In middle of a road trip that sees the Seattle Sounders in three different time zones and maybe two nights in their own beds, they hit the East Coast to play a team out-performing expectations. While only seventh in the East, the New England Revolution are 4-1-2 at home and carry a zero goal differential overall. The Jay Heaps-led team may not be good yet, but the Revs are no longer easy points. Their fundamentals look even better.
What's been the key to the changes over near, but not in, Boston? Steve from The Bent Musket helps us discover why the other NFL/MLS team is getting back to its old winning ways.
SaH: New England's midfield seems to be a very flexible possession system. Is this about personnel or Heaps?
tBM: I think it's about both, really. Jay Heaps came into this season with a definite mission to make this team a better, more attractive team in terms of passing and attacking. That's obvious really in the way the entire team plays this year. No more randomly hoofed long balls, more precise and dangerous runs on the flanks, better movement on and off the ball - you can't give Heaps enough credit for that. Still, you can't do it without the players, either, and a midfield with the choice of Shalrie Joseph, Benny Feilhaber, Clyde Simms, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe... I mean, you're going to complete passes, and you're going to look good doing it.
SaH: How has Saer Sene changed the attack?
tBM: He scores! Honestly, that's the biggest way he changes things. He's given us teeth. More recently, he seems to be struggling to put the ball in the back of the net, and I think that's because defenses are keying on him a lot harder than previously. It's nice, though, because that has opened up the lanes for guys like Benny, Rowe, and Blake Brettschneider to contribute with goals. The Revs really need another major scoring threat to take some of the heat off of Saer, but for now, he's created an air of danger about the New England attack that just hasn't existed since Twellman went down.
SaH: The defense seems better, but not really different. What's been the key?
tBM: Consistency and stability. A.J. Soares and Stephen McCarthy are good friends on and off the pitch, and you can see that in their communication and rapport in central defense. Make no mistake, this unit is far from perfect - they've conceded a lot of preventable goals this year - but it definitely looks better than last year's defense, which saw Ryan Cochrane and Franco Coria go from bad to worse while Soares watched helplessly. The fullbacks are looking a lot better, too, with Chris Tierney's positioning sorted out and Kevin Alston (or Florian Lechner) looking more composed and more dangerous. Most importantly, these guys have been playing together almost from day one now. That many minutes working with each other, learning each others' tendencies and strengths, has really helped this defense morph into a more respectable unit.
Considering Shalrie Joseph was upgraded to "probable" after missing last week's game, I'm going to assume he'll play at the weekend. That means that Jay Heaps will probably go back to the 4-4-2 with Benny out wide...but he might not, considering how well Benny is playing in the middle. I'll give two lineups: one that way, and one with a 4-2-3-1 that Heaps might consider to keep Benny central.
4-4-2: Reis; Tierney, Soares, McCarthy, Lechner; Nguyen, Simms, Joseph, Feilhaber; Brettschneider, Sene
4-2-3-1: Reis; Tierney, Soares, McCarthy, Lechner; Simms, Joseph; Nguyen, Feilhaber, Rowe; Sene
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tBM: The Sounders are sitting at fourth in the West right now. That's a playoff place and by no means poor, but it seems like people expected a lot more out of Seattle in the preseason. What's gone right and, perhaps more importantly, what's gone wrong this season to get the Rave Green to where they are now?
SaH: Goals against in MLS happen for two reasons - amazing greatness and capitalization by the opposition on a team's mistakes. Early in the season, during the 7-1-1 run, the only goals against were Goals of the Week. There were few mistakes, and none of those were finished off. Now, the Sounders are making mistakes, maybe even a few more than they were, but opposing sides are taking advantage. The MLS slide sees Seattle's opponents grabbing nearly two goals a game. Throw on an offense that still hasn't started and it's a bit dire right now.
tBM: Some saw the addition of Eddie Johnson as a controversial one, and it was predicted that he perhaps would not make much of an impression on the team or the league this year. His recent pugilism aside, how has EJ affected the Sounders this season, and has his arrival been positive?
SaH: The team with Eddie Johnson is more talented than the one without it. His footwork is great, he has the ability to slot shots that few in the league can and he has great speed. Overall the forward pair is putting up goals at a rate unseen in the Sounders MLS era. But they've shifted tactically, pushing play to EJ and Montero more than in years past and now the midfield that used to be able to score, can't.
tBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revs fans should watch out for in this match.
SaH: Cordell Cato is a Man on Fire. Most will see him as another MLS player who is merely fast, or in this case merely blazingly fast. But he's got a decent shot, is a strong crosser of low balls and is surprisingly strong for such a small frame. Most often he will play on the right, but has an appearance on the left and could possibly play in Montero's space as well. There's a chance that he starts this weekend, but he's nearly certain to play.
tBM: Who do you think the Sounders fear most on the pitch for New England?
SaH: Seattle will need to concern themselves with the two former USMNT players in the midfield. With Feilhaber and Nguyen (and maybe Rowe) the Revolution have more quality short passers than most MLS teams. The Sounders can't count on Alonso to be the sole stopper. They will have to defend the midfield as a team.
tBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
Weber; Gonzalez, Hurtado, Ianni, Johansson; Alonso; Fernandez, Evans, Cato; Rosales, Johnson