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When an MLS team crashes out of the playoff hunt, as half of teams do, mlssoccer.com’s Matt Doyle writes a ‘Post-Mortem‘.  An article designed to lay bare where it all went wrong for each team.  He gives a representation of the highs and lows of the season, and gives expectations for the future.  It’s a great article, even if it’s little comfort to fans of a newly eliminated team.

Revs fans haven’t had to read one of those type of articles before the end of the regular season since 2018.  Until this season, that is.  After taking over in 2019, Bruce Arena lead the team to 3 straight playoff appearances in his first 3 seasons in charge.  Last year, he did so in record setting fashion, winning the club’s first ever MLS silverware.

Doyle leads his article with a gif summarizing the season.  While I won’t explicitly steal that concept, this reaction gif on twitter shows just how far the mighty Revs have fallen since last October’s trophy ceremony.

In this piece, I will attempt to break down the season as a whole.  What went right, and what didn’t.  Where is blame justified, and who should bear that blame.  This will exist in a similar plane to Doyle’s column, but hopefully from a more granular, fan oriented, perspective.

Arc of the season

To say the 2022 season was a disappointment for New England would be something of an understatement. They thoroughly dominated the Eastern Conference last season, winning 22 of their 34 games and setting a record for most points earned.  The expectations in the offseason were that they would finish high in the standings once again.  As we now know, that did not happen.  It was a season of abject disappointment. However, it wouldn’t exactly be fair to call it a failure without examining all the circumstances that lead to the result.

For me, there were 3 factors that most contributed to the teams failures in 2022.

CCL Hangover

Part of winning their first league wide trophy last season was that it came with the honor of competing in the CONCACAF Champions League.  It’s a competition that pits the best teams in all of North America and the Caribbean against one another to determine the best of the best.  It’s a challenge that, until this year, no American team had been able to conquer.  Seattle became the first MLS side to summit the CCL mountain, earning a place in the Club World Cup.

It’s also a competition that MLS teams have struggled to figure out the best way to balance with their regular season schedule.  Because the stakes are so high, players and coaches sink tremendous amounts of time and effort into their CCL matches.  This often comes at the cost of taking a hit in the MLS standings. Especially since the champions league takes place right at the beginning each new CCL campaign.  The term CCL hangover has been common parliance within MLS circles for years. Bruce Arena has even gone so far as to say that MLS teams are “…not suited to be able to get into these competitions and maintain any kind of quality in the league.”

This was on full display for the Revs in the early going who, despite earning 4 points from their first 2 games and pummeling PUMAS at home, couldn’t keep up with the toll of playing in two competitions at once.  Immediately after trouncing their Liga MX counterparts, they would go on a 4 game losing streak in league play, the first of Bruce Arena’s career.

Loss of Key Talent

All of the Revs success in 2021 built the reputations of several young players.  The issue with having great players in a not-as-great league, is that it becomes difficult to keep them.  The Revolution sold 3 key contributors to Europe for big money between January and June of this season.  Dynamic Canadian winger Tajon Buchanan left the Revs in January to join Belgian side Club Brugge.  By February, the Revolution had agreed to sell USMNT keeper and 2021 GKotY Matt Turner to Arsenal.  Polish striker Adam Buksa wasn’t far behind, agreeing to terms with Ligue 1’s RC Lens.

These players were absolutely crucial to New England’s successes in 2021.  Combined with the losses of players out of contract in the offseason, the Revs fielded a fairly different roster from last year. Replacements were signed, but often they were brought in either too late, or too injured to make up the difference.

Injuries Take Their Toll

Speaking of those injuries…

The Revs, like many MLS teams had play the season while navigating various player absences.  This isn’t new to MLS, and it’s certainly not exclusive to the Revs.  That said, the injuries seems to add up all at the wrong time for New England.  After weathering an abysmal start to the season, New England was finally righting the ship in the spring.  What’s more, the new signings Bruce had made in the spring were starting to look like the boost the team would need to push into the playoffs.  That’s when injuries reared their ugly head.

