Offseason checklist: Midfield uncertainty

In the third of a four-part series examining the Revolution's positional outlook and offseason concerns, we’ll take a look at the midfielders: Fernando Cardenas, Andy Dorman, Benny Feilhaber, Blair Gavin, Ryan Guy, Lee Nguyen, Sainey Nyassi, Alec Purdie, Michael Roach, Kelyn Rowe, Clyde Simms, Juan Toja.

Overview: Perhaps no truer statement can be said about the 2012 season than this one: The Revolution’s success rested heavily upon how they performed in the middle of the park.

During the first half of the season, the team adopted a possession-oriented approach, gaining positive results along the way. Veteran Shalrie Joseph resumed command at center half, while the capable Clyde Simms served as his lieutenant. With the middle of the park secured, the Revolution accomplished what they’d so often failed to do in recent years: dictate the tempo.

From there, the Joseph-Simms combination allowed the wingers -- namely, Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber -- to stretch the field and force the opposition to leave a number of passing lanes open. And open passing lanes left the team with many more options, especially on the buildup.

Possession wasn’t the only area where the new and improved midfield delivered. With first-year head coach Jay Heaps emphasizing team defense, Nguyen and Feilhaber followed suit, dropping back and providing cover. Joseph was a workhorse as well, while Simms often served as a fifth defender.

However, as the season progressed into the summer months, Joseph’s work rate began to wilt. Heaps took notice, and didn’t hesitate to bench the popular, eight-time MLS All-Star. Yet, even though the key was Joseph, the Revolution traded the face of the franchise away on Aug. 1. Predictably, it didn’t get much easier after that.

Without Joseph, the midfield was overrun and the team was torn apart by weaker opposition. Simms struggled inside of Joseph’s former role, while the creative Feilhaber was curiously assigned to the defensive midfielder role. Another outside midfielder -- Ryan Guy -- was paired with Simms, but no matter the combination, the same poor results ensued. Goodbye, possession style. Hello, route one ball.

However, the once the pieces began to fit together, the midfield began to regain their bearings in the final weeks of the regular season. They closed out the campaign with a two-game win streak, including a rare road win in Montreal, thanks in large part to Simms’ deployment as a defensive cog, rather than a freelancer.

Outlook: There’s no shortage of question marks hovering over the midfield, and the addition of Dorman only adds more. Will Dorman inherit the attacking midfielder’s spot, with Simms taking up permanent residence at defensive midfielder? Or is that spot reserved for a healthy Juan Toja? And how does the Dorman signing impact Blair Gavin, who showed promise in his brief, late-season cameo? What about Benny Feilhaber? No question: Heaps has a number of decisions to make before First Kick 2013. Meanwhile, there are fewer questions on the wings. Nguyen was a revelation, and looks like a lock on the left. On the right, rookie Kelyn Rowe showed promise, while Cardenas flashed glimpses of his full potential off the bench. Guy became the quintessential utility player this season, and his value cannot be understated.

Bottom line: If the Revolution are going to make another leap next season, they need a strong spine. In other words, they have to find a way to fortify their form at defensive midfielder. Simms filled the role admirably after Joseph was jettisoned, but he might only be a temporary fix. If they want to re-establish the possession game, they won’t be able to do it without a true ballwinner. They may have that with Toja, but it’s unclear that he can remain healthy for an entire season. As for the top of the midfield diamond, it appears Dorman is the answer, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him and Feilhaber slide in and out of that role. Out on the wings, the Revolution could use more speed, as neither Rowe nor Nguyen is particularly fast. Meanwhile, Feilhaber must rediscover the form that ticketed him for regular national team duty. Otherwise, he may become one of the priciest bench players in club history. Look for the Revolution to stick with what they’ve got at the central midfield spots, but don’t be surprised if they select an outside midfielder with pace in the SuperDraft.