The question is not whether the acquisition of Jermaine Jonesmakes the Revs contenders; the question is: contenders for what?
For the playoffs this year, obviously; as a contender for the title this season, probably not; and as a possible teammate for other players to be enticed to New England, most definitely.
Let’s go through them one by one:
PLAYOFFS. New England, which finished third in the Eastern Conference last season, is of course a contender for a playoff spot despite a roller-coaster performance to date. A poor start followed by a five-game winning streak followed by eight straight losses has dropped it out of the playoff tier, but so balanced are the mid-level teams that the sixth-place Revs are only three points out of third. So a dramatic upgrade in central midfield, theoretically, should be more than enough to nail down a return to the postseason and strengthen their chances of advancing, which they failed to do last year. Strictly by force of his personality, with Jones the Revs should be more consistent. In a good sense of the term, he's a bad-ass.
TITLE TALK. Are the Revs contenders to win MLS Cup? The popular mantra of “anything can happen” in the playoffs is a nice concept, but not since Real Salt Lake in 2009 has a team with an “average” regular-season record won the title. (RSL finished 11-12-7.) New England is 9-12-3 with 10 games to play. A strong finish with Jones would build momentum for a deep run in the playoffs regardless of its final record but even with Jones New England is far from the class of the conference.
In a perfect world, Jones can alleviate the Revs’ problem areas, which go far deeper than being dominated in midfield. Their porosity and susceptibility to counterattacks have repeatedly exposed the back line and particular centerback Jose Goncalves, who hasn’t looked much like the 2013 Defender of the Year, and A.J. Soares. Jones wins tackles and fills passing lanes and covers a lot of ground, so his presence should help New England tighten up its resistance. Goncalves committed 32 fouls in 34 games last year; this season, he’s fouled 26 times in 17 matches.
The Revs’ scoring is down only slightly from last year. They averaged 1.44 goals per game in 2013 and are at 1.29 so far this season. But they’ve already conceded 36 goals, two fewer than the 38 allowed in 2013. Jones can not only shore up their defensive presence, he can enhance their possessions and deprive opponents of same.
In many games, opposing teams have bottled up the Revs in midfield, limiting the opportunities for ball wizards Diego Fagundez, Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe to run at defenders and work their intricate combinations. No one expected Fagundez to match the 13 goals he scored last year but his dropoff has been steep; he’s scored just four, and none since May 24.
Jones can hit passes of various types and distances with either foot -- a rarity in MLS -- and opponents must be wary of his expertise at playing balls behind the defensive line or slipping them into the channels. The threat of his potent shot from distance can also draw challenges and create space around the edge of the penalty area.
During a media conference call Tuesday, Jones said he and Revs forward Charlie Davies are “good friends.” They are destined to be buddies on the field as well. Davies likes to play off the shoulder of the last defender and is the ideal target for those clipped balls over the top or incisive through balls at which Jones is adept. Rookie Patrick Mullins could also benefit from another reliable source of accurate passes. He’s top scorer among full-time forwards with just four goals. (Nguyen leads the team with nine.)
On paper, the acquisition of Jones moves New England ahead of Columbus and even with New York, but probably not to the level of Toronto FC, D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City. (Philly fans are hating life, and byzantine player-acquisition mechanisms, right now.) Should it reach the playoffs, could New England run that gauntlet and reach MLS Cup? Not impossible, but also not likely.
FUTURE SHOCK. The true effect of Jones won’t probably be seen until next year, when the young squad he has joined is another year older and more experienced, and the Revs will have had time to incorporate his talent and use his reputation as a lure for other players. A decade in the Bundesliga and several years with the national team has connected him to dozens of possible MLS prospects; so if Alejandro Bedoya, for example, would consider MLS, the fact he played at Boston College and could team up with Jones in midfield could make New England an enticing destination.
The Revs regularly field a starting lineup in the average age range of 23-24. Though the squad is mostly a gung-ho group, it needs veteran leadership and inspiration. The recent departure of Saer Sene stemmed from, in part, his attitude, and in a late-season playoff scramble nervous moments and lapses in concentration are especially costly.
Soccer adages come and go, but one that has endured is a team’s “spine” -- those players aligned down the center, front to back -- is essential. New England has added a strong, robust, experienced player right where every team needs to be talented, tough and tenacious.