Friday, October 19, 2007

Are the wheels coming off the Revolution wagon?

Make no mistake: the Revolution before us has become a hollow husk of its early season self. Forget the stats and results. The most telling sign of the argument is this: come match time of the regular season finale Saturday afternoon, the Revs second-leading scorer may once again be relegated to bench duty.

Why? Because that’s precisely where Andy Dorman began the last two matches. Granted, the attacking midfielder hasn't been the dazzling, red-hot form that saw him clinch seven goals in the first fifteen games of the season. But then again, like all soccer players, he hit a bit of a lull, and before his sails could feel the strong breeze necessary to push him back on track, manager Steve Nicol benched one of his primary goal scorers. But why?

Perhaps the answer may, in part, lie in the defensive struggles of a team that has allowed more decisive late-match goals than it would care to. Though the Revs still sit close enough to the head table to allow themselves a playoff run, the fact remains that the club will go nowhere fast with a back line that has allowed crucial late-game goals in three of its last four MLS matches. Adding to this concern is that starter Avery John has been sidelined with a left knee strain that has kept him out of action since September 29th match against Colorado.

In an attempt to shore up a back line that has deserted its stellar 2006 form, Nicol has recently tinkered with his starting eleven like a mad scientist. Last Saturday, he dropped winger Steve Ralston to the back, moved Wells Thompson into the starter's role at right wing, and employed a defensive 4-4-2 rather than the preferred 3-5-2. With the emphasis on defending, a playmaker like Dorman gets lost in the shuffle, and by extension, the offense as whole suffers. The numbers don't lie - against such “formidable” opponents like Columbus (31 points), Colorado (38 points), and Chicago (42 points), the Revs have averaged a whopping 1.33 goals per game. Despite the changes, the defense hasn't exactly shined, either. During the same set of opponents, they've allowed decisive goals in the same stretch after the 60th minute against Chicago and Columbus.

To his credit, Nicol has tried to address the troubling situation before the MLS playoffs commence. Serbian defender Dusan Petrovic was brought in to help stop the bleeding, but the deal collapsed faster than his fall on the Payson Park practice pitch when he suffered a knee injury in September. With the MLS roster freeze having since expired, Nicol has resorted to shuffling the cards already dealt But in doing so, he's sacrificed the potency of the attack, as Ralston and Dorman find themselves in roles they're largely unaccustomed.

It's curious as to why Nicol would simply realign and move players like chess pieces when fresh defenders are at his disposal. Kyle Helton, Marshall Leonard, Gary Flood, and Amaechi Igwe are not only healthy, but have shown themselves capable in reserve league action. In fact, Leonard would seem to be the perfect fit to take John's left back position, since the versatile fifth-year veteran can play on both sides. Strangely, Leonard has yet to record a single minute of first team action this season, despite the club's defensive woes.

Of course, going into Toronto and facing a club they've thumped to the tune of seven combined goals to none may just be the cure to what ails both the offensive and defensive ends of the spectrum. However, should the Revs come up short to another less-talented squad, it could reveal even more uncertainty about the club going into the playoffs.

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