Gustavo Bou, Dylan Borrero, Henry Kessler, Maciel, Giacomo Vrioni, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Brandon Bye and Wilfrid Kaptoum all missed time through the summer into the home stretch of fall.  That’s 2 designated players, one U22 initiative player and 5 other first XI caliber players that missed time in the most important part of the year.  All those absences would lay bare the lack of quality depth that New England had waiting in the wings.  While it would give opportunities to younger players like Damian Rivera, Noel Buck, and Esmir Bajraktarevic, eventually the absences would be too much to overcome.  The Revs, already trying to climb out of a hole they dug in the spring, would find themselves declawed down the stretch.

What went right?

Despite ending with a whimper, the 2022 season did exhibit a few exciting developments.

Petrovic is the Real Deal

Replacing Matt Turner was never going to be an easy ask.  Turner was one of the best shot-stopping keepers in MLS history.  If you pay attention to American Soccer Analysis’ G+ metric, he was the most valuable player in the league. Full stop.  He was the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2021, won the Gold Cup with the USMNT (earning the competition’s golden glove), and was named MLS All-Star MVP for his performance in penalties vs Liga MX.

The main way Turner set himself apart from the competition, was through his athleticism, his quick reflexes and his smart positioning.  These attributes allowed him to sit at, or near, the top of an important goalkeeping statistic.  Goals allowed minus expected goals allowed, or G-xG. An expected goals value is assigned to every shot, based upon how likely it is to result in a goal.  By subtracting xG from goals allowed, we can normalize goalkeeping performance to the quality of shots they face.  Turner dominated in that statistical category for years, with a level of consistency that hasn’t been seen in MLS.

Having said that…

While the long term consistency part remains to be seen, Djordje Petrovic has quickly filled Turner’s shoes in the shot-stopping department.  In fact, though our sample size is small, it’s possible that he’s even been a massive upgrade.  At time of writing, with a few games left in the season, he leads the league with -10.86 G-xG.  One way to think of that is that he actively prevented 10.86 more goals from hitting the net than would be expected of an average keeper.  That’s while also coming to the Revs in the middle of the season.  While there’s certainly time for things to shift over the next few weeks, that -10.86 is currently the best season on record.  If we normalize to goals per expected goal, his 0.69 G/xG is tied for the best mark in MLS history.

Bruce Arena got a lot of things wrong this season, but he unequivocally got it right by signing Petrovic.

The Homegrowns Look Like the Future

Part of fielding such an injury ravaged lineup throughout the season meant that Arena was forced to give substantial run-outs to Revs II and Revs Academy products.  This meant more minutes for Justin Rennicks and Damian Rivera, of course.  But it also meant league debuts for talented academy products Noel Buck and Esmir Bajraktarevic.  All of them showed glimpses of talent beyond their years, but Noel Buck shined in particular.

Buck, from Arlington, didn’t get his shot to start with the first team until they were truly in dire injury straights, but if he can hit those kinds of shots he’s going to have a bright future in New England.  Esmir also impressed in moments, though he was used more sparingly.  Like Buck, he’s only 17 so he’s got plenty of room to grow.

Gil is Still Gil

While the lineup shifted and changed around him, Carles Gil remained a constant presence in the Revs lineup throughout the season.  With 2 games left, he made 31 of a possible 32 apearances and played the most minutes on the team.  He wasn’t quite as productive as his MVP winning season from a year ago but he stayed healthy the whole season, while continuing to produce with, at times, a skeleton crew of support around him.

At time of writing he leads, or nearly leads, in several attacking categories.  He is first (by a large margin) in key passes.  He is third in expected assists, while being 5th in actual assists.  He’s the most fouled player in the league, indicating that he’s constantly threatening on the dribble.  It was a solid follow up season for Gil, it just didn’t go the way he wanted.

