This week, I linked up with Bent Musket Regiment Commander Steve Stoehr (@stoehrst) to talk about the upcoming match. The first set consists of questions that I asked Steve. The second set is the list of questions that he asked me.
1. Starting his second season as head coach of the Revolution, what do you expect out of Jay Heaps to continue to rebuild this team?
I expect a playoff challenge. I don't necessarily expect the Revs to make it, but I need to see improvement. Last season's 9 wins was a definite improvement upon the 5 wins in 2011, but from about mid-season onward, there was absolutely no threat at all of the Revolution making the playoffs. That needs to be different. They need to be in it. The East is crazy deep this year and a lot of teams improved, but if we're saying stuff like "but they aren't mathematically out of it!" come August or September, then this year was a rebuilding setback.
2. New England has scored only one goal in 3 matches so far. Is this an early season anomaly or something to be worried about going down the stretch? Where are the goals going to come from?
It's definitely something to be worried about. For all the creativity the Revs have in the midfield (and let's be honest, it's an embarrassment of riches) this is a club that truly struggles with the final ball and generating chances. Furthermore, they're without the full-time services of their two best finishers, with Jerry Bengtson often gone with Honduras, and Saer Sene still recovering from that ACL injury. When they're both in Revolution uniforms you gotta expect that the goals will come from them, but it's anybody's guess as to whether or not the goals will actually come.
To go a little deeper, the Revs also have an enormous problem with attacking set-pieces. At this point, they must have a reputation around the league as a team you can foul anywhere on the pitch, because there's nobody on that team that's going to bury a chance off a free-kick or a corner. They're even horrible on throw-ins! It makes it a lot harder to fashion a good chance on net when you're face-down on the ground. If they can't fix this quickly, it's going to be a real long season.
3. In the defensive third of the field, the New England Revolution is tied with LA for the best defense almost a month into the season - only conceding one goal. What has been the key to the Revs' stonewall progress?
I hate to be pessimistic, but it has to be pointed out that the goals scored stats for the three teams the Revs have already played are as follows: 1 (Chicago), 4 (Philly), 4 (SKC). Sporting and the Union are tied for 8th in the league with those numbers, and Chicago is tied for last. The Revs have also played one fewer match than many teams in the league, including Dallas. So any defensive analysis has to include the caveat of substandard opposition.
Apart from that, though, the Revs have just been playing solid, rough-and-tumble defense. Jose Goncalves has been an excellent stabilizing presence in the back line, Kevin Alston is more at home on the left than he ever was on the right, A.J. Soares is A.J. Soares, and Andrew Farrell has been playing out of his mind for a rookie. Matt Reis has also been excellent, and Bobby Shuttleworth had a good game against Philadelphia. I think there was an increased emphasis on staying switched-on for the full 90 this season, and so far it's paying off.
4. What do you see as the major hurdles for this team to overcome to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009?
Attacking set-pieces is a big one. The Revs absolutely cannot allow this ineptitude to continue, or they'll never get better. Think of it this way: last year the Revs scored 39 goals. Two of those were penalties, which we'll disregard, and only two other goals came from set pieces. 39 total goals was 14th in the league. But, honestly, that's a whole bunch of open-play goals. If you can buttress that number with a fair number of set-piece goals, then you might see the Revs start to climb the table a bit. Maybe some of their 17 losses become draws, and maybe some of their 8 draws become wins. Who knows.
Another big hurdle for the Revs is off-the-ball movement. We spend a lot of time at The Bent Musket lamenting the long ball, and how players on this team seem almost eager to hoof it aimlessly rather than take the time to pick a pass and build an attack. That's a major issue, for sure, but it's not helped by the fact that the Revs are chronically poor at moving off the ball. Movement creates space, and space can be exploited; with the exception of Clyde Simms and Kalifa Cisse, this team lacks players who seem to understand that showing for the ball when a teammate is in possession can be just as important as playing that killer ball or scoring a goal. Presenting the easy pass and creating the triangles is what allows a team to recycle in possession and keep the ball, and moving to create space is what generates good chances. Part of the Revs' big issue with final balls is down to that lack of movement.
