FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s been three weeks since the New England Revolution last played a regular-season match – that being a 3-0 loss to Seattle Sounders FC on June 5 – and while the recent break from the league schedule offered a chance for rest and recuperation, the team’s focus heading into this weekend’s return to action is very much the same as it was before the hiatus.
The Revs (3-7-2, 11 pts.) have struggled to maintain possession for long periods this season, leading not only to a lack of offensive chances but also sustained pressure on the defensive side of the ball. That particular issue was never more apparent than in the loss to Seattle, as the Revolution was outshot by a margin of 19-2 and found itself in a three-goal hole before the halftime whistle.
Knowing the importance of possession in the overall flow of the match, the Revs have once again made that aspect of the game a priority ahead of Sunday night’s meeting with the rival Chicago Fire (3-3-5, 14 pts.), a team currently riding a four-game (1-0-3) unbeaten streak.
“Ball possession is going to be huge for us,” said captain Shalrie Joseph, who serves as the Revolution’s lynchpin in the center of the park. “During the past couple games we’ve been really loose with the ball, turning it over in crucial areas. This weekend we’re going to try to take better care of the ball, get it wide to [the wings], and just create a lot more chances. I think once we start doing that, we’re going to start scoring more goals.”
With 13 goals scored through the first 12 games of the regular season, the Revs are averaging just a shade more than one goal per game. Head coach Steve Nicol knows that the key to an increased presence in the attacking third of the field begins with keeping the ball.
“As always, it’s passing and controlling the ball,” said Nicol when asked about the keys to victory on Sunday night. “If we do those things, then we’re good. If we don’t, then we’re not as good.”
The Revs will have to cope without a pair of players who would normally be key contributors in the possession game, as Joseph Niouky and Steve Ralston will be unavailable against the Fire. Niouky must serve a one-game suspension for caution accumulation, while Ralston is recovering from a dislocated left elbow suffered in an international friendly against Brazilian club Cruzeiro on June 13 – his first match with the Revolution after re-signing with the club on June 8.
Pat Phelan is one option to step into Niouky’s spot in central midfield, but the hard-nosed midfielder suffered a minor head injury during Friday’s training session and is listed as “Questionable” on the club’s most recent injury report. Chris Tierneyprovides another alternative in the middle, as the versatile left-footer has added both central midfield and defensive duties to his repertoire this season.
While Niouky and Ralston will not be available this weekend, the Revs will be hoping to welcome veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis back into the fold. The 35-year-old returned from offseason shoulder and knee surgeries to make his first appearance of 2010 against Cruzeiro, making two saves and allowing one goal in 45 minutes of action. With an additional two weeks of rehab under his belt, Reis is hopeful of making his first regular-season appearance on Sunday night, although he’s stated that his inclusion will be a game-time decision.
“I’m getting there,” Reis said about his health after training on Friday. “Every day it’s a little bit better. It’s going to be a game-time decision (whether I can play against the Fire). I had a good talk with [Coach Nicol] today, so we’ll see. What I don’t want to do is hurt the team and put myself in a bad situation out there, but it’s looking good.”
Reis hasn’t played a full 90 minutes since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2009 MLS Cup Playoffs, when the Revs were eliminated from the postseason by none other than Sunday night’s opponent, the Chicago Fire. While the notion of being “90-minutes fit” is often a concern for field players returning from injury, Reis said the obstacles are different as a goalkeeper.
“It’s more mental at that point,” he said. “You’re not going to do as much physically [as a field player], but honestly, you’re going to break a mental sweat. Sometimes you get more tired from that.”
Anchoring the defense in front of the goalkeeper will be veteran Cory Gibbs, who said that organization among the backline, sharpness on the ball and the confidence to go after the full three points will be the keys against the Fire.
One of the assignments Gibbs will likely be tasked with on Sunday night is limiting the effectiveness of 38-year-old target forward Brian McBride. A veteran of three World Cups, the former U.S. National Team star is still a handful for any defender because of his hard-working attitude and unparalleled aerial ability.
As a former member of the U.S. National Team himself, Gibbs is quite familiar with McBride and that familiarity could provide an advantage should the two match up this weekend.
“Brian’s a player – on and off the field – I respect to the utmost,” Gibbs said. “He stays so confident within himself and if he misses one chance, he knows he’s going to get one or two more and he’s going to put one away. I think my job is to contain that; try and take that confidence away from him and just play him to the best of my abilities.”
McBride has proven tough to contain in the past, registering eight goals and seven assists in 22 career appearances against the Revolution, although all of that damage was done during his time with the Columbus Crew and he’s yet to score against New England in two appearances with the Fire. Even so, McBride’s success against the Revs mirrors that of his current club, which is unbeaten against the Revolution in the last six regular-season meetings (4-0-2) dating back to the start of the 2008 campaign. Additionally, the Fire has eliminated the Revs from the postseason the last two years.
If the Revolution hopes to end its recent struggles against the Fire this weekend, the deciding factor may just be grit and determination.
“We’ve just got to try to grind out a win,” said forward Kheli Dube. “That’s what’s needed. We don’t need any ties, we don’t need any losses. We need to work hard and just grind out a win.”