The 2022 regular season is nearly upon us.  It feels like just a few weeks ago the Revs lifted their first ever league trophy, in the form of the Supporters Shield.  Actually that basically was just a few weeks ago.  This offseason has been a short one, with Covid pushing the regular season back in 2021 and the world cup moving it forward in 2022. As it stands, the Revolution will play their first regular season match of the new year this upcoming Saturday at the Portland Timbers.  This will be only the second opportunity Revs fans will have to watch their team play since that fateful penalty kick loss to NYCFC in last year’s playoffs.

New England was supposed to have played against Haitian champs AS Cavaly last week on national television, but a failure to secure visas forced the carribean side to forfeit. As a result, the only glimpse fans have gotten of what should be a slightly re-tooled Revolution side, was a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the LA Galaxy several weeks ago.

A lack of viewing opportunities means there are many unanswered questions about how this team will play in 2022.  Most of them are of the trivial variety, but there are several big looming questions hanging over Gillette Stadium.  In this column, let’s take a look at the 5 biggest questions facing the Revs this season.

Q1: Who provides the spark?

The Revolution had a reasonably quiet offseason, with minimal roster turnover among the starting players.  The biggest loss was the one we’ve known about the longest.  Tajon Buchanan, the Canadian wunderkind who burst on to the scene in MLS a magnificent run of form in the 2020 playoffs, finally completed his transfer to Belgium this winter.  Buchanan, who often played outside midfielder, did more than just bang in goals for New England.  Though he did that in spades, notching the third most among Revolution players in 2021.

Buchanan provided, for lack of a better term, “electricity” to the Revs attack.  His strengths were his pace and dribbling ability.  He was second on the Revs in successful dribbles per 90 minutes.  Additionally, he was in the 87th percentile (amond MLS wingers) in progressive carries and the 86th percentile in dribbles completed. All of this is to say that if you were defending him there was a decent chance he was about to blow past you. And he did so, time and time again when the Revs needed a goal.

The question is, who on the Revs now is going to provide that electricity, that spark?  New signing Sebastian Lletget was presumably brought in to take Buchanan’s place in the starting XI, but will he provide the same “I can beat you all by myself” confidence that made Tajon so important?  Carles Gil is certainly a contender to pick up some of the slack on successful dribbles, as he lead the team last season.  Dejuan Jones was 3rd on the team in successful dribbles/90 and falls in the 95th percentile among MLS fullbacks at progressive carries.  He could be another option to provide a spark when needed.

Q2: What is the succession plan for Turner?

It’s official, Turner is leaving the Revolution this summer.  The MLS Goalkeeper of the Year has officially signed with Arsenal.  That’s great news for Turner, who will likely get a huge pay raise to go and test himself on one of the worlds biggest stages.  It’s not so great news for New England, who had come to rely on the shot stopping prowess that the New Jersey native provided in goal.

I need only two stats to explain why this is such a huge question for the Revs this season.  First, New England had the 8th highest expected points in MLS last season.  This is to say, using the advanced metrics of “expected goals for” and “expected goals against”, New England could have been expected to finish 8th in the league, instead of first, as they did by a wide margin in 2021.  Per FotMob, New England had the third highest xG.  The second stat comes in the form of Matt Turner’s GA-xGA. Last season Turner saved 6.47 goals above what would be expected of an average keeper.  That was good for 2nd best in the league, and continues his trend of being at or near the top of the league in that area.

How many of those draws or those one goal wins become losses without Matt Turner in net?  Who can step in and fill that role when he leaves? Bruce Arena has neglected to dictate who the successor will be, opting to allow the other keepers on the roster duke it out in training.  Last season Knighton got the nod when Turner was away with the USMNT and allowed 6 goals in his 6 starts, including 3 shutouts.  Earl Edwards Jr looked to be a lone bright spot in the Revs 4-0 loss against the Galaxy.  Meanwhile new draft pick Jacob Jackson has already impressed both Bruce and Turner himself. There is always the possibility to look outside the team in the summer as well.

Q3: Can Bruce get the most from “his guys”?

