Shalrie Joseph vs. Houston Dynamo

New approach as Revs prep against MLS clubs

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When the New England Revolution revealed its finalized preseason schedule earlier this week, there was one notable departure from years past.

While the Revs have historically avoided MLS opposition during their preseason preparations, they’ll deviate from the norm in 2011 as four of the Revolution’s six exhibition matches will pit the club against league competition.

After opening their preseason slate with matches against the University of Central Florida (Feb. 18) and the U.S. Under-17 National Team (Feb. 21), the Revs will conclude their 11-day trip to Orlando, Fla., with a game against 2010 MLS Cup runner-up FC Dallas (Feb. 23). A subsequent trip to Kennesaw, Ga., in early March will include three matches against MLS opponents, including two meetings with the Columbus Crew (March 6; March 9) and an additional game against the Houston Dynamo (March 13).

Head coach Steve Nicol attributed the change in philosophy to multiple factors, including the Revolution’s desire to remain domestic during preseason training.

“We’d rather stay in the U.S.,” said Nicol, who has now kept the Revs within U.S. borders for three consecutive preseason training camps. “It makes sense from a travel point of view – really from every point of view.”

While playing MLS opponents during preseason has been largely avoided in the past, it’s not an entirely unfamiliar concept for Nicol and the Revs. After years of limiting preseason matches to foreign opposition, college teams and lower-league American sides, the Revolution scheduled a rare preseason game against FC Dallas last February.

Nicol referenced last year’s experience against FCD as one of the primary reasons for this year’s willingness to play against other MLS clubs.

“In previous years, we thought we’d rather just get ourselves ready on our own,” said Nicol. “But having played some MLS teams before, it’s shown that it really doesn’t make any difference. When the season comes around, it’s a different ballgame. So that’s why we kind of changed our attitude on that.”

The change has been welcomed by the players, who’ll have the chance to test themselves against their league opponents before the games actually count in the standings come mid-March.

“I embrace it,” said midfielder Pat Phelan. “I think it’s an opportunity to see where other teams are at during that point in the preseason. It’ll obviously be good competition. They’ve got guys on their teams fighting for spots and so do we, so it’ll be a good measuring stick.”

Phelan said seeing MLS opponents during preseason will also help the transition into league play, because the level of competition as the Revolution moves from preseason into the regular season will be the same. Unlike years past when the Revs have prepared primarily against college and Division-2 clubs, this year they’ll have played four consecutive games against MLS teams before meeting the LA Galaxy in the season opener on March 20.

Clubs typically prefer their final preseason match to replicate the atmosphere of a regular-season game, and with the Houston Dynamo the scheduled opponent for March 13 – exactly one week before the season opener – the Revs should be able to accomplish that objective.

“Play one game on the weekend, have a week of training and then [the season opener],” said Phelan as he mapped out the shift from preseason to league play. “I think getting in that mentality and that routine is important.”