Last night’s playoff loss to Sporting Kansas City lowered the curtain on the New England Revolution’s 2013 MLS campaign. Whatever else might be said here or elsewhere about the 2013 season one mud remember that nobody, not even the most passionate “homer” thought this team would make as much progress as it did. Making the playoff seemed, if not quite laughable, perhaps overly optimistic when the season kicked off back in March. Though 2013 ended in relative disappointment, the second half of the season showed supporters and opposition clubs alike what might be in store in 2014 if a few changes are made.
One change that does not need to be made is at the position of coach. Though Jay Heaps remains a work in progress he has begun to put his stamp on this club and the club is better off for it. Perhaps the biggest change Heaps has overseen is in terms of attitude. This is no longer a team that “taps out” after it gives up a goal or makes a habit of turning wins into draws and draws into losses as it did in the final days of Steve Nicol’s tenure. Instead, this is a team with a belief in itself and a commitment to play for the full 90 minutes regardless of the score. Yes, Heaps is occasionally tactically naive and I for one sometimes wondered (though less so as season progressed) about his team selection, but both will improve with experience.
Matt Reis’ season came to an end last night with what has been reported to be a torn quadriceps muscle. If this is the way his career ends (and it could be given that he’ll be 39 before the 2014 season kicks off) it will be a shame. Reis was undefeated in regular season play this year after replacing Bobby Shuttleworth as the starting keeper and he played some of the best football of his career over the last three months. There’s nothing to suggest that he can’t play for another year or two if he can overcome his injury, but if he can the club must use that time to find another front line player at the position. Shuttleworth is good, but I still don’t think he’s the answer going forward.
Defensively there’s really only one thing to talk about and that is Jose Goncalves. If the Revolution cannot or do not secure his services via a long term contract, or at least an extended loan from F.C. Sion the prospects for the 2014 season are going to be grim. Goncalves was the club’s best defender, might be recognized as the league’s best defender, and will certainly be part of MLS’s 2013 “Best XI” when those names are made public. While Goncalves may have arrived in New England with little or no expectations about what he would find, he has clearly found the situation to his liking. He his absolutely adored by the supporters, has been delighted to find such a thriving Lusophone community (Portuguese, Brazilian, and Cape Verdean) in the local area, and whether he realized it or not, he has joined- and led- a club that is on the up.
Much of what is driving this forward beyond Heaps and Goncalves can be summed up in one word: youth. The Revolution are in the unique position of essentially having two cores of players who can carry this club forward for years to come. First there is the group that includes A.J. Soares, Chris Tierney, Steven McCarthy, Saer Sene, Lee Nguyen, Darius Barnes, and Kevin Alston. All players between the ages of 24 and 28, all with at least three years of MLS experience, and while not all are locks to always be in the starting 11, all are key contributors to the club. Next there is the group of Diego Fagundez, Andrew Farrell, Scott Caldwell, Kelyn Rowe, and Dimitry Imbongo. All players between the ages of 18 and 23 and all players who saw most of their minutes as starters this season and all obviously having their best years still ahead of them. Beyond these two groups there is also the group that contains Tyler Polak, Bilal Duckett, Gabe Latigue, Donnie Smith, Matt Horth, and Luis Soffner. Most are rookies, most played the bulk of the season with the Rochester Rhinos in the USL Pro league, and all are under the age of 24. Even if only one or two become regular contributors that will make a big difference to the Revolution’s future.
Finally, at the end of every season there comes the time to make the decision about who won’t be back with the club next year. I won’t go so far as to say that these decisions will be “cut and dry” for Jay Heaps, but in many cases the players themselves have made the decision for him. Juan Agudelo will be gone and there’s nothing that can be done about that. Juan Toja, Jerry Bengston, and, sadly, Charlie Davies should all be cut loose as well. All are, at least in MLS terms, highly compensated and contributed very little in return for their wages this season. A career renaissance for Davies could have been the MLS story of the year, instead he played a total of 22 minutes over four matches. If the Revolution don’t make the decision for them, Chad Barrett, Clyde Simms, Ryan Guy and Andy Dorman will need to decide if they think they can win a starting position with another club or if they are content to be role players in New England. Of that group only Dorman appears to have a future in New England.
Now, about that stadium…