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Sounders at New England Revolution: Three Questions

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Saturday’s 4:30 PM game features two teams that took preseason expectations and did the opposite.

MLS: D.C. United at New England Revolution Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

When the season started the Seattle Sounders were expected to challenge for titles, as they have been expected to do for almost ten years now. The New England Revolution were expected to be an also-ran in a strong Eastern Conference. Now, the Sounders are on short rest with just a 4-9-3 -7 (10th/20th) record while the Revs are 5th/8th at 7-4-6 +5. New England is also fully rested.

The 4:30 PM match on Saturday July 7 on JOEtv/YouTubeTV/ESPN+ is a continuation of the must-win remainder of the season as the Sounders dug themselves a large hole. Will they build steps or start to pull the dirt down on themselves?

Jake Catanese from The Bent Musket answers Three Questions.

SaH: Is Brad Friedel a motivational or tactical genius?

tBM: Maybe a little of both? I think it’s a little of both.

Let me back up and say that I don’t think the Jay Heaps/Lee Nguyen Revs were ever truly awful. They were inconsistent surely, there were a lot of bad games as a team and from individual players and towards the end everyone probably didn’t live up to their full potential at times. But they were never truly DC United/Chivas USA full blown pants.

Friedel largely inherited the core group of the same Revs team that has been around since that 2014 MLS Cup Final run, particularly the attackers like Agudelo, Rowe, Fagundez, etc. There were a few additions brought in that we’ll get to next, and a new pressing/counter-attacking style that New England has used to solid success so far. Going back even to preseason, the Revs locker room seemed to adjust well to Friedel’s coaching acumen that included two-a-days and a new fitness coach among other changes. If Heaps was a player’s coach, Friedel was more the disciplinarian in comparison.

https://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2018/03/20/new-england-revolution-players-hail-increased-professionalism-under-friedel

Most expected this year to be a bit of a rebuilding year for New England, and summer reinforcements could go a long way to finding out just how quickly Friedel can turn around an organization not known for its success in recruiting players abroad. Friedel is still learning however; there have been times where his substitutions and adjustments haven’t been as quick or successful as they’ve needed to be in game, but overall the Revs are back to being the dangerous upstarts they were a few years ago. They are very fun and at the same time incredibly frustrating to watch. And we love it; it’s just like old 2014 times.

SaH: Bunbury and Fagundez are having good years again, but I don’t know who Cristian Penilla is. Help me out.

tBM: You were not alone in this when the Revs signed him on loan from Pachuca in LigaMX. The 27-year old Ecuadorian has two international caps to his name, both in 2014, but has bounced around on various loans since joining Pachuca in 2015. With Friedel focusing on a more transition style of attacking, Penilla stepped in to the left wing role and hasn’t looked back, notching 8 goals and five assists while starting all 17 games for the Revs.

What the Revs lost in Lee Nguyen’s playmaking ability in the middle, they gained in just outright speed from Penilla on the wing. Not only can he beat you in space without the ball, but he can create his own shot and distribute when he is in possession. It’s a matchup nightmare for teams to deal with. If you leave him alone, he goes in at goal. If you focus on him, it leaves someone like Fagundez open at the top of the box. The Revs build up offense might leave a little to be desired, but I was very surprised to see Wilfried Zahibo’s name on the MLS All-Star game roster over Penilla.

Also, Teal Bunbury’s renaissance is not surprising to those who have watched him carefully in New England the last few years. Teal was able to transition into a workhorse on the right side, playing somewhere between a target winger and a true box-to-box right mid the last few years. Now under Friedel’s pressing system, Bunbury’s hard work gets rewarded far more often whether he’s directly on the scoresheet or causing a turnover for someone else to capitalize. If Friedel deserves praise for anything tactically, it’s sticking Bunbury up top in this style.

SaH: Jalil Anibaba has more starts than any other defender. How is this defense good enough to have a team at 5th in the East?

tBM: Well for starters, the other thing Brad Friedel deserves a lot of credit for is starting Matt Turner in goal, because he has been godlike in the first half of the year though his form might be down just a tad in recent weeks. Turner has been immense in keeping the Revs in games, particularly early in the season, and it’s other little things like distribution out of the back and to help start counters is likely where he separated himself from veteran Brad Knighton and last year’s starter and USYNT standout Cody Cropper.

As far as the defense as a whole, there’s been some issues. Tactically the Revs fullbacks push very high, so any turnovers in the midfield get punished harshly because the centerbacks get stranded. Basically, watch the highlights of Revs game at Montreal where they fell behind 4-0 if you need video evidence on how to use the press to counter the press. Secondly, the personnel for the centerbacks in particular has been in a constant state of flux in the early going: two red cards in the opener in Philly caused changes, a couple of games missed due to injuries here and there, and Anibaba himself has been playing really well and deserves his spot in the lineup.

The Revs currently have a left back crisis, however, with Chris Tierney out for the year and Gabriel Somi struggling in a starting role, it’s been usual centerback and captain Claude Dielna getting time on the left hand side. This not necessarily bad, Dielna has some experience at the position and is decent enough going forward, but now it leaves the Revs depth chart defensively in further chaos. By starting all three primary centerbacks, the Revs now only have fourth round rookie draft pick Nicholas Samoyoa (out on loan in the USL) and starting rightback Andrew Farrell available to cover if someone misses a game. Friedel can always put Dielna back in the middle and deploy Somi, or Kelyn Rowe or rookie Brandon Bye on the left in a pinch, but it is an area the Revs need to address in the summer window.

