MLS 2011 team preview: New England
2010 record and finish: 9-16-5 (6th place in Eastern Conference)
Key additions: M Ousmane Dabo, D Didier Domi, F Diego Fagundez, D A.J. Soares, D Franco Coria
Key losses: F Taylor Twellman, D Cory Gibbs, D Emmanuel Osei, GK Preston Burpo, F Edgaras Jankauskas
Key questions facing this team:
1. Can they stay healthy?
The biblical plague of injuries that has afflicted the Revs for some time turned downright comical last year. So any success for this team, even more so than for other clubs, has to start with a healthy year. "We spent the last two seasons being decimated with injuries all season, and the previous year was exactly the same," head coach Steve Nicol said. "We carried [now-retired star striker] Taylor Twellman for two years without him playing a game. That's a huge disadvantage before we even start. We need a clean injury slate. That would be huge. If we have a clean bill of health, we have enough quality in our team to win matches."
2. Can they shore up the back line?
Ask Nicol what was wrong with his team in 2010, and you'll get a candid answer. "It's pretty straightforward," he said. "We lost too many goals and didn't score enough." Indeed, the Revs conceded a league-worst 50 goals last season. So the club drafted promising rookie center back A.J. Soares and signed young Argentine center back Franco Coria and seasoned French left back Didier Domi, who has had a fruitful European career. They'll join Kevin Alston, a strong rookie in 2010 who went mostly unnoticed in a deep class. Although Cory Gibbs is gone, the three new arrivals should offer stability and much-needed depth to a back line that also includes incumbent center backs Darrius Barnes and Ryan Cochrane.
3. How will they bang them in?
When the most talked-about forward on your roster is 5-foot-8, weighs 125 pounds, has only just turned 16 and has never played a professional minute, you're probably in trouble. After Diego Fagundez, the next striker is Zack Schilawski. He scored a hat trick in his home debut but then just got two more goals the rest of the way. The third striker, Zak Boggs, has yet to prove that he's better at soccer than he is at jump-roping. (Seriously.) That's more or less the predicament New England finds itself in.
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Biggest X factor: Ousmane Dabo and/or Shalrie Joseph
Like Domi, Dabo is a highly experienced French journeyman whose last two clubs were Lazio (126 league appearances) and Manchester City (25 league appearances); he also spent time with Inter Milan. Dabo can operate in front of the defensive line by himself or could form a formidable pairing there with mercurial fellow holding midfielder Joseph. But that scenario is looking increasingly unlikely. Joseph, who missed five games last year while he was enrolled in the league's substance-abuse program, skipped the team's first day of practice -- an infraction the club notched up to a "personal problem" -- before he got himself (along with Alston) kicked out of one of the club's preseason camps. Dabo and Joseph could seal off the defense like a fortress, curing much of what ailed the club last year. Or Dabo could be the league's next big European flop and Joseph could lose his way again.
Breakout player to watch: A.J. Soares
There's a new gold standard for MLS rookies who ply their trade as defenders. It's called Tim Ream, a second-round pick by the Red Bulls who played every minute for the club last year, helping to solidify its shaky back line. Soares has been widely hailed as the Ream of the 2011 class. And boy, could the Revs use an able central defender who can step right in. If he can win a starting job, Soares is a likely candidate to lead all rookies in minutes played.
After four MLS Cup finals (and two conference finals) in six years, the Revs' decline has been steady. Nicol, who was around for all those finals, blames MLS'S parity structure. "If you look at the layout of MLS, teams that are successful get no help whatsoever, they're punished," he said. "When you're constantly up against teams getting allocation money every year and you're not getting any, it's pretty much a slippery slope and only going one way." Having come in sixth in the Eastern Conference in 2010, tying the team's worst-ever finish, New England might finally be able to take advantage of all those perks bestowed on the weak and make a push for one of those only-in-MLS worst-to-first stories. But perhaps just not this year.