MLS New England Revolution

Sweeney: Five burning Revolution questions as the 2021 season opens

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With the Revolution starting the 26th season Saturday night, I know you have some questions about where this team stands, and hopefully we can answer them. So on the literal eve (morning?) of the 2021 season, the 26th such season of Major League Soccer, we deliver these burning questions five…

What’s the ceiling of this New England Revolution side?

Honestly and in all fairness, this team’s ceiling will be determined by one thing, and one thing alone — the Revolution will live and die by the defending. If the defending is solid like it was for most of 2020 — the first time in a long time that’s happened — then the Revs should be successful. If it isn’t, then there’s going to be problems.

There has been a touch of anxiety in Revs Colony over the last week or so of the preseason, given the fact New England’s defense coughed up a pair of leads to LAFC and ending up drawing. And sure, it was preseason, and that’s the time where we want the mistakes to come out — not during the regular season, where the matches matter and the points are real. The hope here is that the defending tightens up and performs up to expectations.

There is some depth in the back line this season, thanks to the acquisitions of Christian Mafla, AJ De La Garza, and the promotion of Jon Bell from Revs II to the first team, and there are a number of holdovers, with season-long starters in Andrew Farrell and Henry Kessler at center back, plus DeJuan Jones, Brandon Bye, and Tajon Buchanan, still in the squad.

Quite frankly, that’s two players per position in the back line, with several players — Jones, De La Garza, Farrell — with the ability to play multiples in the defending. Revs supporters haven’t been this spoiled when it comes to depth across the board, and the back line especially, in quite some time.

My question is consistency, cohesiveness, and finding consistent minutes for everyone. If the defensive unit that we saw for a majority of 2020 is the answer with certain pieces coming in and spelling players, fine. Great. As long as they have gelled and work well together.

But a lack of communication and awareness will hurt, much like it did in the Eastern Conference championship match against Columbus.

I’m also wondering who will be the regulars at the corner positions. In 2020, Bye was the starter at right back, only to be supplanted by Buchanan toward the end of the season. In 2020, it was DeJuan Jones toward the end of the campaign. Add in the fact the Revs have had a number of players play left back over the last three seasons since Chris Tierney tore his ACL, I’m sure Revolution fans finally want to see the successor in place instead of a Band-Aid.

Offensively, where does the team stand?

So far, it’s looking good. It feels as though this team has found its scoring boots, especially with three goals against LAFC in the preseason finale and four against LA Galaxy in the second preseason match. Adam Buksa has lit up the scoresheet, Carles Gil looks like he’s running on all cylinders, Gustavo Bou is motoring, and given his CONCACAF U23 performances, Buchanan is looking to continue the form he displayed in the 2020 postseason.

Getting Buksa to do what he did in the second half of 2020 plus the preseason should be massive for his confidence. Scoring goals is the job of a designated player, and I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to expect double digits out of him in 2021.

I’m also hoping that getting Buksa to produce will take the pressure off Bou to do the same. A lot of his shots in preseason that we’ve seen have been wide of the mark, and we saw a lot of that in 2020 compared to the half-season we saw in 2019. We all know what Bou is capable of, and we’re hoping he realizes he doesn’t have to carry the club for 34 matches — as long as everything else falls into place.

Of course, a lot of the problems New England had in 2020 stemmed from Carles Gil’s Achilles injury. Bruce Arena tried a number of different players in at the No. 10 in Gil’s absence, all to varying degrees of success or failure (see also: Cristian Penilla). Having Gil in the middle to pull the strings and have the right effect on the match should give the other attackers space and room to move, especially on what should be a rather vicious counterattack.

And when Arnór Traustason is in the squad, plus Teal Bunbury and Buchanan, the hope is that the goals come in bunches.

Again, that’s something I’ve wanted to see since 2015. Does that happen in 2021?

Bruce Arena wants consistency in 2021. How does he get it with so much depth and not enough minutes to go around? How will everyone stay sharp?

That’s the million-dollar set of questions, isn’t it? And for starters, I think we need to cool our jets here about the depth and not having enough minutes for all of it.

Look, we’re not going to go through an entire season without injuries. Injuries happen, and for once, there are multiple players for pretty much every position on the field, save Gil’s No. 10 role. Something happens, the rust gets shaken off — it pretty much has to — and the player performs. We saw that in 2020: Scott Caldwell did not get a lot of minutes once Arena brought Tommy McNamara in, save when Matt Polster went down with an injury. When he came in, he was pretty solid — and again, that was without a ton of playing time leading into the latter stages of the season.

