Match previews

Preview: Union at New England Revolution

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at New England Revolution
What: Regular season game
Where: Gillette Stadium
When: Saturday, August 13 at 7:30 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Robert Sibiga; Linesmen: Craig Lowry, Brian Poeschel; Fourth Official: Alan Kelly

When New England Revolution signed Kei Kamara, there were three options. First, Jay Heaps’ team could speed up transitions and find new ways to get the powerful striker running at retreating defenses. That hasn’t happened. Second, Kamara could act as a passing hub, forcing defenses deep into the box to give space to the Revs’ quick midfield then checking back to play connecting passes that get Kelyn Rowe and Teal Bunbury behind the back line. That hasn’t happened either. Third, New England could keep playing the same type of game they were playing, only with Kei Kamara up top instead of Charlie Davies or Juan Agudelo. Seems like it could work… but also seems… man, just less than ideal.

Revs key passes vs Orlando two weeks ago.

Revs key passes vs Orlando two weeks ago.

Big guy in a little game

Essentially, Jay Heaps went Nic Cage in Gone in Sixty Seconds. He swiped Kei Kamara from Columbus, then proceeded to try and drive his big, powerful, souped-up striker through all the narrowest alleys. Predictably, Kamara has been stuck in quite a few spaces too small for his open field game. Since moving to the northeast, the man who nearly dragged the Crew to a title last season has suffered more than twice as many fouls as he did in Ohio and has seen his shots per game drop from 4.0 to 3.2. That’s a significant fall off for a player whose expects to spend a lot of time as the finishing move in the Revolution’s Mortal Kombat combos.

Kamara’s woes reflect broader problems with New England’s overall play.

Revs key passes vs Toronto last weekend

Revs key passes vs Toronto last weekend

When the attack sets up in the final third, Kamara isn’t attracting much attention until the ball is played wide. The problem? The Revs aren’t that big on playing the ball wide in the final third.

Take a look at New England’s key passes over the past three matches (two in MLS play and Tuesday night’s US Open Cup semi-final win over Chicago). Most key passes — which indicate a pass that sets up a shot — come from central positions. But even more alarmingly, those that come from wide are often cutbacks toward the top of the box. The Revs boast one of the most potent aerial threats in MLS history and they keep playing the ball to his feet.

To sum up, Kamara has scored four league goals in the 12 games he’s played for Jay Heaps. Only one of those was a header. And it was off a corner kick (in other words, a situation in which almost everybody plays an aerial ball).

Revs key passes vs Chicago last Tuesday

Revs key passes vs Chicago last Tuesday

Too many cooks, or too many diners?

A big part of the problem is that Heaps has built a team that seems like it’s filled with creators but is actually chock full of guys who are more comfortable going for goal. Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe can be wizards with the ball, but both still struggle to fight off the demon that tells them shots from outside the box are likely to go in. Similarly, Teal Bunbury is a striker playing on the wing, and his straight line runs tend to end with crosses that match the accuracy of Dick Cheney on a hunting trip. Bunbury prefers to run at an angle toward goal so he can set up his own shot or lay off a simple pass. Below, you can see him heading towards goal when Nguyen finds him behind Kamara. Instead of setting up a hard, low cross, Bunbury is at best preparing for a shot. Only a bit of luck grants Kamara his tally.

[gfycat data_id=IndelibleWeakGoitered data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

The result of all this is a team with a ton of attacking talent that can’t create space around their best distributor. Nguyen hasn’t recorded an assist in eight games, and the Revs have gone 2-5-1 over that stretch. Even weirder, New England has only scored eight goals since Nguyen’s last assist, with three of those coming against a Columbus team that was visited by the Men in Black sometime in February and wiped clean of soccer knowledge (they’ll be back in 2017, though, mark my words).

Not the defense you are looking for

Five goals in seven games is simply untenable for a team that was never going to float on defense alone. And the Revs have compounded their defensive frailty by blowing their transfer budget on Kamara and plugging London Woodberry and the Woodettes into the hole created by Andrew Farrell’s return to right back. Je-Vaughn Watson may be the answer, but he’s certainly not a clean sheet guarantee.

