[MLS SPOTLIGHT]The positivism flowed Friday as Revs head coachJay Heaps discussed the preseason to date on a conference call with reporters.
New England wrapped up a dozen days in Bradenton, Fla., Thursday by beating NASL club Ft. Lauderdale, 2-1, with goals by Dimitri Imbongo and Darrius Barnes. Though injuries have disrupted the training schedules for many players, including starters Saer Sene, Andrew Farrell and Chris Tierney as well as overall No. 4 draft pick Steve Neumann, Heaps gave the trip a favorable review.
Prior to playing the Strikers, the Revs tied, 1-1, in modified games against Philadelphia Union and Swedish club Malmo FF.
“Obviously you want to compete,” says Heaps, who took over from Steve Nicolfor the 2012 season and last year guided the Revs to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference. “We’ve played three games that were very beneficial, not only progressing the group but also seeing some players. We know where most of our guys are but we also want to add some new players to that group as well.”
Sitting out the Strikers game were Charlie Davies (calf), Diego Fagundez (concussion), Farrell (calf), Stephen McCarthy (groin), Neumann (ankle), Sene (ankle), and Tierney (foot). Five trialists and draft picks saw time against the Strikers and Heaps says he’s on the hunt for key elements.
“We’re actively searching for at least two pieces,” says Heaps, whose team lost in the Eastern Conference finals to eventual champion Sporting Kansas City. “We feel really good where we are but we want to be better. We’ve identified areas where we can get better and we’re going to continue to try to move along in those areas.”
The specter of former Revs striker Juan Agudelohas lingered during this preseason camp and his excellent goal earlier this week for FC Utrecht, for which is he is playing on loan from Stoke City, reminded Heaps of what will be missing in 2014. This preseason is also the first time in a long time that Heaps isn’t accompanied by veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis, who retired and is goalkeeper coach for the Galaxy.
“I’m really excited about where we are but we still have a couple of pieces to replace,” says Heaps, who played nine seasons (2001-09) with Reis and reached four MLS Cup finals. “You lose a guy like Matt Reis and his leadership and we feel we have a strong competition going on in goal right now between Bobby Shuttleworth and Brad Knighton.”
Agudelo scored seven goals in just 14 appearances following a trade from Chivas USA. First-round picks Patrick Mullins and Neumann are among those vying for those minutes.
“Up top, Juan Agudelo, you saw him scoring the other day and what kind of quality he had,” says Heaps, “and we have players who will have the opportunity to fill that, but at the same time we want to bring in competition there as well.”
He is being patient with Davies, who played only 23 minutes after arriving in August from Danish club Randers FC. Davies had trained with the Revs during the preseason last year, so Heaps has a bead on his personality as well as his ability. New England finished 14-11-9, were seventh in goals scored with 49, and played some scintillating stuff en route to goal, so Heaps wasn’t anxious to change up the attack.
“Last year when he joined us,” says Heaps, “every game we were going with the guys we knew really well and the guys who had performed for us for the better part of the season, so it was hard for him to get minutes. It was hard for me to give him minutes, to be honest with you, because we weren’t exactly sure what we were going to get on the Saturday.
“Now this is time for me is really important -- early part of the preseason, early part of the season -- for Charlie to show everyone -- to show the players, to show the team, to show the staff -- what he’s made of and how he can impact the team.”
Heaps also used the Florida trip to test out Farrell, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 SuperDraft, in different positions. During his college career he moved from midfielder to defender and while Heaps has kept him in the back line, he has moved Farrell around. As a rookie, Farrell started in all 32 of his regular-season appearances and played every minute of both playoff games.
“We knew when we selected him last year, his versatility was something that his coach, Ken Lolla at Louisville, expressed on numerous occasions,” says Heaps. “It’s something we saw a little bit last year in training but not as much on the field; he started every game at right back. But now that we have the opportunity to move him around a little bit we wanted to do that to see where his strengths lie.”
If there’s an overriding theme to this preseason, in addition to the usual precepts of fitness and team building, it’s the transformation from surprise team to serious contender. They needed a strong late-season surge -- four wins and two ties in the last six games – to reach the playoffs, from which they were eliminated, 4-3, on aggregate after leading SKC, 2-0, in the first game.
“We have a lot of respect for Kansas City and what they’ve done all the way around,” admits Heaps.” It’s a similar model. We have a great core group of younger players and American players that have experience in MLS now and we added the right internationals. We have a good blend, so yeah, I think we’re trying to have those expectations, because we feel we can get there if we do all the right things and all the hard work."