What went wrong

Regression Leads to Frustration

Speaking of Gil, he made no bones about his frustrations this season.  Following a league topping performance, some regression was always to be expected.  The team regression clearly frustrated several Revs players and sometimes that would manifest on the field.  Players not making runs, not tracking back, yelling at the ref, yelling at eachother. All of those are hallmark signs of players focused on things not going their way, instead of the game at hand.

The frustrations became evident early on.  In their 3rd match of the season, New England blew a 2-0 lead late in the icy wind and snow of New England winter.  They would concede 3 goals in the late going to lose 3-2.  The loss would begin an early season spiral that put them in a hole that they never quite got out of.  After the match, Carles Gil delivered a now infamous tirade against the playing conditions.  He would express more frustrations a few games later, as he was seen shouting at coach Bruce Arena during their 3-1 loss at eventual wooden-spoon “winners” DC United.

The passion is certainly something you want to see, but the expression will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many Revs fans.

Replacements: Too Little, Too Late

It would be unfair to lambast Bruce Arena and the Revs organization for the choices they made in replacing the departed Buchanan, Turner, and Buksa.  Selling those players left huge holes in the roster.  Anyone who remembers the Mike Burns era of the club will certainly view Arena making ‘any replacement at all’ as one of the best perks of his tenure.

He did replace each of those players with a like-for-like mentality.  Turner excelled at shot-stopping, so Bruce replaced him with an excellent shot-stopper in Djordje Petrovic.  Buchanan brought speed and dynamism to the wing, and that role should now be well filled by Dylan Borrero.  Buksa scored in gobs up top, a role now entrusted to former Juve striker Giacomo Vrioni.

The issue here, is that both Borrero and Vrioni were signed after the departures of the players they were intended to replace.  The most successful of the three is easily Petrovic, who had months of overlap to adjust to the club with Turner still around to mentor him.

There’s also the matter of Bruce Arena’s offseason signings, who failed to provide the boost the Revs needed.

Omar Gonzalez was brought in to be a veteran presence in the defense, but all too often showed that the pace of MLS had left him behind.  Jozy Altidore joined the Revs to revitalize his career, after a sour parting-of-ways with Toronto FC.  He didn’t quite manage that, scoring just once in his sparing usage.  Arena shipped him off to Mexico midway through the season to get him minutes.

Lletget, the best of the bunch, filled Buchanan’s spot in the lineup but never quite fit the scheme that Arena wanted to use.  He, too, departed New England after just a few months, joining FC Dallas.

Injuries ravaged starting lineup

I’ve already spoken to the breadth of injuries in a previous section, so I won’t rehash it here.  I will, however, point out that injuries occurred at very inopportune times.  Matt Turner, coming off a huge 2021, gets frostbite errr….tendonitis just before the beginning of the 22 campaign.  This meant that New England had to roll out backups during their road CCL matchup.

Likewise, Henry Kessler missed time during the CCL run.  Andrew Farrell also missed one of the CCL bouts.  This meant traveling to Mexico City with backups in net and in central defense.  Ultimately, that would be a recipe for disaster with the Revs blowing a 3-0 aggregate lead.

Those injuries and dropped results lead to an early season spiral that lead to that on-field Gil-Arena spat.

When US Open Cup presented the Revolution an opportunity for competition redemption, it was the attack that was missing from the lineup.  After smashing FC Cincinnati in the first round, New England travelled to face NYCFC.  They did so without an injured Gustavo Bou and a traveling Adam Buksa.  Despite a standout performance in net from Djordje Petrovic, the attack was too undermanned to avoid elimination. The Revs would fall 1-0.

 

Add in the glut of injuries down the stretch run of late summer and it becomes clear that the timing of player absences played a large role in the demise of this team.  The depth, for whatever reason, underperformed to last season’s standard.  With injuries up and down the pitch, that became a killer combo in 2022.

Grading Bruce Arena’s season as manager

As a Coach: C-

Arena clearly wanted to emulate the successes of last season, rolling with the 4-4-2 diamond formation that worked so well.  The issue with that idea, as it turns out, is that it doesn’t quite work the same way with different players.

