most likely joining Barnes on the back line will be Kevin Alston, who along with Barnes faced the combination of Casey and Cummings twice as a rookie in 2009.
“We’ve just got to be smart,” said Alston, who has started all four of the Revolution’s games this season at right back. “We’ve got to know their tendencies. We know Omar’s going to look for the space and try to get in behind, so we know we’ve got to be ready for that. Conor’s a big guy and you can’t let him get the position on you inside because he’s one header away from a goal.”
Casey proved Alston’s point when he last visited Gillette Stadium, scoring on a looping header in just the third minute as the teams played to a 1-1 draw. In fact, the last three meetings between New England and Colorado have resulted in 1-1 draws, while neither team has managed more than one goal in a match against the other in the last five meetings.
Besides the unenviable task of shutting down Casey and Cummings, the other main focus for the Revs on Saturday night will be an improvement in their possession game. Players and coaches alike have singled out the straightforward task of keeping the ball as the key to the Revolution’s success against the Rapids.
“It’s something that we’re always talking about,” said head coach Steve Nicol. “If we don’t possess it and possess it in a manner that’s going to get us up the field and get us attacking the opposition, then it’s going to be difficult.”
“Make sure that we’re confident,” said Gibbs when asked how the Revs can improve their possession. “Make sure that we open up for each other and we support each other, on and off the ball. We have to be in good spaces and I think that’s something we need to start improving on and doing that on a bigger field, which we have at home.”
One of the primary reasons the Revs have had difficulty keeping possession early in the season has been the absence of key players Shalrie Joseph and Edgaras Jankauskas, both of whom are influential in holding the ball with size and strength. Joseph has missed three of the first four games of the season with a right hip flexor strain - making only a 75-minute appearance in the home opener against Toronto - while Jankauskas has yet to make his 2010 debut after suffering a right calf strain during preseason.
The good news for the Revs is that both players could feature on Saturday night against the Rapids. Jankauskas has trained with the first team for the last two weeks and has been removed from the injury report, while Joseph was upgraded from “Doubtful” to “Probable” on Friday. Although the 2009 MLS MVP finalist spent Wednesday and Thursday in the treatment room, he joined his teammates on the field on Friday and participated in the full session.
Joining Joseph and Jankauskas on the list of possible additions is midfielder Nico Colaluca, who has also missed the first four games of the season with a left knee sprain. The former Colorado Rapid has been removed from the injury report after training full for two weeks, and he could make his 2010 debut against his old club.
For Jankauskas and Colaluca, it’s a question of fitness after missing such a lengthy period.
“I missed the whole preseason and now I get three days with the team, so of course my fitness must be better,” said Jankauskas. “I’m probably not match-fit, but I’m working hard and hopefully getting there.”
“As I said, my fitness is not the best,” he continued. “But if the team needs me, I’ll be able to help. Probably not 90 minutes, but some time.”
Colaluca finds himself in a similar situation.
“I’m still getting my fitness back,” he said after training on Thursday. “I’ve been sore [Wednesday] and today after training, but I’m just taking care of myself and gradually getting my fitness back.”
Should any of the trio of Joseph, Jankauskas and Colaluca find themselves on the field, they’ll likely be familiar with one of the players patrolling Colorado’s central midfield - the previously-mentioned Larentowicz. The former Revolution midfielder has played every minute of the Rapids’ first four games of the season and registered his first goal for the club in last weekend’s 3-1 win over Toronto FC.
“Obviously we know everything about Jeff,” said Nicol of the player he drafted in 2005. “The one thing we know is that he’s going to come here and he’s going to do everything to win the game because that’s what he’s all about. He’s always committed, he certainly has ability and he can pass the ball.”
“I don’t think Jeff should be surprising us,” Nicol quipped.