FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It’s never easy to prepare for an opponent this early in the season. Sure, you can look at the tapes from last season for additional insight. But what do you do when you have to prepare for an opponent that’s only played a pair of MLS matches in its entire existence?
That’s the question Revolution manager Steve Nicol will have to answer prior to Saturday’s home match against the expansion Portland Timbers.
Although very little is known about what to expect from the newcomers, their first two matches have produced some, albeit limited, evidence of the team’s form. And it shouldn’t exactly strike fear in the mind of New England’s technical staff.
First, there’s the most glaring statistic: one goal in two matches. Although the Timbers have a proven striker in Kenny Cooper and a mix of capable MLS veterans in the midfield, it appears that the team hasn’t yet become a cohesive unit -- which, of course, is to be expected after only two regular season matches.
Second, without the services of goalkeepers Troy Perkins and Adin Brown, the Timbers will have to rely on third-choice goalkeeper Jake Gleeson to step up against a Revolution squad that has scored all three of its goals this season before the 18th minute. No easy task for sure -- just ask Pat Onstad and Josh Saunders, the seasoned starting keepers who failed to keep the Revs off the scoreboard during the past two weeks.
Then, there’s perhaps the most telling, if not incriminating, statistic -- the negative-4 goal differential. Suffice to say, the Timbers are still attempting to find a respectable form -- especially in the back -- as they take the typical hard knocks that many expansion sides suffer through in the early season.
Despite these glaring holes in Portland’s play, New England should be careful not underestimate their battered and bruised opponent. On Wednesday, the Timbers managed to grasp a bit of a morale boost when they blanked Chivas USA 2-0 in U.S. Open Cup play. So, instead of facing a team that may have come into Foxboro with their heads down, the hosts will be welcoming an opponent fresh off its biggest, albeit only, win of the season.
In order to avoid any sense complacency against last-place Portland, the Revs will need to do the one thing they’ve done during their past two games: score early. In the season opener against Los Angeles, Shalrie Joseph’s 3rd minute goal visibly lifted his colleagues’ confidence and allowed the Revs to clinch a valuable road point. Last week, goals from Zack Schilawski and Joseph allowed the Revs to play a relaxed and fluid form of soccer for much of the match and helped them to a 2-1 victory over D.C.
Another thing the Revs have prided themselves on this season is their much-improved defending. The acquisitions of internationals Franco Coria and Didier Domi, along with the selection of A.J. Soares in January’s SuperDraft, has boosted a defense that has limited opponents to only one goal from the run of play in the early going. But, with Coria coming up lame in the 48th minute of last week’s match with a hamstring injury, the Revs depth will be tested. Fortunately for Nicol, he has the luxury of having veteran center backs Ryan Cochrane or Darrius Barnes at his disposal.
One thing that will almost certainly dictate the tempo of the match will be how fast the Revolution central midfielders can assert themselves against the proven quality of Portland’s Jack Jewsbury and Peter Lowry. If Joseph, Pat Phelan, and Stephen McCarthy can impose their physicality to intimidate and frustrate the Timbers in the opening minutes, the Revs should find it easier to spread the field and find space for Schilawski, Zak Boggs, and Sainey Nyassi.
Saturday night’s match has all the makings of a classic trap game for the Revs. Right now, they’re a confident bunch who, given number of young players, could fall into the false belief that victory is a forgone conclusion. To combat that, they’ll have to approach their tilt against the Timbers in the same manner as they did against the Galaxy and United: as the underdog.
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.