Seven years after losing its fourth MLS Cup, New England returns to the title game with former right back Jay Heaps in charge and a daunting challenge of beating the Galaxy on its home field.
Here are three factors that can tilt the balance in favor of the Revs:
1. Movement in the opposing half.
Two years ago, Heaps decided to decline the option on Benny Feilhaber’s contract and while salary-cap considerations certainly played a role, during his rookie head coaching season he revamped the midfield by acquiring Kelyn Rowe, Juan Toja and Lee Nguyen and giving playing time to 17-year-old Diego Fagundez, then in his second year with the Revs.
Toja’s return to MLS didn’t pan out, but the other three players have been essential to the Revs’ resurgence. Fagundez led the Revs in 2013 with 13 goals but couldn’t hold down a regular spot this year, once Heaps shifted another acquisition, Teal Bunbury, to the right flank and handed the keys to central mids Scott Caldwell and Jermaine Jones. Feilhaber’s remarkable skills and World Cup experience didn’t suit the Heaps system, which demands pressure on the ball from the front six and passes played forward quickly whenever possible.
It’s not simply a numbers game -- five-v-four -- by which New England’s 4-2-3-1 formation can quash the Galaxy’s 4-4-2. The Revs are adept at slipping balls into spaces and channels for players to collect and/or run with. They are also perfectly comfortable advancing steadily across the middle third through interplay and patience. They may not be the more potent of the two finalists, but they seem to be more balanced.
In the second leg of the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls did a decent job of minimizing the opportunities for the Revs to run at them, but a charge led by Nguyen produced the goal that tied the match, 2-2, and eventually won the series, 4-3. In the first leg of the conference semifinals against Columbus, they scored the first two goals on set plays then struck twice on counters to win going away, 4-2.
MLS Cup 2014: Three reasons the Galaxy will win
2. Sharing the spoils.
Nguyen’s 18 goals were by far the most on the team -- nobody else netted more than five –- in the regular season. He accounted for more than one-third (35.3 percent) of its 51 goals, but the postseason is a study in balanced scoring.
In four playoff games New England has scored 11 goals. Leading the way is Charlie Davies with four goals; five other players have scored at least once, and they aren’t all the usual suspects.
Chris Tierney floated a free kick into the top corner against the Crew and assisted on both goals in the second leg against New York. Defender Jose Goncalves got on the board in the second Columbus game by racing out of his own penalty area after a clearance and covering about 90 yards to tap Nguyen’s cross into an empty net.
The Galaxy’s scoring goes beyond the big three of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and Gyasi Zardes, yet the Revs appear to be sharper both in the buildup and on the finishing end. If chances are at a premium, which is the norm in an MLS Cup final, the Revs may have a broader range of potential scorers at a crucial moment.
3. Jones-ing for a victory.
Of all the compliments directed at Jones since his arrival in August, the most telling may be this one from Heaps: “If you look at our season, we can certainly play and outplay the best teams, and we’ve shown we can be beaten by almost anyone. But with Jermaine we’ve shown that the closer the game, the better we can be.”
There may be no better definition of the big-time player. He won’t be the only such player on the field Sunday, of course. The Galaxy has loads of experience throughout its lineup as well as veterans of MLS Cup finals and World Cup matches in the team and on the bench. Heaps is the only Revs member to play in a league final, and Jones is the sole World Cup participant.
“He can combine with you, play one-twos, and he can also switch the field at any point in time,” says Nguyen. “That’s what helps us so much; he can change the point of attack at any instant and that makes us so much harder to defend.”
The range and power of Jones will test the Galaxy all over the field, so it won’t just be the midfield duo of Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho confronting him. If Caldwell can screen the Revs’ back line, Jones can add his imposing presence to an already formidable attack when he’s not winning balls and breaking up plays in the middle third.
One can only speculate what a player like Jones could have meant to the Revs’ teams that lost the 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007 finals. Every game was agonizingly close. Two were decided in overtime and Houston prevailed on penalty kicks in 2006.
In 2002 and 2005, New England lost to the Galaxy, which featured such major personalities as Kevin Hartman, Alexi Lalas, Carlos Ruiz, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Cobi Jones, Danny Califf and Landon Donovan in at least one of those games. Men like Jones lead through spirit as much as deed and quelling his influence will stretch the Galaxy severely.