The reinforcements this season all have something in common.  They’ve all been coached by Bruce Arena at some point in their careers.  Sebastian Lletget, Omar Gonzalez, and Jozy Altidore join AJ DeLaGarza and Ema Boateng as current and former Arena players. All of those players, with the exception of Altidore, played with the LA Galaxy during Arena’s tenure with the club.  This has given us some nice, built-in camaraderie.

Altidore began his career under Arena with the Red Bulls, but he intersects with the other “former-Bruce” signings via the USMNT, where Bruce Arena was in charge 2016-17.  All of these players could be thought of as “win now” signings. None of them, at this point of their careers, are exactly spring chickens.  They more realistically range from fall-chickens to next-spring-chickens, with both Gonzalez, Altidore and DeLaGarza all well past 30.

What’s more, all 3 offseason signings seemed to have run out their welcome at their previous clubs.  Altidore and Gonzalez both came off of a disappointing season with Toronto, while Lletget seemed to underperform expectations in LA.

All three of them could use a bit of a redemption arc.  Altidore needs to stay healthy long enough to show he’s still a top-tier striker.  Lletget needs to show USMNT fans that he is capable of more than back-passes.  Both of them could make a case to Gregg Berhalter that they deserve a call-up ahead of the world cup.  Meanwhile, Gonzalez has basically won everywhere he’s been with the notable exception of his recent stint with TFC.   He needs to show that the league hasn’t passed him by and that he’s still a winner.  Can Bruce help these guys turn it around in New England?

Q4: Will last years international signings improve in year 2?

While Arena got a lot right with the Revs in 2021, his international signings didn’t quite pan out the way we all hoped.  Bruce brought in left-back Christian Mafla, midfielder Wilfrid Kaptoum, and forward Arnor Traustason in 2021, all from abroad.  Mafla lost out on the starting job to Dejuan Jones and was released from his contract this offseason.  Kaptoum and Trastason both played, and played well for stretches, but neither could hold onto their starting spot.   Kaptoum, mostly as a victim of formation, but Traustason had a stretch of games where he picked up a few red-cards and Bruce never looked back.

Both players showed some flashes, but both players underperformed expectations.  This isn’t uncommon for new players joining the league from abroad.  Common enough, in fact, that fans of the MLS Extra Time podcast will be familiar with the David Gass Theorem.  As described by it’s namesake, “The David Gass theorem is that it takes about a year, or a season, for foreign players to really find their feet in this league.  Whether it’s the travel the different opponents the different styles the different temperatures that they’re playing in… it takes some time for some players.”

This might be the case with another New England player, Adam Buksa.  Buksa would lead the Revs in 2021 with 16 goals, but it wasn’t so long ago that he wasn’t viewed as the answer up top for New England.  The question is, will the same adjustment period, be necessary for Traustason and Kaptoum as it was for Buksa?  Can these two take a step up, now that they’ve grown more comforatble and more familiar with the league?

Q5: Can Gil stay healthy for the entire season?

New England will be without Tajon Buchanan and there’s a strong possibility of losing Buksa over the summer.  This certainly isn’t great news for Revs fans, but should it be cause for panic?  My sense is no.  Don’t forget there was a time before Buksa arrived and before Tajon broke out in 2020.  If Gil isn’t playing, however?  That might be reason for panic.

In 2019, after Arena had arrived, Gil and the Revs put up a solid 1.68 points per game.  That was before Buksa’s arrival and, while he was getting occasional minutes, Buchanan hadn’t truly broken out yet.

The following year Carles missed all but 4 matches with foot and heel injuries.  In those “no-Gil” matches, the Revs dropped to 1.43 points per game. That’s a significant drop.

I will concede that the Revs performed alright while he was out with an injury last year (slightly higher in a limited sample) but his talent on the ball is undeniable.

Carles signed a contract extension that keeps him with New England through 2024.  He’s the main building block of this franchise now. If the parts around him are going to be in flux, having Gil there as a stablizing force for the team will be extremely important.  That requires a fully healthy Gil, which hasn’t happened since 2019.

If he manages to stay healthy for the full season, I think this team can weather the losses of Buchanan and Turner as well as the possible loss of Buksa or Jones in the summer.  If not?  It could be tough sledding in New England.

Photo credit: New England Revolution

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