The diamond midfield puts Carles Gil in his best position, allowing him to pick out passes to playmakers from the center of the pitch.  It also, unfortunately, asks a lot of the lone defensive midfielder.  That was ok in 2021 when a healthy trio of designated players were racking up multi-goal leads, but with Buksa and Bou only being on the field together three times this season, teams were able to exploit that tactical disadvantage.

Bruce took too long in making the tactical switch to provide support for Matt Polster in defensive midfield. He also held on too long to the idea that Justin Rennicks and Jozy Altidore were suitable fill-ins for the injured-DP-striker-du-jour. He also brought a good player, in Sebastian Lletget, to replace Tajon Buchanan but didn’t make the tactical adjustments to put him in his best position.

By the time Arena had made the pivot to the 4-2-3-1, the early season damage had already been done. Then, when things started to take a turn for the better, the injuries began to pile up. I think Arena realizes he needs to make wholesale changes to the style and roster to make all the pieces fit together. He just realized it a little too late.

As a GM: C

This was tricky because I truly believe the acquisitions made during the season have potential. Injuries have hampered our ability to assess players like Giacomo Vrioni, Dylan Borrero, and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi.  The offseason moves on the other hand…. I think it would be hard to call them anything other than a disaster.  The veteran heavy strategy didn’t quite pan out, leaving the Revs depth a bit older and slower.

Best Move

His best move, easily, has to be the acquisition of goalie Djordje Petrovic from FK Cukaricki in Serbia for a reported $1M fee. That’s a very reasonable price for a player who has come in midway through the season and performed at a GKotY level.

Worst Move

His worst move was harder to determine, but I think it’s got to be Altidore. The former USMNT striker signed after being bought out of his Toronto FC contract. That’s a tough way to leave a club. The Revs reportedly worked out a deal with TFC to cover part of his salary, allowing New England to get the player on a TAM level contract. If Jozy played anywhere near his former DP price tag, it would be good business from Arena.

He didn’t though. Altidore was used only sparingly for the Revs throughout the season, working back to full fitness after an injury last season. He scored just once in New England before being loaned to Puebla in Liga MX.

The Revs signed him to a 3 year deal, so they’ll be hoping that loan goes well, and he either returns in good form, or Puebla makes an offer.

Player Transfer Grades:

Sebastian Lletget: B-

Lletget was really Bruce’s best offseason move. He never quite fit the system, but he was productive. He scored twice and assisted 5 times with the Revs. Unfortunately, he wanted an opportunity to play more centrally, and Bruce was kind enough to offer him the opportunity to take a trade to FC Dallas, where he seems like a good fit.

Omar Gonzalez: F

Jozy Altidore: F

Djordje Petrovic: A+

Dylan Borrero: B

It’s tough giving such a high grade for a player we’ve only seen 563 minutes from this season.  He joined the team in April and by July he sustained an injury that kept him out most of the rest of the season.  That said, when he was healthy and playing, he showed that he has pace, ball control, and can shoot.  That’s the combination of skills that made Tajon Buchanan a $7M transfer last offseason.  He’s also only 20 years old, so If he can stay healthy there’s a lot to like about the signing.

Giacomo Vrioni: C+

Hard to judge too much in his limited minutes.

Cristian Makoun: C

Clemont Diop: B+

Ismael Tajouri-Shradi: B-

Giving a B- for a player that literally never saw the field for the Revs in 2022 is optimistic.  Even for me.  That said, Bruce spent much of last offseason finding square pegs to fill round holes in the roster.  “ITS” is not that.  He has speed, skill on the ball, and can shoot from distance.  He’s well suited to playing on the wing.  Those are attributes that should mesh well with the 4-2-3-1 the Revolution now seem poised to play in 2023.

