Teal Bunbury photo courtesy Major League Soccer.
For Club and Country: After a few mostly-down years (and the nightmare that was the Brad Friedel era), has Bruce Arena managed to establish some solid footing for the club? How has he done so?
Sean Sweeney: “Oh, without a doubt he has. It makes one wonder what Brad and Jay Heaps, in the tail end of his tenure in Foxborough before Friedel arrived, did wrong with this same bunch of players: and let’s face it, there are a good number of players on this Revolution side who have not had just three managers… we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Tom Soehn or Mike Lapper’s influence in stabilizing the club after Heaps and Friedel, respectively, were sacked in September 2017 and May 2019. I think back to some of the things I’ve written in the past few years: I’ve called for house cleanings in the past because the results were just not good enough for the fan base, and management just brought everyone back, year after year, and the results were more of the same, situation normal, nothing to see here. For example, Friedel said that, “We will have winners here… if we make the playoffs, there will be less changes; if we don’t make the playoffs, there will be more changes,” in September 2018; what happens? They don’t make the playoffs… they bring back 19 of the 25 players in 2019, get two wins in their first 12, and so long Friedel and team architect Michael Burns in May.
“It was incredibly frustrating as a journo; I can’t imagine what it was like for the supporters. Yet these same players who were on Friedel and Heaps’ teams, like a Diego Fagundez, a Scott Caldwell, an Andrew Farrell — all very talented young men — are getting the job done with Bruce. I think he’s really simplified things for some of them, he’s moved Fagundez from the attacking role he’s had for a majority of his career into more of a No. 6/8, moving him up to the No. 10 when necessary; he’s done the same with Kelyn Rowe, who looks like a completely different player since he returned from that year away with Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. Moving Andrew from right back to right center back has helped him elevate his game and his leadership role within the side; that was also due to a depth issue at center back last year, and he really has not relinquished that role since the move. And of course, when you sign a pure goal scorer who can make things happen at the drop of a dime, it certainly makes the opposition think twice about their game plan.”
FCAC: There is a lot of – deserved – praise given to keeper Matt Turner. Is he largely getting the job done on his own? Or how is the back line set up to help him find success as a shot-stopper?
SS: “Matt has really made The Leap in his third professional season. His decision-making is so much better than it was last year, let alone in 2018, when it was head-scratching at times. His distribution has remarkably improved. And yes, he’s really opening eyes across the league and, reportedly, Europe (he has a Lithuanian passport now, which will make him attractive to clubs). He’s told me that one of the things he has done is to watch Premier League goalkeepers in how they approach the game, and he’s tried to emulate what he’s learned and convert that into his game. I don’t think he leaves Foxborough just yet; I think he wants to help the club claim something in the way of silverware before he does. But we can’t ignore the job the defending has done to keep him safe. Unlike in past years, this team isn’t leaking in goals like a faulty faucet. Arena has gone pretty much with the same back four in Alexander Büttner, rookie Henry Kessler, Farrell, and Brandon Bye from left to right. DeJuan Jones has come on to spell Büttner when necessary, and the pairing of Antonio Delamea and Michael Mancienne have found their minutes limited because of their play: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There’s been more of a team defense feeling with this side, which you really did not see in the past few seasons.”
FCAC: Meanwhile, the Revs are scoring at Nashville-like levels (this is not a good thing!). Who are they key pieces up front? Is the team creating chances and not finishing, or is there more work to be done in chance-creation?
SS: “The offensive-minded problem New England had for a good chunk of what serves as the 2020 season was the loss of Carles Gil. He came to Foxborough while the Revolution were in Marbella, Spain for 2019 preseason, and as soon as he really got used to the rough-and-tumble nature of our league in the midfield, he really started to blossom. He missed the first two matches of this year, then the pandemic hits: the hope up here was that he could take that time to recover without losing ground. He comes back in their Group C opener against Montreal, and we got to see three designated players on the pitch for the first time in club history; it was remarkable to see. He gets hurt, though, in the DC United match in Orlando, and it looked really bleak. There was an absolute lack of creativity. Arena moved Fagundez into the No. 10 role that Gil held, and he did OK against Toronto, but nothing after that. He tried Gustavo Bou in the No. 10 so he could have more influence in distribution, but that didn’t work, they weren’t scoring goals. He tried Cristian Penilla there, that didn’t work. He trades for Lee Nguyen from Inter, and the light switch comes on.
