FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Preparing to embark on a multi-game, seven-day trip through two of the toughest road venues in the league, the New England Revolution is well aware of the challenges ahead. The quest begins on Saturday, Sept. 18, when the Revs will visit the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Currently nine points adrift of the final playoff spot with seven games remaining in the regular-season schedule, the Revs (7-13-3, 24 pts.) can afford nothing less than the full six points from the upcoming journey, which will also take them to Pizza Hut Park for a midweek meeting with FC Dallas next Wednesday.
For the Revs to find success against the Rapids (9-7-7, 34 pts.) this weekend, they’ll have to overcome the road woes which have seen them compile a 1-9-1 record away from home this season, while they’ll also need to snap an eight-game (0-5-3) winless run in Colorado which dates back to 2002.
Continuing a trend from years past, the Rapids have been almost unbeatable at home this season, going 6-1-4 and outscoring opponents by a margin of 17-7 at DSG Park. Perhaps one of the harshest obstacles for visiting teams is the thin air in Commerce City, a northern suburb of Denver.
“It’s just a tough atmosphere, it’s a tough environment with the altitude,” said second-year defender Darrius Barnes, who played the full 90 minutes when the Revs visited the Rapids last October. “After the first 10 minutes you feel like you’ve probably played 90 because you’re breathing so heavily.”
“We’ve got to be smart,” added head coach Steve Nicol. “Clearly in the altitude you can’t go chasing and running around for 90 minutes full pelt. You’ve got to be smart and pick and choose when you get your rest and when you’re going full throttle.
“It’s definitely a place where you have to be smart, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the same basic stuff,” Nicol continued. “If we keep the ball better, we’ll save our legs and save our strength.”
Possessing the ball has been a concern for the Revs through much of the 2010 season, and most of the players and coaches pinned last week’s 2-0 loss to Chivas USA on loose passing. A focus was placed on possession-oriented drills throughout training this week as the Revolution searched for a way to increase time on the ball.
“That’s the question of the day right now – how do we keep the ball better?” captain Shalrie Joseph asked rhetorically after training on Thursday. “We just have to [have] a little bit more movement off the ball and that will help us create more space. Right now I think we’re too stagnant in our play [and] we’re not allowing our play to develop.”
Keeping the ball will be particularly important in Colorado, as the Revs can’t afford to chase the Rapids around the large field at DSG Park.
“[Our possession] hasn’t been good lately and I think the problem with us in the past is we haven’t kept the ball, so we’ve been defending so long, which makes us tired over time,” said defender Cory Gibbs, who made 29 appearances with the Rapids from 2008-09 before being traded to the Revolution this past offseason. “I think keeping the ball, first of all, will help us preserve our energy.
“Going into that altitude is going to be difficult, but at the same point, if our movement’s good off the ball and we keep [the ball], it’s going to be much easier for us than just defending,” he continued. “It all starts with keeping it. Then defending becomes much easier from that point on.”
New England’s possession should improve with the addition of Marko Perovic, who will be eligible to return after missing last week’s loss to Chivas USA while serving a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation. Perovic will likely pair with fellow Serb Ilija Stolica up top and the duo’s ability to hold the ball under pressure could help dictate the Revolution’s possession game.
“Whenever you get a guy on the field who’s got quality, then it helps you,” said Nicol about the return of Perovic. “But it also takes away from [the Rapids] because they have to make sure that he’s covered up. Obviously it’s good that he’s back.”
Colorado head coach Gary Smith will also have a couple of new faces to choose from after the Rapids acquired Macoumba Kandji (from the New York Red Bulls in exchange for Mehdi Ballouchy) and Brian Mullan (from the Houston Dynamo in exchange for Colin Clark) earlier this week. Smith told the media that both players would feature against the Revs this weekend.
While Kandji and Mullan will provide Colorado with attacking weapons on the wings, the Revs will likely put their primary focus on the dynamic forward tandem of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. Each player has scored nine goals this season – Cummings with four in the last three games – and the combination of Casey’s strength and Cummings’ speed can be the source of nightmares for opposing defenders.
“They’re doing well,” said Nicol of the Casey-Cummings combo. “They’ve got a bit of everything – a bit of size and strength, and they’ve got some pace as well. So we just have to make sure that we’re tight, particularly on the pace side of it. If we’ve got enough possession it’ll nullify that, but then obviously with Casey you have to be strong against him, otherwise he’ll bully you.”
Much attention will be paid to Casey and Cummings on Saturday night, and the Revs must be certain to keep their focus solely on the Rapids and not the overall task which faces them in the final seven games of the regular season.
“Never say never,” said Perovic of the Revolution’s playoff hopes. “We have seven games, (and) I think we must win six. It’s hard, but we must look forward and I think we’re ready. We’ll only look at the first game, not at (all) six. We’re looking at Colorado.”