Also he can do this:

Reviewing team performance

Best performance in 2022

2022 was not without its share of triumphs.  In spite of the abject disappointment that followed, the Revolution looked truly dominant in their CCL home match vs Pumas.  In the wind and snow, New England showed that they could not only hang with the big teams in CONCACAF but also that, under the right conditions, they could excel.  New England looked dangerous throughout the match and, despite seeing numerous chances go wanting in the first half, they would get a deserved 3-0 victory against the eventual CCL finalists.

Worst performance in 2022

It would be easy, here, to pick the away leg of that same CCL run, wherein the Revolution blew that 3-0 aggregate lead and lost on penalty kicks.  It was an epic collapse.  New England went to Mexico City expecting to be able to sit back and absorb pressure with Jon Bell, Omar Gonzalez, and Earl Edwards Jr.  That didn’t quite work out.

Instead, I’m going to choose their 4-0 road loss against CF Montreal.  Primarily because of just how easily Montreal was able to create danger.  New England made mistake after mistake in the middle third of the field, giving the ball away in dangerous spots.  The highlights are exactly as one-sided as you might expect.

What can be done in the offseason?

Right now, the vibes aren’t great in New England.  Arena remains optimistic that the team can be a contender with the pieces they have on the roster, but they don’t really have many options otherwise.  They went hard in the spring and summer trying to restock the team for the stretch run, bringing in 6 players after the start of the season.  It stands to reason that those players are signed through at least the next season, limiting the team’s roster flexibility in this offseason.

Moving on?

With so many injuries this season, it’s hard to evaluate which players can make an impact once their healthy.  I’ve seen some calls for the team to move on from ST Gustavo Bou, and it’s not hard to see why.  He spent much of the season injured, and outside of a hot streak over the summer, didn’t seem very dangerous.  After his second injury absence, he seemed to have lost some of his speed making him less dangerous on the counter.  His best position is as a second striker behind a dominant hold up striker.  The jury is still out on whether or not Vrioni can fit that mold.  Furthermore, there’s a real chance the Revs may not use a 2 striker setup at all, meaning Bou would likely have to play as a lone striker, shift to the wing, or to the bench.  Not ideal for a Designated player.

I think he gets another year from me.  He’s been injured on and off pretty much his entire tenure in New England.  He’s also been somewhat streaky during his time here too.  I think those things are baked into his valuation. He may never regain the speed he once had, but he’s the Revs golden boot leader, primarily because he can be lethal from anywhere in the attacking third.

If, for whatever reason, New England can talk him into taking a TAM level deal, opening a DP slot in the process, then go for it.  Otherwise, Bou is still one of the only players on the team I feel confident can trouble the keeper from distance.  That should help against compact defenses.

Where to Reinforce?

We saw this season that when the starters aren’t healthy, the reserves can’t always replace the production.  Now, the hope is that each of your top 4 attackers aren’t hurt all at the same time.  But, in the (already happened) case that they are, the Revs need to get more production in 2023 than they did from Jozy Altidore and Justin Rennicks. Carrying 5 strikers feels like a lot, so they’ll either need to move Jozy or hope that he comes back ready to score.

Perhaps of more importance is the central defense. Andrew Farrell and Henry Kessler as a CB pairing has been a productive one through 3 seasons.  That said, Kessler spent a fair chunk of the season sidelined, due to varying issues of health, and Farrell (30) isn’t getting any younger.  Jon Bell had a fairly mixed season as the 3rd option, but is young and can develop.  Cristian Makoun presents another young option with growth potential.  Omar Gonzalez, on the other hand, has had plenty of time to develop and doesn’t quite move the way he used to.  The defense allowed 48 goals already this season (4th worst in the East), so clearly some reinforcements are needed.

Due to the active contracts and all the players the Revs just brought in, it’s possible we don’t see any of those additions.  The plan may be to simply let the players on the roster get healthy.  If so, pay close attention to how the team gels during preseason.  Whichever way the offseason goes, there is plenty of talent on this roster, but health and tactics will need to improve for 2023 to be a success.

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

 

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