“Now… this team is creating, creating, creating, but still has difficulty in scoring goals even though they’ve really controlled the tempo in their last three matches. Last weekend, one shot on-target in the first 85 minutes, they win 2-nil with a pair of goals in the last four minutes of the normal 90. Their shot selection needs to be pinpoint accurate in order for them to really scald a team, and we’re waiting for that. I’ve said for the last five years that there is so much scoring talent in this club, but they really haven’t proven me right. Bou, like I said, can generate a goal from absolutely nothing; go back in the film and see his goal against Montreal in Orlando; if Nashville gives him a sliver of daylight, he can score. The Revs’ other healthy DP is Adam Buksa, who has scored three goals this season; his first goal in three months was last weekend. The key to Buksa is service. His goal against DC in Orlando was service to the head, his goal against DC last weekend was 1-v-goalkeeper with a well-weighted ball from Penilla.
“Lots of teams have figured out that if they bunker in on Buksa and deny him that service, or just pin two defenders on him near the top of the 18, he can’t generate anything. He’s not too creative with his back to goal. Teal Bunbury is a veteran, nothing gets to him; he’s an incredibly streaky player when it comes to scoring, and he’s been unselfish this year in helping set up his teammates. Penilla hasn’t scored yet; I think a lot of teams have figured him out over his three seasons in the league, he liked to cut to his right to get the ball on his right foot when he played out as the No. 7. He’s definitely not a No. 10, but at the No. 11 last weekend, he looked refreshed and dangerous.”
FCAC: Who are some of the unsung heroes of this team so far in 2020?
SS: “I have several: Bunbury, for one. He’s so strong and doesn’t let anything shake him. Rowe, for two. I think his move in December 2018 to Sporting and the demotion to USL Championship’s Swope Park was an absolute wake-up call for him: he wasn’t an MLS regular any longer, he didn’t score when he was with Sporting or Real; he’s come close a few times this season, and he’s doing his level best to show that he can still be considered an MLS regular. The level of play he has shown has been immense, he’s helped supplement the defending with his box-to-box play, and he really has no quit. Watch his work rate should he play Saturday. And the third one is Brandon Bye out at right back. He hasn’t missed a minute this year and has really played well. What I think we want to see more out of BB15 is his crossing to improve. Watch tomorrow how many times, when the Revolution put an over the top ball out of the defending third, it’ll go to Bye, and then he’ll look to cross in. Tajon Buchanan deserves a shoutout here, as well.”
FCAC: New England has been pretty active in the Summer trade market. How have the new additions fit into the team?
SS: “With the exception of Kekuta Manneh, seamlessly. Nguyen has only been back for a few weeks, and it feels like he’s never left, or he’s feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work. He’s developed a connection with Bou and did so right away. Tommy McNamara came that same day as Manneh, and he’s really stepped up when called upon, playing a variety of positions. He’s gritty and like Rowe, doesn’t no the word quit. And the Revs will be without another of the acquisitions in Matt Polster tomorrow, as he suffered a concussion last weekend. He had been playing incredible up until Yordy Reyna accidentally clipped him with his boot. He started out fantastic, then had a couple of games where he gave up the ball too easily, then had a brain fart in the last Union match.”
FCAC: Finally, any specific predictions for the game (including a final score if you’re comfortable giving one)?
SS: “New England has had difficulty winning all three points at home this season, finally getting a W against Montreal last week. If Nashville plays stout in the back and contains Bou and Buksa, it can get a point, at least. Take your foot off the accelerator defensively, though, and that can be to your detriment. This is a Revolution team, though, that is looking to keep pace with the top four in the East, and nothing less than a W will be acceptable.”
“Revs 2, Nashville 0.”
Many thanks to Sean for his time. Make sure to follow his work for all the updates you need on the Revs – and soccer at all levels throughout the New England region.