Keys to the game: Revs at Earthquakes

The Jay Heaps Era officially begins on Saturday when the Revolution step onto the field at Buck Shaw Stadium against the Earthquakes for the season opener.

Heaps, who was appointed head coach in November shortly after Steve Nicol parted ways with the organization, will be making his MLS coaching debut against a squad that beat the Revolution twice last year.

Even so, the Revolution will enter the game riding the momentum of a positive preseason under their new coach. The team went 6-0-1, and racked up wins against Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles and New York. Although Heaps admits that he doesn’t put too much weight into preseason results, there’s no denying that the victories served to bolster the squad’s confidence -- especially after last year’s dismal finish. And with 11 new faces on the squad this year, the re-tooled Revolution is anxious to put the 2011 season behind them.

Much like their adversary, the Earthquakes fell on hard times last year. Amid a season brimming with promise following a playoff in 2010, the Quakes stumbled right out of the gate and never fully recovered. Although striker Chris Wondolowski put together another All-Star caliber season (16 goals, 3 assists), the rest of the team was plagued by inconsistency. And after a 3-1-4 preseason record, it appears that the ‘Quakes may still have some kinks -- especially in the rear -- that may need untangling before they can return to their 2010 form.

Saturday marks the dawn of a new day, for both teams. With the records reset at 0-0-0, San Jose and New England are looking at the opener as the first opportunity to distance themselves from last season. So what will the Revolution have to do come out on top?

1. Set the tempo. With a successful preseason under their belts, there’s no excuse to come out tentative. The midfield needs to set the tone right after the opening whistle. Shalrie Joseph and Clyde Simms will need to assert themselves in the middle of the park and set up the outside wingers and forwards with accurate passes.

2. Close the gaps. If there’s one thing the Revolution has to continue to work on is shutting down passing lanes in front of its own net. But the onus shouldn’t fall on the defense alone. The midfielders will have to do their part to help out the back four when tracking back. After all, the best way to limit your opponent is to limit their options.

3. Play to the whistle. Last year, the Revolution was often guilty of easing up not only from the run of play, but in the waning minutes as well -- and their record (5-16-13, 28 points) reflected that. To avoid the same pitfalls, each of the 11 has to put forth their best from start to finish. Under Heaps, who preaches hard work and tenacity, anything less than full effort is unacceptable.

With a new coach introducing a fresh philosophy, Saturday’s opener will be the first of many tests. A test to find out where the team is after last season’s struggles. A test for the newcomers. A test for the rebuilt striking corps. A test for the Joseph-Simms central midfield.

Although the season may not be decided during the first week of the season, you can bet the Revolution are inclined to kick off the Jay Heaps Era on a positive note.

Brian O'Connell is covering the Revolution for ESPNBoston.com. He is the co-founder of New England Soccer Today (www.nesoccertoday.com), which covers professional soccer within New England. He can be reached at BOConnell21@aol.com.