By Ridge Mahoney
When he lost his debut as a head coach to San Jose in the 2012 season opener, Jay Heaps had to admit that even though “I was a rookie out there,” the loss really bothered him.
“Unfortunately all I’ll remember is that there’s a big ‘L’ next to it,” he said at the time. “I don’t like losing.”
The Revs lost a lot in 2012. Only four teams posted more defeats than their 17 as they struggled to a ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Their feast-or-famine existence included a barren run of four goals in six matches after they’d hit three goals apiece in back-to-back games. Losing striker Saer Sene, who still led the team with 11 goals, to a torn ACL with nine games to play effectively ended their playoff quest.
Heaps took action by trading midfielder Benny Feilhaber to Sporting Kansas City, and declining the options on seven players. The coach’s learning curve in that rookie season proved to be a steep one, yet a lack of depth often left him with limited options. His extensive changeover of the roster is a bold attempt to get not only better but deeper, and also instill more fighting spirit than he got last year. As the team’s all-time leader in appearances (243), Heaps played on four teams that reached the MLS Cup (2002, 2005-07) while relying on athleticism and determination to offset a shortage of soccer gifts. He’s sought out players with the latter while jettisoning those he found to be lacking in the former.
New England rallied to beat the Red Bulls, 3-1, Saturday night in Tucson with a half-dozen players, including Sene, unavailable. Honduran international Jerry Bengtson, who managed just two goals in 13 games last year after coming aboard in July, scored the winning goal.
That was New England’s first preseason win and if nothing else, may be an indication that the coach’s determination and intensity is rubbing off on his players. Veteran midfielder Clyde Simms is just one of many regulars who will be pushed to retain his starting spot.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. An eclectic foreign mix is featured with Portuguese defender Jose Goncalves, French midfielder Kalifa Cisse, and Welshman Andy Dorman joining during the offseason. Fitting those pieces together may take some time, and trading Feilhaber to the defending conference champion is a major gamble that can only pay off if there’s consistent, incisive midfield play. Homegrown signing Scott Caldwell and first-round SuperDraft pick Andrew Farrell, whom Heaps envisions as an outside back in MLS, infuse some youthful enthusiasm as well as talent.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? Getting Sene healthy and Bengston adjusted to MLS will provide a fair amount of firepower up front, and adding Dorman to Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen could form a potent supply line. If Goncalves fits well with centerback A.J. Soares the Revs will avoid the costly breakdowns that marred several of their critical defeats last season and left keepers Matt Reis and Bobby Shuttleworth marooned. Juan Toja played just five games after returning to MLS late in the season; if he comes anything close to his level while with FC Dallas (2007-08), the Revs will be tough and deep in midfield.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? New England has fallen steeply from its enviable run of three straight MLS Cups and lost a lot of ground as conference rivals gained in strength. The Revs were 18 points shy of a playoff spot last year, which is a huge gap to make up, especially when you consider that the fifth-place team they trailed by that margin, Houston, reached the 2012 MLS Cup.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Nguyen is one of the trickiest American players in MLS, Bengston and Sene can potentially form a dangerous tandem, and Rowe is coming off an impressive rookie season (30 games, 21 starts, three goals, five assists). This market needs a wake-up call and it must happen this year.
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