Often the focus when talking about the New England Revolution the focus becomes off-field issues (stadium hunt, fan relations and Kraft's treatment of team). And it is possible that those worries have taken their toll on the team itself, for the Revs were once a standout organization in terms of wins and opportunities for titles. The slide from 2007 with their Open Cup title and MLS Cup Final appearance has been gradual, in many ways it relates to the loss of Taylor Twellman. The prolific forward's scoring has not been replaced.
When the Seattle Sounders travel to Foxborough to face New England there will be many new players from the last meeting between the two sides. They are among the worst three teams at home (4-4-6 with -2 GD) and will be facing a strong traveling side from the Puget Sound (7-3-5 with a +4). Steve Nicol's club has tried to rebuild on the fly adding players from around the world trying to find the right fit, but 2012 is clearly their focus. Steve from the Bent Musket joins us for three questions, with a reverse, previewing Saturdays 4:30 PM Pacific match.
SaH: New England is in preparation for 2012 mode, A.J. Soares is a key component of that. What can he become?
tBM: To me, A.J. can become the next Michael Parkhurst for us, with a little more fire and possibly an even higher ceiling. If Tim Ream is being looked at as the next great domestic hope at center-back for the national team, well, A.J.'s performances this season are showing that he may be an even better option. If he can improve his distribution I see no reason why he can't go on to be one of the best, if not THE best defender in the league. Of course, like Parkhurst, he'll inevitably deserve more money, not get it in New England, and end up overseas. Still, I think we're looking at two or three more seasons of top-level play from the kid.
tBM: Milton, to be fair, hasn't done enough of what we'd like him to do for the offense, and that is score. He's been passing up golden opportunities and his strike rate isn't good. That said, like Zerka, he has brought a great deal of calm and composure to the team in the attack. The Revs still don't have great possession numbers, but they pass so much better than they did early in the season and a lot of that is down to Caraglio's hold-up play and Zerka's composure. Having Zerka around to lock down the right of midfield has also made Nicol FINALLY feel comfortable (he should have been using Guy or Kinne there long ago, if you ask me) moving Benny Feilhaber into the middle full-time, which does wonders for the New England offense.
SaH: Probably the most well known midseason acquisition was Benny Feilhaber, but he's kind of faded from sight. What gives?
tBM: It seems to me you've fallen into the same trap that a lot of MLS fans - especially Revs fans - fell into. Let me ask you this: when have you ever known Benny to be a standout star player? Not in Hamburg, not in Derby, not even in Denmark, really. Not for the national team, where he's put in the best performances of his career. He's not that guy. Benny doesn't need to be in the limelight to be doing his job and doing it well - he drives the attack through intelligent passing and possession, and a willingness to play the precise killer pass rather than to be showy with his dribbling or scoring.
Undoubtedly, Benny fell off for a bit in the middle of the season, basically right after Marko Perovic was injured. I think that had a lot to do with him adjusting to the style of play (i.e. figuring out that MLS refs allow blatant thuggery) and getting over the frustration of being misused by the coaching staff and surrounded by players who aren't really near your talent level. Unlike Rafa Marquez, Benny's figured things out and in the last few weeks especially he has come on strong and become an integral part of the midfield.
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tBM: Mauro Rosales is a name that burst into everyone's consciousness as an MVP candidate before he went down with injury a couple weeks ago. How key is he to the Sounders' quest for MLS Cup and do you think postseason success is predicated on his healthy and prompt return?
SaH: Having watched this team lose Steve Zakuani for the year and Fredy Montero for several weeks early in the season I don't know that I would focus on one player being any key to success now. Yes, Rosales is a great player and will still get some mentions on the low end of MVP voting. He offers width, speed and a deft touch on the right side, but there are so many options for Seattle. Seven players have 5 or more goals in all competitions and while losing him as a provider hurts a bit, the team has shown that they have several good to great players.
tBM: Osvaldo Alonso just scored a brace in CCL play, helping the Sounders wrap up a spot in the quarterfinals. Some people consider him one of the best holding midfielders in MLS - do you agree? What does he bring to the table that is so valuable?
SaH: Alonso is a strong ball winner first and foremost. It doesn't matter if it is one of the leagues best or some fill-in bringing the ball forward. Ozzie just doesn't care who has the ball. It's his job to win it. Those tackles are hard, sometimes too hard, but set the tone for the defense. This year his dribbling and passing have become stronger. That let's him get forward more often working with the offensive stars. When he gets space he will rip long range shots, though often shot too high it forces defensive awareness and lightens the pressure on Montero and Fucito.
tBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revolution fans should watch out for (last time you mentioned Mike Fucito but went with Rosales).
SaH: Lamar Neagle, who if an MLS fan has heard of him it is because of his hattrick against the Columbus Crew. Once the right back of the future (back in 09) he spent 2010 as a forward/right mid for the Charleston Battery where he became a better off-ball mover and a guy who should shoot when he thought he could score. Now as a left sided mid, he's gotten his opportunities when Mauro Rosales is out. He has some off ball speed, can use a speed dribble move to create space and cuts in too shoot with either foot. Though he has 28 appearances he's overshadowed by the other talents on the team, but he's pulling himself into his own deserved light.
tBM: Who do you think the Sounders fear most on the pitch for New England? (you chose Shalrie Joseph last time).
SaH: Still Joseph. He's probably my dream player who is active for the team. I dream of a Joseph/Alonso pairing. No one would bring the ball up the middle. Considering that I said Beckerman when asked a similar question regarding Real Salt Lake, maybe I just love the three best holding mids in the League. Sure, Shalrie isn't stuck in that role all the time, but when he is, he's amazing. He's also the most capable of them in entering the offensive game and changing it.
tBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
SaH: With the US Open Cup Final against the Chicago Fire on Tuesday and both the CCL Knockouts and MLS Cup Playoffs assured this game is nearly meaningless for Seattle. At this point Sigi's men are just battling for 2nd in West/overall while needing to rest some key players to win a trohpy. So this is as wild a guess as I've ever had. It is literally possible that Seattle start an MLS reserve quality lineup.