Watson doesn’t solve the basic problem that has plagued New England for almost two seasons now: Who is organizing this defense? Brad Knighton and Bobby Shuttleworth are excellent and still-underrated shot stoppers, but neither has been able to corral the athletic and headstrong defenders in front of them. Watch below as a bad tackle and penalty prevents New England from the embarrassment of watching Giovinco score from the center of the box without anybody closer than five yards to him.

[gfycat data_id=DelectableCanineAlbertosaurus data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Opposing coaches have figured it out. The best way to attack the Revs is to move the ball wide, send an overlap to create space for a winger, and drive the ball inside off the wing. This allows you to avoid Scott “Son of BC” Caldwell and go at the back four directly.

The major benefit is that now you can build quick combinations on the edge of the box. Going alone against Andrew Farrell, Watson, or the (let’s just say it) overrated Jose Goncalves isn’t a great idea. But all that 1v1 skill doesn’t translate into an organized defense, and the Revs aren’t sure how to handle quick 1-2s. Some players step up, some drop back, nobody ends up very close to an attacker. Just look at Orlando shred through the defense two weeks ago.

[gfycat data_id=ElaborateSolidFanworms data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

OCSC didn’t even need an overlap because as soon as they attacked from the wing, the Revs backed off and every loose ball belonged to the purps. It is a recurring theme for New England’s defense that once the basic organizational structure breaks down, they become extremely tentative and invite trouble.

A pass through the center of midfield finds one Chicago player goalside of his man and two others with enough space to play a quick pass or collect and turn.

A pass through the center of midfield finds one Chicago player goal-side of his man and two others with enough space to play a quick pass or collect and turn.

Perhaps no photo better sums up their struggles than a look at how the defense is organized in the buildup to Chicago’s goal Tuesday night. A ball is played through the center of the midfield (yikes) and the Revs have three defenders marking three attackers. The outside defender is wide of his attacker (double-yikes) and both central defenders are a yard or two away from their attacker, meaning that anybody who receives the ball will have time to take a touch and establish position before they are challenged. Basically, the Revs are inviting a ball into the most dangerous creative area of the pitch.

Sure enough, David Accam will score after Michael De Leeuw is given enough room to turn and create the exact sort of havoc that New England has not handled well all season.

Philadelphia questions

The craziest thing about the Alejandro Bedoya signing (beyond the fact that the Union just signed one of the best Americans on the planet right now) is that Philly has somehow convinced the world that they might not play Bedoya in the one open spot they have in midfield.

Jim Curtin has said some version of the following sentence over and over since Bedoya signed: “We don’t have a No. 8, but we have an Alejandro Bedoya… you figure it out.”

This led MLSSoccer’s Andrew Wiebe to “piece together” where Bedoya will play.

The thing is, if this is a puzzle, there’s only one hole, and only one piece.

If Tranquillo Barnetta had dropped into a deeper role and really fit in well, maybe we have some questions to answer. But he hasn’t. Barnetta has been anywhere from solid to decent to disastrous trying to marry his attacking instincts with transition defense. You can almost see him having to pull himself back to cover space when Brian Carroll leaves the center.

With Carroll out for 3-6 weeks (thanks, KYW/PSP pod!), there’s absolutely no way the less positionally disciplined Warren Creavalle and Barnetta can co-exist and maintain a solid front to cover a defense that has seen far too many counterattacks ramp up to full speed without hitting any midfield resistance over recent weeks.

Perhaps in future road games, with a healthy Carroll, Curtin can shift Barnetta wide and play Bedoya in front of two holding mids. But not this Saturday, and definitely not until Carroll or Edu are healthy again.

Unless the Union try to get too smart for their own good, Bedoya will be deployed alongside Creavalle on Saturday with Barnetta returning to the attacking role he was only just figuring out when Vincent Nogueira left town.

Barnetta: A winger without a wing

It’s better to call Barnetta an attacking midfielder than a No. 10, because, as Wiebe accurately writes, the Swiss midfielder is “not necessarily a dyed-in-the-wool No. 10.” Instead, he’s a central winger.

Barnetta thrives by pushing his defender back — or simply curling through zonal defenses — and popping up with enough space to turn toward goal. Much like a winger might, he then attacks the first man he sees while looking for a diagonal pass forward so he can run past his marker into the space. Many of these movements map onto those of a wide player, and, indeed, that was Barnetta’s stock and trade for years.

