As New England coach Steve Nicol contemplated Shalrie Joseph's likely absence for the fourth time in five matches for Saturday's night clash with Colorado, he offered a simple proposal for how to compensate.
“When you've got a guy like Shalrie in your team and he's not playing, you aren't going to find another Shalrie, so you try and find another way of doing it,” Nicol said. “That's what we'll do.”
The onus, as it has in Joseph's previous omissions, falls on Pat Phelan to address the void. The third-year midfielder out of Wake Forest knows he doesn't represent a straight swap for Best XI fixture Joseph, but said he performs other roles while deployed in central midfield.
“That's why he's the best holding midfielder in the league,” Phelan said. “No one can really replicate his performance day-in and day-out except him. When I'm in there, I just try to be a clean distributor, a little bit of a destroyer and a vocal leader with Dez [Joseph Niouky] in there.”
The Niouky-Phelan combo operates a bit differently than a Joseph-Niouky or a Joseph-Phelan pairing would. Joseph dominates a match with his presence and his ability to connect a wide range of passes. With Joseph's ability to spread the field and incite the Revolution attack stripped away, the Niouky-Phelan duo focuses more on winning the ball and shutting it to someone else who can facilitate the offense.
“Neither of us are expected to be making any slashing runs,” Phelan said. “We're not attacking midfielders. When we can jumpstart the attack, we will. For the most part, we're just supposed to be solid in there, get the ball, distribute it, be solid defensively and just be consistent.”
Phelan's teammates and coaches often use that word—solid—to describe his performances. Nicol said Phelan's work in the center of the park provides exactly what the Revolution require without Joseph to direct traffic.
“He's solid,” Nicol said. “He's just exactly what we knew he was going to be. He keeps it simple, wins his fair share of challenges and gets the ball moving.”
In the aftermath of the Revolution's 2-0 defeat at San Jose last Saturday, Phelan said he and Niouky need to submit an improved display against Colorado—and their seasoned central midfield duo of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni—in order to send a message to the rest of the league about how the Revs can cope in Joseph's absence.
“It was a bit of a letdown in San Jose, but it is [important],” Phelan said. “When teams scout us, they think if they can shut down Shalrie, they can shut down the midfield and now they've only got a couple of other areas to worry about. It's really important for [Niouky] and me to hold our own in there and show them that we're not going to get run over because Shalrie's not in there.”