For so many reasons, New England is the team that shouldn’t be here. Not because it has overcome such overwhelming odds to make Major League Soccer’s final four. That’s how the cliché is usually used, but it doesn’t apply to the Revolution. Jay Heaps’ team made last year’s playoffs, and thanks to a “wide open” (read: weak) Eastern Conference, the Revs had become many people’s favorite to reach a fifth final, praise underscored by a record seven goals over two legs in its conference semifinal win over Columbus. If somebody had told you at the beginning of the season that Sporting Kansas City would suck for three months, New England’s place in the conference finals would have been downright expected.
No, the truly remarkable part comes from the bigger picture, one that had painted the franchise as an eyesore of a bygone era. One of the worst venues in the league. Turf that’s been the subject of league-wide scorn. Banks of empty seats marring broadcasts. A stadium that’s 40 minutes from the team’s biggest population base. The Kraft family had begun to seen as an absentee landlord, enjoying the St. Tropez prestige of its NFL venture while letting the pipes rust on its other charges.
The Revs had become an anachronism, one of the last relics of MLS’s formative stage: 1.0. Yet here it is now, staring at its best chance at a title in seven years, with a series of MLS 2.0 features at the core of its success.
Lee Nguyen came into the 2014 season with nine goals and nine assists in 63 career games. This season (32 games), Nguyen scored 18 times, add five assists to lead the Revolution to second in the Eastern Conference. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The biggest is Lee Nguyen – the re-U.S. international who was cast off by Vancouver in the preseason in 2012. Over the next two years, the former PSV Eindhoven midfielder was merely an astute waiver wire pick up, but this season, the Vietnamese-American midfielder exploded. His 18 goals and five assists not only vaulted him not into the season’s MVP conversation but also into the conversation with Javier Morales, Diego Valeri, Federico Higuaín, and Pedro Morales as the league’s best No. 10s.
That Nguyen is even part of that conversation may be more remarkable than New England’s turnaround. We’ve seen franchises get their acts together, or, like D.C. United of late, yo-yo between competitiveness and relevance on an annual basis. The type of turnaround we’ve seen from Nguyen is far more rare. It’s more impressive than Brad Davis’s — a steadily great player who eventually earned a spot at this summer’s World Cup — but slightly less remarkable than Chris Wondowlowski, who went from castoff to tied for the league’s single season scoring record. Like each, Nguyen is a U.S. international once more.
Don’t overlook head coach Jay Heaps’ role in that maturation, not only because he’s given the 28-year-old a platform to develop but also because of the flexibility he’s shown throughout the campaign. Coming into the season, Nguyen was the co-pilot of a plane shared with Kelyn Rowe, the highly-skilled UCLA product who came into the year closer to the national team than his teammate. An early season injury took Rowe out of the picture and allowed Nguyen to assert himself as the focal point, leaving Heaps with a difficult choice once the 22-year-old returned. Though there was some trial-and-error, Rowe was eventually incorporated on the left, at the expense of Diego Fagundez – the much ballyhooed prospect who lead last year’s team in scoring. That Heaps found that solution speaks to the lessons of three years on the job.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Granted, that experience didn’t look so valuable on July 30, when the team lost its seventh straight, a run that took it from the top of the East to beyond the top five. Struggling to find solutions in multiple places — production at striker, goals from Fagundez, a replacement for defensive midfielder Andy Dorman — we started hearing whispers about Heaps. Not so much is he going to get fired as has he run out of ideas.
Moving Charlie Davies into the starting lineup was an idea, and Davies rewarded his faith with two goals in leg one in Columbus. Transforming striker Teal Bunbury into right winger Teal Bunbury was also an idea, albeit one that was implemented near the start of the season. Darius Barnes at fullback, A.J. Soares in midfield – Heaps has never lacked for new notions, the best of which may have been abandoning something that worked so well a year ago.
The Revolution’s ride to the 2013 postseason was fueled by a formation that’s fading out of use: a lone defensive midfielder between two lines of four (4-1-4-1). Two popular formations come close to the set up, but they usually feature two players in front of the defense, or three attackers playing high (instead of one). Last season, Heaps found solace in an approach nobody else was using, yet in the middle of the 2014 campaign, he was given reason to switch.
Adding an international-caliber player has a tendency to rearrange one’s thoughts, though when Jermaine Jones was added to New England’s roster, he looked primed to slot into Dorman’s role, one young Scott Caldwell had filled admirably. Yet instead of pushing the 23-year-old to the bench, Heaps switched formations, adopting a two holding midfielder approach that gave Jones the freedom to roam. Instead of consigning his potentially best player to be a mere ball-winner, Heaps tooks advantage of the best traits we saw with Schalke and the U.S. men’s national team. Jones would be allowed to wreak havoc all over the field.
Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
But Jones’s mere presence, at a price tag of $3.252 million annually, maybe have been the biggest surprise of the Revolution season. The Krafts weren’t willing to invest, recent history suggested. Fans were being led to believe they didn’t really care about their other team. Why would ownership suddenly change course and invest in a seven-figure talent?
In hindsight, that question probably assumed too much, the same way assuming New England would be frozen in MLS 1.0 forever was unduly presumptuous. If franchises like San Jose and Portland could experience huge one-year turnarounds (in 2012 and 2013), why couldn’t New England build on its 2013? And if D.C. United could bounce from contender to pretender and back over the last three years, why can’t New England go from scorching to scorn to scratching the surface of a title? This is MLS, after all.
Perhaps the most MLS thing about this turnaround has been the means – the way it reflects the league’s evolution. Talented playmaker, young coach with MLS playing experience, clever big-money buy – New England is far more MLS 2.0 than we thought. In this league, there’s always reason to hope.