FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s been almost two months since A.J. Soares vowed that the New England Revolution would use a season-opening 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo as fuel moving forward.
With only five goals conceded in the seven games since, it seems to be working.
Timely scoring has helped the Revs surge to near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but it’s been a steadfast defensive resolve which has provided the base for the club’s recent success. Entering May, goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth is tied for the league lead with three shutouts, while his goals against average in the past seven games (0.71) is among the league’s best.
What’s perhaps most impressive is that the Revs have managed to maintain their defensive structure despite a rotating cast of characters along the backline. Even the recent absence of reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves hasn’t halted their progress; the Revs have conceded just one goal in the two-and-a-half games Goncalves has missed with a right quad strain.
“It’s a system; it’s not about any one player,” said Soares. “If everybody sticks to the system and sticks to the plan, it’s easy defending. You just go in there and do your role. You don’t try to do anything more. You don’t try to do anything outside of what you’re capable of. If everybody does that and stays organized and talks to each other, defending is a simpler task.”
Soares praised the influence of Shuttleworth, who serves as the Revolution’s organizational backbone. Although he’s needed to make just three total saves in a trio of shutouts at Gillette Stadium – a testament to the team’s defensive structure – Shuttleworth has come up big when necessary, including a vital stop on a stoppage-time penalty to preserve a point in Chicago two weeks ago.
In front of Shuttleworth, only Soares has played every minute along the backline. In Goncalves’ stead, Andrew Farrell has partnered Soares in central defense, seamlessly making the transition from the right back position he held throughout his rookie season. It’s a trickier transition than it may seem, and it’s one which head coach Jay Heaps knows well from his own time as a versatile defender.
“It is a big shift and it’s difficult, and I certainly didn’t do it as well as Andrew,” Heaps said with a laugh. “You have to have the ability to read the game and you have to be physical. I think Andrew does both of those really well. He’s probably one of the most physical guys we have, but he’s also very smart.”
Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes and Chris Tierney have also been key contributors on the backline, but Soares was careful to note that the Revolution’s defensive success has been made possible by the efforts of all 11 players on the field, not just the defenders.
“Really, it starts up the field. The defending in the back is 10 times easier when every player is defending on the field,” said Soares. “When [the guys up the field] are defending and defending well, our job’s a lot easier and I think that shows in the game. We kind of just clean everything up, but they’re doing a lot of the dirty work and they deserve a lot of the credit when we do have a shutout.”