Suffice it to say, it’s been a herky jerky 2020 in Major League Soccer, with a pandemic interrupting play, plus what turned into three different seasons making up the 25th season: the original kickoff in February, the MLS IS BACK Tournament in July, plus the resumption of play in August.
And at 5:23 p.m. or thereabouts on Saturday afternoon, the Revolution finally arrived at the midway point of the season.
So, that being known — and with what we did with Revs II about a week or so ago — it’s time to present our midseason grades for the Revolution first team.
Before we do that, an incredibly gentle reminder: Lists like these are subjective. Much like what one person will think about a book, a movie (hello, The Last Jedi), or even a TV show, others may think differently. In fact, I know there are a number of Revolution supporters who are downright disgusted with the team’s frustrating inability to score/get three points, especially at home, who will scoff at a majority of my grades. Trust me, I understand. This is a team that is sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference now, a team that is, quite frankly, underachieving. I think, though, and this is just my opinion, there have been some pretty good individual performances on the whole despite the record/results, despite not having Carles Gil pull the strings in the middle. Sure, there have been some nightmares out there on occasion, but the Revolution have, in several ways, corrected those errors and have moved forward.
I will say this, though, for comparison’s sake: look at this team a year ago after 12 matches. After 12 in 2019, the Revs were 2-8-2, leaking goals like you wouldn’t believe, then fired Brad Friedel and Mike Burns. This year, New England is 3-3-6 (3-4-6 in all competitions), has only allowed more than one goal twice… but on the flip side of the argument, has had difficulty in finding the back of the net (10 goals). Yes, the offense has been hampered by the loss of Gil and a lack of creativity in some matches. We’ve seen some unsettled performances… and the hope is that with the inclusion of Lee Nguyen things will straighten out. But we have seen some solid, baby steps of improvement, especially in the back. I think we should take the W’s, however minor in some fans’ eyes, where we can get them.
Obviously it’s been a weird year. It has been an inconsistent year, for sure, in so many respects, but there has been some consistency out of the Revolution… with some head-shaking anomalies here and there. Put an asterisk next to this season if you want. You have that right as a fan.
You have the right to ask these questions, too:
Would this happen with Carles Gil? We had this team challenging for the top half of the Eastern Conference — hell, top third — with Gil involved for more than 152 minutes. Would all this have happened with him healthy?
Would this have happened without upward of four months between match day two and match day three, and then a month between departing Orlando and resuming the season? Tough to get into any sort of rhythm.
Would this have happened had MLS’ roster rules not been so antiquated and allowed for more than only three designated players — which New England has for the first time in its history — or given roster relief to the Revolution in order to sign a short-term replacement DP?
We’ll never know — and yes, that’s the frustrating thing in all of this. The not knowing, the what could have been.
So without further ado…
Matt Turner, Henry Kessler, Kelyn Rowe
I think the first two go without saying.
The play of Matt Turner has really opened eyes around the league given the number of times he’s been on the Team of the Week, and he has really taken The Leap from two years ago’s performances to this year’s, especially with his decision-making and his command of the 18-yard box.
We’ve mentioned how impressed we’ve been with Kessler, the rookie from Virginia, and how he has played this season; can you imagine how much better he will be in five years if this keeps up? He’s played in every match, is in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year for the league, and he currently has my vote for Defender of the Year, hands down. He had only one slightly off performance a couple of weeks ago, but remember, this is about the whole. Not just one performance.
Rowe has certainly been impressive, at least in my eyes. We’ve been rooting for Kelyn to perform well in this, his second tour of duty in Foxborough. We’ve mentioned how he had a lot of prove given his 2019, being relegated to play in USL Championship with Swope Park, and I think he has played remarkably well — and by all accounts, has accepted his role is interchangeable as the No. 6 or the No. 8, depending on the alignment and personnel. His box-to-box play has been pretty good, his tracking back excellent, and there have been times this season where he has come close to scoring a goal or two.
In our view, those three have been far and above the best on this Revolution team.
Alexander Büttner, Brandon Bye, Teal Bunbury, Andrew Farrell, DeJuan Jones
The defending has been consistently good in this 2020 season, as we’ve mentioned. It has only allowed more than one goal in a match twice, the season opener against Montreal, and the 2-1 defeat to Philadelphia a week or so ago. The defending is certainly better than 2019. Or 2018. Or 2017. Or 2016. Or, dare I say it, 2015.
So why aren’t Büttner, Bye, and Farrell up a notch?
To be honest, I think there is not much separating these two categories; I think that Kessler has just been that much better. And without a doubt, the back line of Büttner/Kessler/Farrell/Bye represents the best four defenders New England has at its disposal in 2020, and for some time.
While Büttner has been a solid signing, we’ve noticed that he gives up a lot of room on that left side; we first noticed that against DC United, his second game with the club down in Florida, and that has been a trend from time to time. He gets up the pitch and can deliver a stout cross.
