Disclosure made and door opened to future ridicule, the New England Revolution, come off a season which saw them tantalizingly close to capturing their first MLS Cup. The club’s primary objective: shed the label of MLS Cup bridesmaid. With the offseason departures of superstar Clint Dempsey (Fulham) and Jose Cancela (Toronto FC), returning to the playoffs - nevermind the MLS Cup - will be about as easy as getting Quentin Tarantino to direct a sequel to The Little Mermaid.
After losing these two critical pieces of past glory, Steve Nicol went reached into the toy box affectionately known as MLS SuperDraft and pulled out a handful of shiny new gadgets. In the first round, he "shockingly" (Eric Wynalda's word) traded up to select Wake Forest midfielder Wells Thompson. Less than an hour later, Nicol selected U-20 defender/midfielder Amaeche Igwe with the 12th overall pick. Both players are much coveted left-sided players, giving the Revs added midfield depth on the left wing and left back slots. Nicol may have also found a pair of potential diamonds in the rough in Virginia forward Adam Cristman and Wake Forest midfielder Ryan Solle, both of whom are members of the US Men’s National Team Under-23 squad.
It's hard to measure a team's regular season chances of success based on its preseason results. The Revs obliterated everything in their path this winter by outscoring their hapless opponents 20-3 en route to a 6-0-0 preseason finish. Yes, Nicol’s boys looked solid, even if it was primarily at the expense of lower level clubs. Of course, the squad won't be as breathtakingly brilliant against regular MLS competition during the course of a seven month regular season. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see the rookies - especially Cristman (5 goals, 4 assists) - rise to the occasion during the late-winter/early-spring tilts.
This, of course, is without mentioning the very players who brought the Revs to The Dance in recent years. Taylor Twellman had a fine 2006 season (11 goals, 5 assists) and will look to enhance his reputation as one of the best forwards in the league. At 27, not only is he in the prime of his career, but his foreseeable future here is also secured after signing a 3-year contract extension during the offseason. Andy Dorman hopes to ride the same wave of success he surfed atop last year, and an encore performance may just earn him his first true MLS “payday.” Keeper Extraordinaire Matt Reis will look to continue his superb defense of the net, after being snubbed of MLS Keeper of the Year honors last year. Shalrie Joseph has the Foxboro Faithful hoping that his contract frustrations will inspire him to an even more elevated level of play - one that may lead to even more international attention. The backline of Avery John, Michael Parkhurst and Jay Heaps anchored an exceptional defensive unit in 2006, and aim to uphold their brickwall defense in 2007.
Of course, should all of these hypotheticals materialize, the team would probably be Supporter's Shield owners by July, breeze through the postseason, and finally catapult themselves to keepers of the elusive MLS Cup.
However, the rosiest of pictures is always painted with bright strokes before a single kick is ever launched. So with the warm and fuzzy feel-good optimism out of the way, let us return to cold reality and discuss the following potential ruts in the proverbial FieldTurf that threaten the aforementioned proposition.
It’s no secret that Pat Noonan’s ability to stay healthy is critical to the Revs attack. When he and Twellman are both on the pitch, the only duo capable of scoring more often is Rico and Sonny on Miami Vice. Conversely, without the snake-bitten Noonan, the offense seems to sputter, and the team often transforms into a defensive and cautious shell of its former self. Unfortunately, the Revs have seen the latter circumstance more than the former recently, with Noonan’s nagging injuries refusing to go quietly into the night. So whichever sick and twisted Chicago Fire fan has the Pat Noonan Voodoo Doll, stop it. Just stop it. Adding to the bleak picture is the team's apparent "curse" of winning an MLS Cup only help to darken the picture of the club's fortunes.
Aside from the supernatural, the combination of two important international tournaments this summer (Copa America and Gold Cup) will more than likely require separate US squads for each. Potential candidates for these squads include Twellman, Ralston, Parkhurst, Noonan, and Reis. Avery John could also be called to the Trinidad & Tobago team for Gold Cup action. This summer's Under-20 World Cup in Canada will mean Igwe will be absent from the roster for a spell. Adding to this list of potential may also include U-23 service call-ups for Cristman and Solle should there be any call ups for that squad this summer. Throw in the obligatory unpredictable injuries into the mix, and it's very possible that the starting elevens in June and July could be vastly different than the ones employed in April.
Despite the influx of new faces via the draft, as well as last year’s late-season additions (Miguel Gonzalez and Arsene Oka), the inescapable fact remains that the club’s battle-tested performers are only getting older. Steve Ralston, the newly-minted captain, has been the king of consistency and longevity during his time with the club. But how much longer can he keep it going? Have we seen the last of the recently-departed Joe Franchino? His return to the club uncertain at best; each game he misses only dminishes his chances of ever contributing to the club again. John will be 32 in June and Heaps will be 31 in August.
Although the recent transfusion of young blood has many optimistic of the club's success in the future, it will be no short order to find adequate replacements for the aging veterans who have guided the team's fortunes during the past five years. This season may be Year One of a fast-approaching changing of the guard for this veteran-driven club.
Lastly, to what degree will Dempsey and Pepe's departures affect the club? Their absences will be strikingly apparent until reasonable replacements can be found. Without the World Cup superstar and the Argentinean supersub, the growing pains of an offense adjusting to a midfield without them may linger throughout the season. The Revs must find suitable replacements quickly, or tailor their attack accordingly, if they wish to remain competitive. Otherwise, there may very well be a goal-scoring drought warning in effect for Route 1 this summer.
So now that the good and the bad have been discussed, what type of a season can Revs fans reasonably expect? Well, without further ado, here is a prediction: 2nd place in the Eastern Conference, and an accompanying playoff run. DC United will finish ahead again for the second year in a row.
Do the Revs have the talent to make another MLS Cup appearance? On paper, the answer is yes. On the pitch, the answer is no. There are simply too many variables working against another repeat appearance for the navy and red contingent, most notably the losses of Deuce and Pepe.
With that, it is time for me to slip the noose over my head. See you in DC come November!
Other flimsy predictions:
2007 record (W-D-L): 14-10-8, 52 points (2nd place, Eastern Conference)
Reserve Team Record: 5-3-3
Team MVP: Taylor Twellman
Golden Boot: Taylor Twellman
Best Defender: Michael Parkhurst
Rookie of the Year: Adam Cristman
Supersub: Wells Thompson
MLS All-Stars: Parkhurst, Twellman, Joseph, Reis and Ralston
First Rev to take out David Beckham: Shalrie Joseph
Toughest match: October 6, at Chicago
First goal: Pat Noonan, at Chicago (April 7)
First red card: Shalrie Joseph, at FC Dallas (April 29)
First clean sheet: April 14, vs. Toronto
First mid-season departure: Shalrie Joseph, to Celtic FC
Next player to be at the center of a transfer rumor: Michael Parkhurst
Most Interesting Non-Chicago Game: May 19 at Houston