Overall, the Revs are not the complete dumpster fire they were last year, but they’re still on pace to give up 50 goals this year. While that’s a significant improvement from the 61 allowed in 2017, it’s still not great. There is no simple fix of tactics or personnel in this case, so Brad Friedel and the Revs will have to balance what they want to do going forward and not jeopardize their centerbacks in the process. If the Revs can learn to close out games and hold onto leads, they’d arguably be higher in the standings than they are now. They’ve left a lot of points on the table, particularly blowing 2-0 and 3-2 leads in Vancouver in what should have been a wire to wire win. The Revs might not solve all their defensive woes in one year, but they’re laying a pretty good foundation and getting better which bodes poorly for the rest of the East in the long term.

Predicted lineup/significant injuries

4-2-3-1: Turner; Dielna, Delamea, Anibaba, Farrell; Zahibo, Caldwell; Penilla, Fagundez, Rowe; Bunbury

Injuries - OUT: Issac Angking (undisclosed illness), Femi Hollinger-Janzen (dislocated elbow), Chris Tierney (ACL tear)

I’m going to make two changes from last weeks win against DC, bringing on Caldwell and Rowe for Luis Caicedo and Kristian Nemeth respectively. The Revs have this three game homestand of DC, Seattle and LA Galaxy before they finish the year mostly on the road. Anything less than 7 points on this homestand would be a travesty and it would not be unfair to say they should take full points from those three games. The Revs already have three points out of three, I expect them to make it six of six.

New England 3, Seattle 1


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tBM: So after back-to-back MLS Cup Final runs, both Seattle and Toronto have hit the skids and are well off the playoff pace. What the heck happened with the Sounders?

SaH: Reason the First: Injuries hampered the team’s ability to execute their strategy. They lost their star forward. Their creative right back went down. I should just start listing the players that got hurt. I’ll speed that up though. Only one player hasn’t been hurt yet -- Cristian Roldan. Every other who should be expected to contribute on an MLS Cup side missed at least a game. Only 4 players have started 75% or more of the MLS matches to this point.

Reason the Second: Clint Dempsey isn’t Clint Dempsey. He’s just an old soccer player who kind of executes once in a while, but it’s rare that we actually see the shadow of Deuce. He’s faded like a 30-year-old NFL running back.

Reason the Third: In Seattle’s first three games they played short a man. Want to try to overcome injuries and age? Don’t try when you’re also short a man for half of the first 270 minutes of the season.

Reason the Fourth: No one can score, so Brian Schmetzer got more conservative tactically, which meant that no one could score, which meant he started playing even more defensive players. That spiral seems to have maybe stopped.

Reason the Fifth: Playing through the MLS Cup Final for two straight seasons kills most teams (not the Revs, but normal teams).

tBM: Seattle has an MLS low 15-goals, but the Revs defense has been conceding a lot the past few weeks. How would you attack the New England defense and/or which Sounders attacker should the Revs be most concerned about?

SaH: This is the question that’s caused me the most trouble. Seattle’s attack is bad. When healthy the components shouldn’t be bad, and they’re basically healthy lately, but they still aren’t great. And yet, they have 8 goals in their last five matches. If you aren’t great at math that means they scored more than half their goals in this recent 2-2-1 positive stretch.

Much of what’s gone right about that has been the return of Victor Rodriguez and Nicolas Lodeiro, and even a bit of Harry Shipp. With this roster the Sounders are at their best when they practice patient possession in the final third, slowly prodding for weaknesses. To do this well they need to have players with vision and technical ability. Having several players like this rather than youngsters like Alex Roldan and Henry Wingo, or worse fullbacks playing up a line, means that Schmetzer’s side has the skill necessary to break apart a defense that’s withdrawn into perfection.

They’ve also pressed a bit higher, which leads to turnovers in spaces where the Sounders can succeed. Finally, they are actually finishing their chances. It doesn’t matter how many good opportunities a team has if they squander them.

tBM: There has to be something good about the Sounders 2018 season - a player having a career year, new player or rookie having a good start, a nice team or fan storyline; give us something positive.

SaH: Here’s a few of the good things;

The Chad Marshall of the Year Award probably deserves to have Chad Marshall as a finalist. Somehow he’s not an All-Star, but he’s the key defender on a team that doesn’t give up goals. He is still a leader in interceptions and in passes blocked, because Chad doesn’t need to be fast. He reads a game better than any defender to make MLS their league of choice.

He’s already in the USMNT picture, but you should probably know more about Cristian Roldan. He’s probably best as a classic number eight, effectively moving the ball forward while also being a strong defender. He has enough defensive ability to play a six as well. Roldan the Elder completes 86% of his passes, wins 2.1 aerials a game despite being tiny, is a strong tackler, and can dribble out of traffic.

The Sounder at Heart motto is on the jersey, but maybe this is a curse.

Lineups/Injuries/Predictions

There will be heavy rotation due to the midweek match. Let’s make the following Wild Ass Guess:

Stefan Frei; Nouhou, Chad Marshall, Kim Kee-Hee, Jordan McCrary; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Victor Rodriguez, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin

Jordan Morris (ACL) and Handwalla Bwana (foot sprain) are both out. Kelvin Leerdam might be able to return, which would be handy with the squad rotation being needed.

I don’t make score predictions, but I’ll say this — Clint Dempsey will score in the same place he’s scored so many goals back when he was young.