FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When it was announced on Monday morning that midfielder Shalrie Joseph had been granted a leave of absence from the Revolution to attend to personal matters, the demands placed on every other player on the club’s roster were instantly raised.
A 2009 league MVP finalist, Joseph registered career highs in both goals (8) and assists (8) last season while primarily playing out of position as a target forward. The Grenada international’s influence could not be overstated, as the Revs went 11-7-7 with 31 goals scored when Joseph played more than 25 minutes, while they were 0-3-1 with just two goals scored when he didn’t.
That pattern has continued early in the 2010 campaign, as Joseph’s only appearance has come in the Revolution’s most decisive victory, an impressive 4-1 win over Toronto FC in the home opener. Joseph was influential throughout his 75-minute stint, controlling possession in the midfield and spearheading New England’s attack. He finished the game with one assist, springing Kheli Dube into the right corner to set up the third goal of Zack Schilawski’s hat trick.
“I’ve said previously when Shalrie’s been missing that any team is going to miss him,” said head coach Steve Nicol after training on Tuesday. “We’re not going to kid ourselves that we’re not going to miss him. But we have a squad of 24, and we have players who are desperate to play and do well, and we’ll move forward that way.”
One of those players likely to see increased time in Joseph’s absence is rugged central midfielder Pat Phelan. A third-year player out of Wake Forest University, the 25-year-old has appeared in all five games this season, while he’s started all four in which Joseph has been unavailable. Drafted in the first round of the 2008 MLS SuperDraft by Toronto FC, Phelan plied his trade in college as both a central defender and central midfielder, so his game relies on breaking up the opposition’s attack and circulating the flow of possession.
Phelan is well aware that Joseph’s absence heaps extra pressure on himself and the rest of his teammates, although he’s also under no illusions that anyone can directly replace Joseph’s contributions in the lineup. With that said, the Revolution’s focus and resolve must rise to another level to compensate.
“We can’t really dwell on the fact that we don’t have Shalrie,” said Phelan. “Obviously we’ve struggled without him, but the guys who are playing – myself included – have to look at it as a challenge. We need to step up and we need to put together a good performance. I don’t know if [Coach Nicol’s] going to change up the lineup and try a different formation. I’m sure we’ll try some things, but I think we just have to accept it and move on as best we can.”
There’s a chance Nicol could explore the possibility of altering his formation in Joseph’s absence. The Revs have primarily used a 4-4-2 setup in the early part of the season, but on multiple occasions they’ve switched to a 3-5-2 formation late in matches to crowd the midfield and push the attack. Another possibility is a 4-5-1 setup, which would also provide an extra body in midfield while still helping the club keep its defensive shape.
Should Nicol stick with the 4-4-2, it’s possible that Phelan will continue to partner with Senegalese midfielder Joseph Niouky in central midfield. Niouky was signed during the 2010 preseason and has been a fixture in the Revolution’s lineup since joining, playing every minute of the first five games of the season.
“I think they’ve been solid without being spectacular,” said Nicol of the Phelan-Niouky pairing. “They’ve done a job. Obviously, we want them to try and get us as [far] up the field as possible and try and do things in the [offensive] half of the field. So we just need to keep banging on the drum, keep getting them forward and keep giving them confidence. At the end of the day, they’ve been thrown together somewhat, and they’re not going to click overnight, but they’re getting there. They’ve been solid, and we’ll try and build on that.”
With the length of Joseph’s absence indefinite, it’s possible that Phelan and Niouky will have an extended period to figure out each other’s tendencies.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Phelan of his partnership with Niouky. “Obviously, the team’s possession overall – and specifically in the midfield – is nowhere near what it is when Shalrie’s in there. It’s difficult. We’re both defensive-minded players and it’s tough for us to get up and support the strikers. Maybe [Coach Nicol] will try sliding Marko (Perovic) in front of us or something like that – that’s his call.”
“But at this point, we can’t really make excuses,” he continued. “We’re working each day trying to get better chemistry, so hopefully it comes through pretty quickly.”