That midfield is the deepest we’ve seen in years: between those three aforementioned players, and now with Luis Caicedo back — essentially a new signing, seeing as he missed all of last year — plus Wilfrid Kaptoum and now Maciel coming up from Revs II and really, really impressing, we have to admit that unlike with the attacking unit, we can’t necessarily foresee who’ll be in the Nos. 6 and 8 from week to week.

And that really is not a bad thing here.

One Revs supporter queried me Friday as to how Arena would deploy Buchanan, and my answer would be, “However he wants.” And I know that Revs supporters will not want to hear this dreaded ‘F’ word, but Buchanan in particular gives Arena a great deal of flexibility: he can play both up in the midfield — could probably play striker, too, given his abilities — as well as the defense, given what he did last year. Should right back be a problem, Arena won’t hesitate to insert Buchanan into that position, given his success last year. Should there be an absence in the attacking half, there’s Buchanan ready to go.

Seriously, this team looks loaded.

What formation do we see in 2021?

Quite possibly the hardest thing to predict — and formation doesn’t always mean what you think it means.

Last season we saw Arena utilize several different formations; he went anywhere from the MLS standby of the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, and even threw out the Philadelphia Union’s 4-4-2 diamond formation, and had varying degrees of success with all of them.

It honestly would not shock me and really shouldn’t shock you if rotating formations is Arena’s plan for 2021. It all, in my opinion, comes down to the opponent and what the opponent offers for space, as well as their personnel. If it’s an opponent that yields plenty of space and doesn’t necessarily have the personnel to handle the Revs’ offense, something we saw in the second preseason match, then it’s fair to say it may not matter what formation that Arena goes with: the offense will attack and use any methods necessary to score goals. Soccer is a game of movement and physicality where formation does not truly matter when one attacks. Formation matters more for defensive purpose and keeping one’s shape, i.e. the lines of a 4-4-2, can mean the difference between getting scored on or keeping a clean sheet.

Go back and watch film of Columbus or Nashville playing the Revolution at Gillette Stadium and pay close attention to how those clubs lined up defensively. Both sides, two lines of yellow, stymied the Revs.

Discussing formation is great, and you can pretty much tell what type of formation they’ll go with an hour before the match: check the number of defensive-minded midfielders a club starts with. If there’s one, you more than likely will see the 4-3-3. If there’s two, expect a 4-2-3-1. But that’s not always accurate, and things can change with personnel switches.

And finally…

Where does New England finish 2021? Do they break the skid and finally win a trophy?

Let me polish up my crystal ball.

Ugh, still foggy. Really.

We’re entering the third year of the Bruce Arena Era here in Foxborough, and with serious moves and cuts made on Dec. 8, the hope throughout New England’s soccer community is that with those moves and the signings since, the Revolution challenge for the top three in the Eastern Conference in 2021.

But we said that last year, didn’t we?

Of course, that prognostication fell apart with the injury to Gil, and the Revs had a ‘mare to end the regular season. The Revolution did not challenge for the top three; instead, they barely made the postseason.

If the Revs do not finish top three in the East this season — as long as all 34 matches are played, which they should be — then that’s a travesty and should be considered an utter failure, regardless of a playoff spot or not. We’ve been led to believe that a third DP can help bring those elusive titles to Foxborough; New England has that third DP now, and call 2020 whatever you want, but two straight years with a third DP should bring something to the long-suffering Revolution supporter.

Yet I wish to convey words of caution here; quiet down, this is important. This is a long, long season, and the Revolution are — traditionally — slow starters. New England has not won a season opener since 2013 (against the Fire, actually), and it’s been since 2018 that the Revolution have won the home opener (Tierney free kicks FTW!). Is this the year where New England shocks the league and pulls two dubs out in the first two matches, or is it more of the same, more of what we’re used to?

If the first part of that last sentence occurs, go crazy. Brag on the hashtag, sing songs in the stands. That’ll be more points the Revs have had at that stage of the season in years.

But should the opposite ring true, no one should panic. I repeat: No one should panic. Besides, the panic button is broken from repeated pressings over the last decade. Again, it’s a long season, and sure, no one wants to have one point or even two, or none, after two matches. You want to see something tangible out of your team, you want to see that they can challenge after 180 minutes of football.

The hope is this Revs team is the one to do it. The hope is this is the Revs team that can end 13 years of a trophy drought, whether it be the Supporter’s Shield or MLS Cup itself. The hope is that with so many returning players who appeared to peak and play incredibly well at the right time in this squad, who got so close to MLS Cup, they’re hungry enough to finally break the drought.

We shall see. I say we take things one week at a time, and periodically check in.

Seriously, though: 8:30 p.m. cannot get here fast enough. LFG, and all that.