After six weeks of preseason scrimmages, sunny weather and mass substitutions, the New England Revolution finally kick off the regular season on Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston against a longtime rival -- the Houston Dynamo.
While the preseason may have already come and gone, the Revolution, like every MLS club in early-March, have plenty of questions surrounding them as they get ready to embark on their first meaningful match.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 10 biggest questions (in no particular order) surrounding the local XI going into the 2014 season.
Can teenage sensation Diego Fagundez follow up his sterling 2013 season with a similarly superb 2014? By any measure, Fagundez exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations for an 18-year-old last year. In his first full season as a starter, the Homegrown Player scored a team-high 13 goals and added seven assists, one shy of Kelyn Rowe’s team-best total. Now that he’s established himself as one of the league’s best midfielders, one of the most intriguing storylines this season is what Fagundez does for an encore. With much of last year’s regulars returning, the sky’s the limit for what he’s capable of in 2014.
What can Teal Bunbury offer the offense? In a perfect world, Bunbury, who was acquired two weeks ago from Sporting Kansas City, would slide right into the role that Juan Agudelo brilliantly filled, and the offense wouldn’t skip a beat. While the former No. 4 overall pick may have looked sharp (two goals) during the preseason, the regular season is an entirely different animal, and Bunbury’s skill set is different than Agudelo’s. Even so, the 24-year-old has plenty of speed, vision, and instinct to keep the attack lively this year.
Will the defense be just as strong this year? With all four starters from last year’s backline returning, there’s plenty of optimism about the Revolution’s ability to blank opponents this year. Reigning Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves will be a strong presence once again, while Andrew Farrell should be better with his first season as a pro in the books. While things may look rosy in the back, the wild card, of course, is who will play behind them. With the goalkeeper situation far from settled, it’s unlikely that the defense will reach the franchise-high 14 clean sheets it collected last year.
Who will be the #1? It is a question that the club has had the luxury of avoiding for the better part of the last decade. But when longtime keeper Matt Reis retired, it became the topic of conversation from Portland to Providence. Bobby Shuttleworth has proven himself at times over the past two seasons, but when the club acquired Brad Knighton hours after Reis’ retirement, it was game on for the starting goalkeeper’s spot. Knighton looked like the stronger candidate during preseason fare, but Heaps acknowledged that the First Kick starter won’t necessarily be the No. 1 for the entire season. In light of that, the answer to who will man the spot between the sticks may change more than once.
Does the addition of Daigo Kobayashi mean fewer minutes for Lee Nguyen? The addition of “Player X” -- the moniker the Kobayashi was bestowed prior to his signing -- could very well spell a reduced role for one of the club’s most reliable players. While Nguyen was a solid, if not underappreciated, contributor last year, the addition of Kobayashi signals that coach Jay Heaps wants to see more spark in the middle of the park. Granted, it’s unlikely Nguyen has been stripped of his starting role going into the opener. But count on Kobayashi to push Nguyen for minutes as the season progresses.
How long will Scott Caldwell be called upon to man the No. 6 spot? One area the Revolution targeted for improvement during the offseason was at holding midfielder, a role that Caldwell filled as best as he could for much of 2013. But it was apparent by the end of the season that an upgrade was in order. But even though the club hasn’t yet added a veteran holding midfielder, they still have two roster spots at their disposal to do so. In light of that, it appears that it’s just a matter of time before Caldwell is moved to a different role.
How will Heaps utilize Andrew Farrell? After starting all 32 of the game he played last year at right back, the sophomore defender was assigned to holding midfielder and center back during the earlier part of the preseason. While a few eyebrows may have been raised at the thought of a talented right back being sent to a pair of new roles, it’s worth noting that Farrell saw minutes at holding midfielder and center back in college. So it’s not an entirely new experiment. Knowing how much Heaps values versatility, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Farrell get minutes -- maybe even a handful of starts -- at center back and holding midfielder this year.
Can Goncalves put the contract squabbles aside? Days before camp opened, the club captain gave an interview to a local writer expressing his displeasure over his contract situation. And just like that, the club entered the preseason with a considerable controversy on their hands. Goncalves addressed the situation with the media at on Day 1 of camp, but hasn’t said much else since. If the situation remains unresolved, and it stays that way as the season progresses, the club is counting on their captain to keep business on the backburner when he steps on to the pitch.
Can the Revs remain as healthy as they were last year? For all the accolades the Revs earned during their surprising 2013 run to the postseason, one of the most overlooked aspects of last year’s team was how healthy it stayed from start to finish. Key contributors like Nguyen, Goncalves, Fagundez, Farrell and Rowe all played 31 games or more, and their ability to stay healthy was crucial to the club’s success.
How do the Revs improve upon their surprising 2013? As good as the Revolution were last season, there’s plenty they can do better at this year. One improvement needed -- a stronger start to the season. Last year, the offense sputtered and the club slid to a 2-4-4 record in their first 10 games. Another area in which they can step it up: their form in front of frame. The club recorded a lethargic 11.7 shots/game, ranking them 17th in that category among the 19 MLS clubs. Should the team improve in those areas, and remain generally consistent on defense, the Revolution may be primed for even greater success this year.