With Bye, man, he has shown solid soccer IQ, hasn’t he? His knowledge of the game is great. He did, however, give up a rather horrid goal to Philly in the MLS IS BACK Tournament, and we’d like his crossing — he looks to be the first option for most of the Revs’ attacks, boom the ball over the top and down to his channel — to be more spot-on; he’s getting there with that.
And everyone knows I love Drew. I gave him my Defender of the Year vote last year for a reason. He’s been good, he’s been everywhere, but I think the fatigue factor has been at play… thankfully it hasn’t hurt the Revolution. It’s hard to replace him right now, given the other center back options have not impressed when out there. We have faith in Andrew Farrell to continue to play extremely hard for the shirt, for as long as he is here in Foxborough.
Jones has obviously been on for spot run-outs this season, spelling Büttner, and we’ve been relatively pleased by him. He has handled the workload well.
And Bunbury, he has been pretty darn good. Four goals to his credit to lead the team, and we just love his hold-up play. It’s a young man’s game, football, and he is certainly a man amongst boys. His maturity has been a wonderful asset, and we love his decision-making.
Diego Fagundez, Matt Polster, Tommy McNamara
Fagundez has embraced the run-out role and has played fairly well in the defensive midfield, and sure, there are days where he’s had a bit of a slip-up.
And Polster, while he started out fantastic in the 4-4-2 diamond when he arrived (or when he was finally able to play), I think his performances in the last couple of matches has slipped. A lot of giveaways in one game, and his decision-making against Philadelphia recently — yellow, second yellow — was not sharp. Hopefully the weekend off will help focus his energies toward positioning, and recall that MLS referees are watching.
And we like what McNamara has done in his brief time with New England. He’s going to move up our rankings by the end of the season, we assure you, if he continues to play at a high level.
Gustavo Bou, Adam Buksa, Antonio Delamea, Michael Mancienne, Tajon Buchanan, Cristian Penilla
Let’s not mince words here: not having Carles Gil has hurt Bou. He’s had to move to the No. 10, deal with an adductor injury, and just has not looked comfortable without Gil out there. Does he still have the skill that took this league by storm in 2019? Of course he does. We think to his goal against Montreal in Florida as a point of emphasis. We have the piece of work from Saturday afternoon, where he had two goals waved off for offside. He know he can score, and hopefully teaming up with Nguyen will help moving forward.
The same with Buksa. Defenses have keyed on him, pinning him tight with two players on numerous occasions. And yes, the key is getting him service in the air. The Revs have done that once. If they can get that service to him, or get the ball to him with the defending stretched, it may help his confidence. Or he needs to learn that MLS defensive units are keying on him and he needs to adjust to that. Or someone in the Revs’ analysts room need to recognize that and relay that to him.
Delamea has not looked great. He had the ‘mare against DC in Florida, and he did not look sharp in his most recent appearance. Once a mainstay, he’s found it difficult to break into the back line.
Mancienne, to be fair, has played one additional game than Delamea, and one more minute… he just has not found a role on this particular team, and I don’t think he ever will.
Buchanan is obviously coming off his two best appearances with New England, having scored his first career goal against Philadelphia, and having a standout performance against NYCFC. He is here due to the horrid miss against Montreal, and the way he really hadn’t influenced the matches he had been in until recently. We know he can do it given his recent appearances, and we think that greater things are on the horizon for him.
And Penilla… Penilla has certainly regressed in 2020, and Bruce Arena has admitted they are looking for his right position. That’s the thing, though: does it matter where he’s positioned if MLS teams have figured him out? They have: at the No. 7, he has his propensity to cut the ball inside to get it on his right foot. Everyone is looking for that now, and they prepare for it. He hasn’t put a ball on-target in quite some time — he had two coming into Saturday — and he had a nightmarish shot that zoomed past the Hubble a few days ago.
NOT ENOUGH DATA
Kekuta Manneh, Lee Nguyen, Justin Rennicks, Scott Caldwell, Brad Knighton, Jeff Caldwell, Seth Sinovic
It’s not necessarily fair to pass judgment on most of these players, given their part time — or in Sinovic’s case, no time — status.
Manneh hasn’t played too much since the transfer, and Nguyen is Nguyen, we know what he can do.
Rennicks played in four first team matches and had that horrific miss against Chicago, but hasn’t really had the opportunity to assert influence on matches since; he is now with Los Revitos, and has scored a goal on his second shot on-target. That doesn’t mean that Rennicks is the answer to the first team’s lack of scoring, given that he’s doing this against third-division opposition. The third division is great for getting minutes and gaining confidence; we can’t say for sure if it will translate to success at the MLS level.
We can say that Scott Caldwell has been decent when he’s been out there, but there were times where he just got blown off the ball… we know what we’re going to get with Scotty, and we don’t know just where he fits in with Arena’s side: is he a run-out player now, or just a spot starter? Or both?
The other Caldwell, Jeff, is your typical third-string keeper; and Knighton had a good game against Chicago. Since then it’s been Turner’s job, rightly so, and Brad’s trying to get Bill Belichick’s attention with his field goal kicking.