The other big question for Philly is in defense, where a shaky performance from Ken Tribbett has kept the right center back spot an open question. Joshua Yaro hasn’t played since that yucky Montreal loss, but it would be no surprise to see him returned to the lineup against New England’s quick attackers.

That said, Curtin may want to stick with Tribbett to counter Kei Kamara’s aerial presence (while Kamara has only a single headed goal in 12 games since joining the Revs, he has created chaos by knocking balls down off set pieces).

Prediction: Union 3-2 Revolution

Both of these defenses are struggling, but the Union have the better pieces. With Bedoya bedding in, things won’t be perfect but they should be better. And more importantly, Barnetta’s move forward means Jim Curtin can start Ilsinho wide but insert Fabian Herbers or Walter Restrepo if CJ Sapong again refuses to push the defensive line deep.

This Union team has all the pieces to hang with everybody except, perhaps, Toronto in full flight. But putting it all together will take a few games now that the roster is set and Mo Edu close to return. The key is getting Bedoya’s role figured out before Edu joins the first eleven, and that starts Saturday in Foxborough.


  1. 1) Please don’t insert Restrepo anywhere, at any time. How about we all take a break from Walter for a couple of weeks after his most recent performance.
    2) I understand the need to counter Kei’s aerial ability with Tribbett, but didn’t we just give up a late goal due to a lost aerial battle? I like Tribbett, and I think he’s great CB depth, but Yaro has to play. He offers more going forward, especially if he can build a chemistry with Bedoya.
    And unfortunately, I see another 2-2 draw, and more people unnecessarily jostling for position on the CUD.

    • hey Restrepo, please watch until it sinks in…

    • Why not instead, we demand more from Barnetta? He makes almost a million dollars, has played almost all the matches, only has 2 assist, 2 goals and it’s our number 10. Why not demand more from Ilsinho? One of the best payed players on the team, only has 2 goals and has played almost all the games. Why not demand more from Herbers? He’s a striker, has played more than half oh the matches and only has 1 goal. Why not demand more from Marquez and Tribbet? They always give away a goal per game. Why, since everybody is Praising Rosenbery, his level has dropped and the goals almost always come from his side. Was CJ an illusion on the first games? We always attack Gaddis, Anderson, Fernandez and Restrepo. I don’t even think Restrepo has more than 50 minutes of game time in all year and yet he gets blamed? You have to not know about soccer if you are going to blame the non players for not winning.
      If you put Davies to play for 15 minutes and he doesn’t play a “good match,” should he not ever play again? Or if you put the rookie Jones and doesn’t have a good game, should we ask to not let him play anymore? So what about the rest of the team that has played all year? They are the ones who we should be asking for points and goals, the ones who are responsible to get the team to top. Not the guys who rarely get an opportunity and don’t get many minutes.

      • I agree with the sentiment defending Restrepo. I HATED the mistake he made against DC (seriously, someone ran to the corner late in the game last night in a pickup game I play in… there’s no ref or time kept), but we’ve got to move on from this and talk about how he fits in to the team going forward. It does no good to hold grudges.
        As for the players you want to demand more from however, I’m much less on board. The biggest problem I’ve seen from the last month and a half of union soccer is 100% the loss of Noguiera. Trying to make Barnetta adjust and play his role didn’t work. A young defense subsequently got exposed when they didn’t have the luxury of playing with one of the safest box to box outlets in the league. Asking Barnetta to pace the team the same way Nogs did would always be difficult. Not only that, he was on his 3rd position with our team at that point (recall he started out wide with Chaco in the middle last year) and you can see why he never settled in. To Adam’s point he was starting to, then Nogs left. Now here we are. Let’s see a game or 2 with Bedoya, then reassess. (It should also be noted for the record that I dislike judging a player’s worth based on Goals and Assists)

      • Trent I don’t think people are blaming Restrepo I think they are saying in that situation he didn’t play the game correctly and thus that is why he should not be played in the next match. Also Barnetta makes $450,000 I believe not close to a million. The only players on our roster near a million are Bedoya and Edu. So if you want to ask more from someone ask it of our injured supposed captian Edu.

