The 2012 season represents a critical year for the New England Revolution organization. After a decade of unmitigated dominance in the Eastern Conference, the Revs have fallen dramatically to the MLS basement since 2009, their last postseason appearance (and still not a particularly successful season). It took two losing seasons and a deluge of bad press and fan unrest, but the club finally responded this past offseason by shaking up club infrastructure and parting ways with longtime head coach Steve Nicol in favor of young, first-time coach Jay Heaps.
How 2011 Turned Out
New England finished 2011 as the worst team in the Eastern Conference and the second-worst in the league overall. The club ended up third-worst in goals scored and second-worst in goals conceded, and completed the season on a run of five matches without a win - four of which were losses. Major offseason signings Ousmane Dabo and Didier Domi made little impact and were gone by midseason, while 2010 MVP Marko Perovic left the club under acrimonious circumstances. By any team's standard, 2011 was an embarrassing, unmitigated failure.
Rajko Lekic (Option declined), Monsef Zerka (Option declined), Milton Caraglio (Option declined), Pat Phelan (Option declined), Franco Coria (Option declined), Ryan Cochrane (Option declined), Kheli Dube (Re-Entry Draft), Alan Koger (Option declined), Otto Loewy (Option declined), Andrew Sousa (Option declined), Zack Schilawski (Waived), Ryan Kinne (Waived)
After such a disappointing campaign, the Revolution effectuated a veritable fire sale, dropping some of 2011's key contributors. Announcements that Lekic, Zerka, and Caraglio wouldn't be returning were met with vitriolic outcry from most of the fan base, but the team's logic was sound: no matter how good those players were, they were still part of one of the worst teams in club history, and all three were expensive. The other departures made room for the squad to be reshaped in Jay Heaps' image, and, frankly, few of them had any positive impact on the team as a whole.
Jose Moreno (Striker, 30, Colombia); Fernando Cardenas (Midfielder/Forward, 23, Colombia); John Lozano (Defender, 30, Colombia); Kelyn Rowe (Midfielder, 20, USA); Tyler Polak (Defender, 19, USA); Saer Sene (Striker, 25, France); Clyde Simms (Midfielder, 29, USA), Lee Nguyen (Winger/Forward, 25, USA), Blake Brettschneider (Forward, 22, USA), Alec Purdie (Midfielder, 23, USA), Michael Roach (Midfielder/Forward, 23, USA)
Jay Heaps and his staff sought to leverage an understanding of MLS's own peculiar roster rules and requirements to bring in players that would be accustomed to the style of play in America, while also mining the international market for players who could make an immediate impact on the squad. The Revs followed this season's MLS trend and raided Colombia for Moreno, Lozano, and Cardenas, while grabbing Simms in the Re-Entry Draft and Sene after he impressed on trial. Rowe and Polak are both Generation Adidas players, drafted third and 22nd in the SuperDraft, respectively. The building is by no means finished, with the Revs still looking to fill four more roster spots before the season kicks off on March 10th.
Lee Nguyen was an exciting acquisition after he was inexplicably waived by Vancouver. New England snapped him up immediately, and he is expected to push for a spot either out wide or up top straight from day one. Blake Brettschneider was another surprise pickup when he was cut by D.C. United last month. After a reasonably exciting rookie season, many pundits were left confused to see that he had been dropped, but he has since made a new home in Foxborough. Michael Roach and Alec Purdie are Supplemental Draft picks who impressed enough in camp to earn deals.
Also, though not a new acquisition, Shalrie Joseph was re-signed to a designated player deal. He spent most of last season flip-flopping positions on the matter of his return, at one point announcing that he wouldn't be back for 2012, and then later retracting his statement. In the end, the club captain remained where he belonged and finally got the status and salary his decade of excellence truly deserves.
New England posted a great 6-0-1 record this preseason with victories over FC Tucson, Boston College, the Los Angeles Galaxy, the New York Red Bulls, and Real Salt Lake. In fact, the Revs only narrowly missed out on the Tucson Desert Diamond Cup championship, going down to the Galaxy on penalties last week. If they can carry this form over into the regular season, the Revs could be poised to turn a lot of heads in a relatively weak Eastern Conference in 2012.
Kelyn Rowe, in particular, has impressed. He scored a brace against New York on February 25th, including an excellent curling shot off of his left foot that found the far-post top corner with no chance of a save from the Red Bulls goalkeeper. Those goals brought his preseason tally up to four goals and four assists, and the young rookie has looked comfortable on both wings and as a playmaker. Other notable performers include Saer Sene, Benny Feilhaber, and Alec Purdie.
How will Jay Heaps handle his first season as a coach? - Heaps isn't just a young head coach, he's a first-time professional coach. While some MLS teams have found success with that approach (Jason Kreis in Salt Lake, for example), there is no question that such a leap presents a steep learning curve with which Heaps could have serious trouble. He's already stamped his own indelible mark on the organization, hiring the club's first-ever dedicated strength and condition coach, and helping fight for an independent weight room and video room that the squad won't have to share with the New England Patriots. Whether or not his new ideas and fresh approach will translate into results is perhaps the greatest question plaguing this organization in 2012.
Will Jose Moreno be an asset or a distraction? - Jose "Pepe" Moreno was signed to be the New England Revolution's new "number 9" and line-leading striker, but almost immediately after his signing was announced, the Colombian journeyman forward ignited a scandal by announcing that he would be staying with Once Caldas. Revolution officials assured the public that all necessary documents for his loan agreement were signed and binding - which was true - but weeks of silence on the part of both Once Caldas and the player led to speculation that the striker would reneg, or that the Revs would be forced to take legal action. Recently, it was announced that he will, in fact, be joining the team on March 1st per his loan agreement, but many fans no longer want him in Foxborough, perceiving his lack of willingness to move north a slight against them and their club. Moreno will have to make a quick impact if he has any hope of winning over the scorned members of the Fort.
Has the defense been plugged? - New England gave up 58 goals last season in just 34 matches. If not for Matt Reis' incredible season between the sticks, the Revs could easily have given up over two goals per game. Positioning and communication were at an all-time low, and a lack of consistency at the back contributed to elementary mistakes and an embarrassment of riches for opposing forwards. The error-prone duo of Coria and Cochrane have departed, but so far only John Lozano and Tyler Polak have been brought in to improve depth and quality. A.J. Soares and Darrius Barnes are both accomplished defenders in their own right, and Lozano has had a pretty good preseason, but is there enough there to keep the Revolution in tight games and help them close out leads late in matches, something the squad was generally unable to do?
Who will score the goals? - The additions of Simms, Cardenas, and Rowe have certainly increased the likelihood that the Revs will create chances in 2012, but who will finish them? The club let go of Lekic and Caraglio, last season's starting strikers, and so far have only replaced them with Saer Sene and Moreno. Sene, though a physical freak, has little top-flight experience, and Moreno is a journeyman without an encouraging scoring record. Major questions remain about the Revs' quality in front of goal, and even unproven or unfancied incumbents Ryan Kinne and Zack Schilawski have been let go, leaving a real lack of depth..
Is this Benny Feilhaber's year? - Benny Feilhaber arrived in New England last season to much fanfare, and was expected to take control of the Revolution midfield and create chances almost at will. He finished the season with four goals and seven assists; decent numbers, but not the caliber that was expected out of a USA international. Now that Benny has had almost a full season to get used to the style of play in MLS, 2012 should be a breakout year for him if he expects to validate both his salary and his reputation.