The first game of an MLS preseason is barely a blip in a long, hard campaign, yet in his fifth season as New England Revolution head coach, Jay Heaps is a man in transition.
In the year he turns 40, Heaps has one MLS Cup appearance (in 2014) on his resume and a steady run of three postseason appearances. But last year the Revs finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and were bounced out of the postseason by D.C. United in the knockout round.
Orlando City and New York City figure to improve in their second MLS seasons after missing the playoffs as expansion teams. Like the Revs, D.C. United, Montreal and Columbus have been searching during the offseason for that missing piece to close the gap between them and Supporters’ Shield winner New York.
At some point in the season, an important addition will join up with the Revs: Ivory Coast midfielder Xavier Kouassi, 26, whose contract with Swiss club SC Sion expires at the end of the European season. He’s a direct replacement for U.S. international Jermaine Jones, who is out of contract, currently serving a six-game suspension from club play, and has balked at taking a huge pay cut from the $3.2 million Designated-Player salary he earned last season.
“What he brings is another player in our midfield who’s athletic, that can win balls and takes away passing lanes, but also has really good ability with his feet to make plays and help us get into transition,” said Heaps in a conference call with reporters after the Revs opened preseason Wednesday with a 2-0 victory over San Jose. “He’s someone that we’ve watched for a while and someone we’re excited to add to our group.”Heaps gave a mostly positive review of a 2-0 victory over San Jose Wednesday in Tuscon, Ariz. that kicked off the Revs’ schedule of preseason games.
Kelyn Rowe and Charlie Davies collected goals as Heaps and his coaching staff looked at 22 players, including a few of eight that have not signed contracts. Rowe scored with a blast from outside the penalty area and just before halftime Davies pounced after a Michael Gamble corner kick had been fumbled by San Jose keeper Andrew Tarbell and headed towards goal by Jose Goncalves. Goalkeepers Bobby Shuttleworth (68 minutes) and Brad Knighton (32) shared the shutout.
“I look at the game very differently,” said Heaps. “Results are always good but I’m more looking for the microcosms within the game, the individual performances, the relationships that we saw.”
Heaps praised the work of regular centerbacks Goncalves and Andrew Farrell and gave some props to midfielder Tyler Rudy, who spent last season on loan to USL club Rochester and played alongside Homegrown player Zachary Herivaux. Heaps was happy to send out defender Darrius Barnes, sidelined since suffering a torn patellar tendon last April.
“I was really excited about how the group maneuvered,” said Heaps. “I was also happy with some of the things we saw in terms of Jose and Farrell and the way they played.”
In response to a question, Heaps admitted that the time has come for Rowe, who is entering his fifth professional season, to deliver solid performances as often as possible. Rowe matched his career high of seven goals last year and also notched six assists while starting 21 of his 33 appearances.
“No one can question his talent, no one can question the heart he puts into a game,” Heaps said. “Now it’s just slowing him down and having him take those moments more consistently. In the past he’s always a player that can find goals, he can find assists, but we want -- and I think he expects – his performance to be more consistent. If he doesn’t score a goal or doesn’t get an assist his performance doesn’t drop off.”
Falling to fifth place last season after reaching the 2014 MLS Cup final, which the Revs lost to the Galaxy in overtime, signaled a sharp drop-off. In addition to a replacement for Jones, Heaps is looking for increased depth but as of the start of preseason had signed only three new players: defender Sambinha, on loan from Sporting; SuperDraft pick Jordan McCrary, and Kouassi. Rudy is one of several players in camp whose options were declined in November.
Heaps cited a shortage of depth in 2015 as a problem he wants to address. The departure of defender A.J. Soares, who played out his contract and signed with Viking in Norway, left the back line a bit thin.
“There’s more depth this year, more players that are fighting for minutes,” he said. “It took a little bit of time to build a culture of depth. Some years you’re going to need more extra players. Last year we lost, A.J. and we weren’t totally able to replace him right away in terms of depth.”
Davies’ goal accentuated his battles for playing time with Juan Agudelo, among others. He led the Revs last year with 10 goals but has placed other objectives in front of personal stats.
Heaps doesn't see Davies vs. Agudelo as a winner-take-all encounter. He rotates a potent pool of attackers among various slots and believes there is very little similar in the games of these two forwards other than the desire to score goals.
"I think it’s unique in that both of them play the position very differently, so they provide a different game," said Heaps. "There’s always competition. We’ve got competition in midfield right now, we’ve got competition on each wing position. It’s easy to look at the center-forward position. It’s kind of like it’s the goalkeeper position, where you’re saying, ‘Okay, it’s one or the other.’ But it’s really not like that. There’s a really good healthy competition and both guys are going to impact the team."
New England continues their preseason game schedule against FC Dallas Thursday and Vancouver Saturday. They head back home for a week of training, and then return to Arizona to play in the Desert Diamond Cup Feb. 17-27.