FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Recent history has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that in Major League Soccer, it’s not how you start, but rather how you finish. Scores of MLS teams have overcome a rough patch early in the schedule to not only qualify for the postseason, but thrive on the league’s biggest stage.
Take, for instance, the 2009 performances of the league’s last two MLS Cup champions, the Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake. Coming off its first league title in club history in 2008, the Crew began last season winless in its first seven games (0-2-5) but used a blistering second-half surge – including a string of five consecutive wins in July and August – to claim its second consecutive Supporters’ Shield with the league’s best regular-season record.
Then of course there’s RSL, which claimed just 12 points from its first 12 games (3-6-3) in 2009 before recovering to sneak into the MLS Cup Playoffs on the last day of the regular season. The rest – as they say – is history, as Real Salt Lake powered through the postseason en route to its first-ever MLS Cup title by defeating the LA Galaxy in a dramatic penalty kick shootout.
Even the Revs wrote a similar story last season, as they turned a 4-5-4 start into their eighth consecutive postseason appearance.
The lesson here is an important one for the Revolution (3-8-2, 11 pts.), which currently sits 13 points behind the Eastern Conference leading Crew (7-2-3, 24 pts.) and New York Red Bulls (8-5-0, 24 pts.) and the two automatic playoff berths allotted to the conference.
With 17 games remaining on the regular-season schedule, there is undoubtedly time for the Revs to make a run through the summer months and claim their place in the postseason for the ninth straight year. However, with the midway point of the season fast-approaching, the time is now for the Revolution to make a move before it’s too late.
“I think there’s enough time for us to make a run, but that’s just it – we have to make a run,” said rookie forward Zack Schilawski. “Urgency at this point is a good thing. Not desperation, but urgency I think is a good word to know that we need to go out there and prove to ourselves – and prove to everyone else in this league – that we can compete and that we can get results.”
The Revs will have a pair of glorious opportunities to prove themselves against two of the league’s top teams in the coming weeks, as they’ll visit Real Salt Lake (7-3-3, 24 pts.) on Friday, July 2, before returning to Foxborough to host the league-leading LA Galaxy (10-1-3, 33 pts.) on Saturday, July 10.
New England’s meeting with RSL provides plenty of storylines, as the Utah side is currently riding a club-record eight-game unbeaten run (6-0-2) and hasn’t conceded a goal in the last 318 minutes of regular-season action. On top of that, the Revs will be looking to redeem themselves after suffering the worst regular-season loss in club history, 6-0, at Rio Tinto Stadium last year.
“It’s spread throughout the team that we’re in a pretty urgent situation here,” said Schilawski. “We kind of need to view these next two games as an opportunity to see how we fare. We can use these games as a measuring stick to see where we are right now, and if we can compete with those guys, then that’s a good omen for the rest of the season.”
While versatile defender/midfielder Chris Tierney agreed these next two games could say a lot about where the Revolution stands in the league, he stressed results – by any means necessary – as the most important aspect as the team approaches the midway point of the schedule.
“It’s crunch-time,” he said. “We can’t afford to drop points, especially at home. Chicago was a tough loss for us, so any result we can get – Salt Lake would be a positive, and then nothing less than three points against LA at home is acceptable for us.
“There’s no two ways about it – we’ve got to keep up in the standings,” Tierney continued. “No matter what the games look like, we just need points now. The pressure’s on, for sure. We’re all feeling it. You’ve just got to hope that we respond positively instead of letting the nerves or pressure get the best of us.”
Head coach Steve Nicol responded to the pressure to earn results with a series of tactical adjustments in last Sunday night’s 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire. First, he replaced Zak Boggs with Kenny Mansally at halftime in a straight swap on the left wing. Nicol then opted to switch from a 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 setup in the 62nd minute when forward Kheli Dube replaced Tierney, who was playing left back. Finally, rookie midfielder Jason Griffiths was inserted for the last 10 minutes so Shalrie Joseph could push into the attack in search of a late equalizer.
Nicol admitted that the decision to move Joseph forward at the end of the Fire match was an act of “desperation” as they lumped the ball into the box hoping the midfielder could use his six-foot-three stature to get on the end of a long pass. However, while Nicol is willing to make adjustments in response to circumstances throughout a game, he warned against the urge to change the club’s entire approach as the season progresses.
“I don’t think we need to be doing anything stupid,” he said. “We all understand what we’re trying to do, so you can’t just rip that up at this stage of the season and start again. The things we’re trying to do are the right things, we just have to try and do the right things more often and in a better fashion.”