5. What Revolution player could be the most troubling to the Dallas squad that fans might not know much about?
But seriously, I wonder if you guys have heard much about Kalifa Cisse. He's not an unknown, given his European pedigree, but he's been out injured since the Chicago match and hasn't really gotten a chance to make his impact on the team. Against Chicago, though, he was a monster in the middle. He completed 75% of his passes (not the best for a holding mid, but he's a little more aggressive with the ball), made six recoveries, won two tackles without losing any, and conceded just three fouls all game. Plus, he nearly scored from a header early in the match, taking advantage of lax defending by making a late surging run from the midfield. If he's 100%, he's the guy that's going to knock your guys around and impose his will upon the game, and he's shown that he has the skills to make it work at both ends of the pitch.
My answers to the Bent Musket's questions.
1.) It's early, but the Hoops are topping the Western Conference table. What's been the secret to success in the first four matches?
J E L L O. This team is gelling together like it’s 2010 all over again (or the 2013 Red Bulls). There is a strong core of players from 2011 that is coming together with new transfers into the club. Our transfers have all added depth or addressed needs that this club suffered from last season (i.e., lack of forwards). I haven’t been in the locker room personally, but reports from the team are that there is a really good vibe. This squad is having fun at the end of the day.
If I were to add anything else to that, it would be that our defense has really stepped up its game. The squad is still working out kinks from changing goalkeepers; however, FCD has gotten through a couple of games without conceding as many goals late in the second half as last year. It’s still not perfect. The team is making steady progress though, and that is something to be excited about.
2.) Kenny Cooper's homecoming must have been a big deal, but it seems like he's struggling to make an impact. Do you think he'll be able to recapture the ridiculous scoring form he once had in Dallas, or was re-acquiring him a mistake?
Absolutely Kenny will find that spark. Even though Cooper has a long history with Dallas, this is not the same team that he left in 2009. I think it takes a bit of time for any new player to gel with new teammates, so I’m not worried about his slow start to 2013. If you look at past seasons, you can see that FC Dallas as a club overall tends to start slowly. It’s no surprise, then, to see Kenny take a few games to fully acclimate.
3.) Three wins is a good look, but Dallas' only loss came on the road, and you'll be on the road in New England. Plus, you'll be playing in temperatures that probably seem relatively cold to Texans like yourselves. How do you foresee the team handling the elements, and do you think the early-season away loss will be an indication of the squad's away form for the rest of the season?
I think the loss to Chivas USA was a fluke - at least in the way that the team lost. I think a few wins are bolstering confidence levels. I believe FC Dallas will be heading north to New England a bit better prepared mentally than when the team traveled to LA. I don’t expect the cold to be an overwhelming issue. This is Texas, and our weather abruptly spikes up and down this time of year. This past week has been similar temperature to what is expected Saturday in Foxboro – highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s. Now coming from New England to Texas in August… that’s a different story.
4.) Even though he went into an extended slump, it still must be pretty tough to replace a guy like Brek Shea. Who's shouldering the creative load on the wings since he left?
Jackson and Fabian Castillo are picking up where Brek Shea left off. Dallas is strong on the wings as a team. Along with our midfielders, Dallas fullbacks Jair Benitez and Zach Loyd move forward to get in on the attack also. As much as Brek did for this team, he is still one player. Our flank players are very capable of stretching out the game from sideline to sideline no matter the starting XI.
5.) Let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
1-0 to FC Dallas. We have a good possibility of seeing a 0-0 tie game if FCD’s offense struggles; however I think FCD is going to arrive in Foxboro pushing for goals. I expect we’ll see Raul Fernandez back in goal after posting a shutout to Chile in CONMEBOL WCQ. Dallas backline will be Jair Benitez, Matt Hedges, George John, and Zach Loyd. Dallas midfield may consist of Andrew Jacobson, Michel, and Jackson - with Kenny Cooper and Blas Pérez up top. [EDIT: And of course DF10 himself, David Ferreira, will be slotted in the middle of the field between the forwards and midfield wingers!]
I hope you enjoyed this week's Three Questions segment. What are your thoughts on the match up this weekend? Think FCD will beat the tar out of the Revs? Will our defense hold strong and our stable of forwards bring the pain?