After using their Week 22 bye to retool and refocus, it’ll be back to business for the New England Revolution (8-12-2, 26 points) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. when they take on the Portland Timbers (7-7-9, 30 points) at Gillette Stadium.
The Revolution, who received the latest bye week in the league this season (save for the Timbers who, incidentally, do not have a bye this season), hope that the brief respite will help them get their season back on track after losing nine of their last 10 matches.
Similarly, Portland has encountered its own share of troubles this season, but unlike the Revolution, the Timbers appear to have found their groove in recent weeks. The Timbers have won three of their last four, including a 2-0 win over Chivas USA last week.
With one team looking to put the brakes on their losing ways, and another hoping to ride the momentum of recent results, here’s what to watch for on Saturday:
No more excuses. Nobody said the month of July would be easy for the Revolution after the 2014 schedule was released. Not only did it feature seven total matches, three of which were of the mid-week variety, but it also featured a trio of road tilts against Western Conference competition. In that sense, the Revolution can be forgiven somewhat for losing six of seven during that stretch. But with five of their next six at home, and only one mid-week match left on the schedule, the struggling club can no longer point to the whim of scheduling gods as a factor in their failures.
“I think the guys are recharged and I think the guys came in with a lot of energy in training today,” Revolution midfielder Steve Neumann told the media on Thursday. “I think that we just have to carry that through this week.”
Consistency key as home stretch approaches. It’s probably fair to say that the Revolution’s current campaign hasn’t been one for the faint of heart. After going winless in their first four, they proceeded to stay out of the loss column during their next seven. But just when it seemed like they were ready to challenge for the Supporters’ Shield, they then dropped nine of their next 10. To borrow a phrase, the Revolution have been consistently inconsistent this year. However, that approach simply won’t work with the postseason picture coming into focus. With the Revolution currently on the outside looking in, they must find a way to start bundling points, lest they miss out on the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Beware of Valeri. If there’s one player the Revolution cannot afford to ignore, it’s Portland’s midfield maestro, Diego Valeri. Through 23 games, Valeri has scored seven goals and added eight assists. But as impressive as those numbers are with more than a third of the season remaining, it’s what the stats don’t pick up that makes the playmaker so impressive. His uncanny vision and pinpoint precision on the passing and shooting fronts have caused fits for opposing defenses since he arrived in Portland last year, making him nearly impossible to contain in one-on-one situations.
“You can’t just say ‘stop him this way’ because he’s a good enough player to change how he’s going to play,” Heaps said. “So it’s a team concept, it’s a team shape defensively, and having an idea of where he is at all times.”
Lineup changes coming? While the Revolution were in the midst of their bye week, Heaps spoke about the heightened level of competition he saw during training. And for those pushing for minutes, that can only be a good thing. Heaps has long been an advocate of granting spots on the gameday 18 to those who put in the work on the practice pitch. With that in mind, don’t be surprised if there changes to both the lineup and the bench come Saturday.
Will Andre Akpan make his Revolution debut? Speaking of changes, the Revolution made a mildly surprising move to get new blood up top by acquiring former Harvard forward Andre Akpan on Tuesday. Granted, a striker who’s only scored four times in 41 career games isn’t exactly the definition of a game-changer. But even though Heaps may be one of the most stat-conscious coaches in MLS, he believes that the 26-year-old forward will be able to contribute in some shape or form down the stretch.
“We really were able to get a big, strong physical player that has a little bit of pace as well,” Heaps said. “(He’s) someone who’s going to come in and fight every day, and that’s what we need.”