FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Two teams looking to right the ship early in the 2010 season will meet at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night, when the New England Revolution hosts FC Dallas in a battle between clubs looking to keep pace in their respective conferences.
The Revs (2-3-0, 6 pts.) began their April schedule with back-to-back wins over D.C. United and Toronto FC, but they closed the month with losses to the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids, dropping them into a tie for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Even so, the Revolution enters this weekend’s round of games just one point back of the Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire and Kansas City Wizards, which are all tied for second place in the East.
FC Dallas (0-1-3, 3 pts.) sits at the foot of the Western Conference table as one of only two teams in the league – along with D.C. – without a win entering the month of May. The Hoops have reached this point with a trio of draws at home and a road loss to the much-improved New York Red Bulls, however, so to categorize them as a winless club is short-sighted.
Although this will be their first meeting in the 2010 regular season, the Revs and Hoops actually squared off as recently as two months ago. Both teams were stationed in Orlando, Fla., during a portion of preseason training in February, and the clubs scheduled an exhibition match at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. FCD earned a 2-0 win in that game courtesy of goals from Atiba Harris and Marvin Chavez, although Chavez looks unlikely to be available this weekend as he continues to recover from a right hamstring strain.
Because the clubs have a certain level of familiarity with one another, preparation for the match takes on an extra element. Throughout the week, Revolution players stressed organization as one of the key areas of improvement needed ahead of the FC Dallas match.
“I think in terms of team organization we could’ve been a bit tighter (last week against Colorado),” said club captain Cory Gibbs. “I take that upon myself, wearing the captain’s armband for that game, for not organizing the team better. I think our backline could’ve been a bit tighter.”
While the Revolution’s defensive corps largely kept Rapids forwards Conor Casey and Omar Cummings in check last weekend, it was one momentary lapse in the team’s shape which led to the game-winning goal. As Casey held the ball at his feet in the box, he drew five Revolution defenders, opening up space outside the box. That space was exploited by Pablo Mastroeni, whose 30-yard blast found the back of the net.
“Defensively, we struggled a little bit last week,” said left back Seth Sinovic. “(In training this week) we worked a little bit on shifting, and as the ball is moving across the field just locating where we’re supposed to be position-wise. I think that’s important with Dallas because they play with a lot of guys in the midfield and they like to be in possession, so it’s going to be important for us to cut off angles.”
With Dallas likely to employ a 4-5-1 formation and crowd the midfield – as Colorado did last weekend – much of the heavy lifting will fall on the central midfield tandem of Pat Phelan and Joseph Niouky. With lynchpin midfielder Shalrie Joseph unavailable to help the Revs maintain possession, the midfield battle will be firmly in the spotlight for both teams on Saturday night.
The hope for the Revolution is that last weekend’s experience against Colorado has helped prepare the club for what it’s likely to see from Dallas.
“It’s the same [as it was] with Colorado – you’ve got to win your individual battles from the beginning,” said Phelan. “We’ve got to start better as a team, we’ve got to be more physical, be first to the ball and let them know that they’re not in for an easy day. I know they might play with five in the midfield and present a little bit of a problem, but we’ll learn from what happened with Colorado and move forward.”
As Phelan mentioned, a strong start will also be critical to the Revolution’s chances on Saturday night. Even in their two home matches, the Revs have been slow out of the gates, conceding the opening goal to both TFC and Colorado.
Getting a foothold in the early-going against Dallas could go a long way to setting the tone for the entire evening.
“Everybody’s got to work hard together from the onset,” said forward Kheli Dube, who returned to the starting lineup last weekend against the Rapids. “The last couple of games we’ve been starting slow and I think as soon as the whistle goes, everybody’s got to concentrate on the game.”
Head coach Steve Nicol agreed with Dube’s assessment that a better start comes down to individual performances.
“Clearly we haven’t started well enough in most games,” he said. “It’s an individual thing. We really need to take responsibility for it. We’re doing the same things we’ve done previously when we have started well, so it’s really down to the team mentality to start well.
“We need everybody as positive as they can be at the start of the game in order to push forward and put the other team under pressure rather than vice versa,” he continued. “So we really need to take responsibility individually for that, but at the same time, [the coaching staff] will certainly be doing everything we can to make it easier for them to start well.”
While the Revs will have to be extra focused in the opening stages, they’ll have to keep their eyes on the dangerous Jeff Cunningham for the entire 90 minutes. The 33-year-old forward went through a re-birth with Dallas in 2009, scoring 17 goals to lead the league en route to being named a finalist for MLS MVP.
Cunningham scored the only goal the last time the teams met in the regular season, leading the Hoops to a 1-0 win on Sept. 30, 2009. He’s gotten off to a fast start in 2010, as well, scoring three goals in the first four games of the season – although all three of those strikes have come from the penalty spot.
There’s no question that Cunningham will attract plenty of attention on Saturday night, but the danger, according to Gibbs, is focusing too much on Cunningham and forgetting about the other players wearing FC Dallas uniforms.
“You’ve got focus on the whole team,” he said. “I think Jeff’s a key player for them and trying to contain him is the most important thing, but not losing focus on everybody else is also going to be important. He’s not the only one on that team. They have a strong team. We just have to be ready, and if we put our game-plan into play, we should be alright.”