      • WOW! Criticizing a guy for dribbling at 2 defenders in midfield when up by a goal late in the game and he should be thinking about possession means I don’t know much about soccer?
        I guess you know a lot more than I do…like Barnetta’s salary number and the fact that his numbers are down because he has been not been #10 but is playing out of position for the GOOD OF THE TEAM.
        Speaking of the good of team, is it possible that Restrepo was not thinking about the good of team but that if he set up a goal or got on the highlight reel he might get more playing time?
        And I did not say bench him. That was someone else. I just said don’t be stupid. Don’t do what every high school soccer player knows what not to late in the game when you are up by a goal and in midfield.
        …but maybe I need to know more about soccer.

  2. Hey, Cheney has great aim. He hit the guy right in the face. That’s called a quality head shot where I come from.

  3. “And more importantly, Barnetta’s move forward means Jim Curtin can start Ilsinho wide but insert Fabian Herbers or Walter Restrepo if CJ Sapong again refuses to push the defensive line deep.”
    I would add Davies to that list. His threat to run in behind helps push defensive lines deeper and you know he will be motivated against his former team.

    • pragmatist says:

      We’ve spent so much time arguing about Bedoya’s best position, but what is Davies? In Jim’s single-striker formation, is he best replacing CJ as a change-of-pace striker? Or he best as a winger, allowing CJ to continue to occupy CB’s while Davies and Herbers hit the channels from the wings?
      I believe he was brought here to spell CJ, even if it’s not a like-for-like switch. But I’m curious how his skill set is best used.
      Just to be clear, I am NOT arguing that anyone play ahead of Pontius. We are in a playoff spot because of Pontius and Blake. This is more of an academic question, I guess.

      • Pontius and Davies on the wings with CJ, Barnetta and Bedoya down the middle should be really fun to watch!!

      • If we are not considering formation changes (I think we could still see two-striker sets when chasing the game late but I digress)….
        I’d vote Davies up top and CJ on the wing, albeit I would expect plenty of exchange.
        CJ could serve as a “target winger” a-la Wenger (2014 version, please) and is pretty much a physical nightmare for every fullback in the league. Davies is more of a threat over the top and is a bit more clever with his movement which could open up lanes on the backline for everyone making runs from the midfield to take advantage of.
        The debate continues….!

      • interesting!!

  4. Lucky Striker says:

    Predicting a road win ? Brave……..

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      They gotta win at least one more on the road, right? Right? And NE just played Tuesday. This, like the DC game was, is a very winnable road game.

    • it’s a little bit brave, a little bit “after the DC match, I foresee more of the same, except more pants-wetting and less bed-pooping at the end”

    • Agree: 3 goals on the road is unrealistic; also after 1-1 after 90min during the US open cup game in Boston. Think it will be another 1-1

    • Pure fantasy and completely at odds with the buildup of “here’s why they suck and here’s where we suck”. Creavalle is positionally less disciplined and our CB issues are getting exposed but they keep all of that attacking talent to less goals.

      Checks out. By the way, the money line at +$240 sounds like quite a payday for the author.

    • Pure fantasy and completely at odds with the buildup of “here’s why they suck and here’s where we suck”. Creavalle is positionally less disciplined and our CB issues are getting exposed but they keep all of that attacking talent to less goals.

      Checks out. By the way, the money line at +$240 sounds like quite a payday for the author.

      • So I’m not exactly ever super-tied to my goals predictions, but let me try to offer some support for this one.

        1) NE’s defense has been very up-n-down lately and the Union will have their best creator back in the 10-spot.
        2) NE will be missing Gershon Koffie again, which means they won’t have as much protection for the back four.
        3) Both teams desperately want 3 points, so if either team goes up early, I don’t think anybody is going to sit back and settle.
        4) The Union just signed a guy who has played in a little thing called the World Cup 😉

  5. Comparing Jay Heaps to Nic Cage within the first 3 paragraphs… strong. The GIF of Sebastian freaking Giovinco finding space in the box had me laughing just as much. Good stuff Adam.
    On the tactical side a) no lineup projection? b) Ilsinho. The way he plays wing SHOULD be perfect against New England. Head inside, grab the defense’s attention, overlapping Rosenberry, Goals Goals Goals. But I’d still almost like to see him relegated to more of a “super sub” role. Bring him on in the 60th minute and see if a tired defender can stay with his fresh legs and moves. That should alleviate the stamina problems he seems to have and get maximum bang for our buck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *