The offseason is done and dusted, and players have reported to preseason camp. Soon they’ll travel south to Florida for some tune-up matches ahead of the start of the 2023 season. That would be exciting if they weren’t almost all going to be CLOSED DOOR friendlies, unavailable for public viewing.
Another wintry mix today in Foxborough, where the #NERevs enter week three of preseason. One more week of training at home, then it's off to Florida 🌴☀️ on Sunday for three weeks and five preseason games, leading straight into the regular season opener on Feb. 25 in Charlotte. pic.twitter.com/yxosn2LRmu
— Jeff Lemieux (@jeff_lemieux) January 23, 2023
This leaves us, dear obsessed Revolution fan, in a bit of a content lull. It appears as though most, if not all, of the Revs offseason moves have been made. Barring anything unexpected, the roster we see today is the same roster that will start the season on February 25th at Charlotte FC.
That stability does afford us the opportunity to make some early judgements. Barring any changes between now and then, here are 3 reasons for every Revs fan to be optimistic and pessimistic ahead of the start of the season.
It’s All Sunshine and Rainbows
The Revs signed yet another homegrown in recent weeks, inking Jack Panayotou to a first team contract on January 10th. He joins fellow academy/Revs II signings Damian Rivera, Noel Buck, and Esmir Bajraktarevic. With MLS, US Open Cup, and the newly introduced Leagues Cup, those young guns will have a chance at some decent minutes this year.
Don’t sleep 😴 This kid named Jack can ball 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/UtXmFqo4zR
— New England Revolution (@NERevolution) January 11, 2023
Panayotou is the most recent academy player to make the first team, but there is a solid pipeline of talent that has come before him. Damian Rivera, the elder statesman of the group at the ripe old age of 20, rewarded Bruce Arena by scoring a goal in the first minute of his first start with the team. 17 year old Noel Buck also managed to score in his limited minutes last season. Both he and fellow 17 year old Esmir Bajraktarevic look like the real deal.
Much of the credit for developing this new pipeline of talent belongs to Curt Onalfo and his staff. They created Revs II, revamped the academy and helped the Revs u19s become MLS Next Champions. They also brought in first teamers Jon Bell (now possibly a day-1 starter for St Louis) and Maciel. There appears to be plenty more talent coming through as well with the Revolution already inking promising USYNT centerback Santiago Suarez to a pre-contract for next season.
Full Preseasons for Midseason Talent
Things kind of fell apart for New England last summer. The roster underwent somewhat of an upheaval with the transfers of Matt Turner, Adam Buksa, and Tajon Buchanan to European clubs. New players were brought in midseason to replace those three key pieces in Djordje Petrovic, Giacomo Vrioni, and Dylan Borrero respectively. They also brought in Nacho Gil late in the season to bolster the attack.
There’s reason to be hopeful that each of those players can fill, possibly exceed, the shoes left behind last spring. Petrovic has already proven himself in that regard, putting together the best partial season of any goalkeeper in MLS history. Dylan Borrero, meanwhile, certainly looks the part. He scored 3 goals and added an assist in only ~600 minutes last season.
The Revs got less out of Giacomo Vrioni, who managed just a single goal in about 250 healthy minutes last season. That’s still too small a sample size to call him a bust, but he didn’t do himself any favors by missing a few open nets.
— Seth (@SethMan31) October 9, 2022
Vrioni gets something of a pass in 2022 from me. He came to New England in the middle of his offseason, and was expected to perform immediately. Add in a lengthy injury taking him away from valuable practice minutes with the squad, and I think he can be forgiven for being a bit rusty in front of goal.
The good news, now, is that all of these players get to build into the season. They don’t have to hit the ground running. A full preseason to build fitness and chemistry can only help.
They can’t ALL be injured
You may have noticed just how few minutes some of the players I listed above actually played. The injury bug hit the Revs, and hit them hard, in 2022. It would almost be easier to list the players that didn’t miss time due to injury last season.
Here are some notable starters that missed at least a month: Gustavo Bou, Dylan Borrero, Giacomo Vrioni, Matt Turner, Henry Kessler, Maciel and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. The latter of whom, never played a minute for New England after transferring from LAFC mid-season. I would argue that all of those players were (or should have been) locked in starters.
That’s a huge chunk of your starting roster to lose. Worse than that, many of those injuries occurred around the same time, in the late summer.
Injuries are hard to predict, but that’s certainly worse than I’ve seen it over the past 10 years. That’s good news. It’s unlikely to happen that way again this year. Given New England’s results in the late spring/early summer (just before injury-palooza), there’s plenty of room to be optimistic about this starting lineup. If they can stay healthy.
It’s All Darkness and… Whatever the Opposite of a Rainbow Is
But What If They CAN All Be Injured?
Like I said, injuries are nearly impossible to predict. And if “Mr-Leg-Injury” rears his ugly head again in 2023… well there’s some real concerns as to whether or not New England has the depth to weather the storm.
New England did a fair amount of work to address some depth concerns in the offseason. Notably, they signed Dave Romney as a third starting-caliber center back. This should help if Henry Kessler misses significant time again this year, or if 30 year old Andrew Farrell needs to take a game or two off.
They also brought in depth at striker, signing Bobby Wood to backup Vrioni/Bou/Altidore. This gives the Revs 5 deep up top. Plenty of depth to soak up minutes in case of injuries.
There are, however, several places on the pitch where the Revolution are paper thin.
The addition of Latif Blessing perhaps gives the Revs a good starting #8, but does nothing to sure up the midfield in case of a Matt Polster injury. Polster has been an exceptional defensive midfielder since joining the Revolution. With Maciel nursing an injury of his own, there’s nobody with a comparable skill set to fill that role.
The situation is similar with the outside defenders. Brandon Bye and Dejuan Jones are both exceptional starting talents on the defensive flanks. Behind them on the depth chart?
That’s not entirely fair to Ryan Spaulding who is, by my estimation, the only other natural outside back on the roster. He got a few games last season in relief of Bye. As did Cristian Makoun who mostly plays as a center back.
If the Revs are relying on Makoun to play outside back and Tommy McNamara to play defensive midfield again in 2023, there could be problems.
Vrioni Needs To Hit
I won’t belabor this point, since I already mentioned it above, but Vrioni didn’t exactly cover himself in glory last year. He scored just once, from the penalty spot, and missed a few would-be tap-ins.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 1, 2022
He also dealt with injury for most of the season. I think he’s got a decent chance to bounce back this year, but… well he really needs to. In MLS, you need for your designated players to produce results. Especially in 2023, when every team (with notable exceptions) fills all 3 DP spots.
If he struggles again this year, or even spends a large amount of time injured as he did last year, he could really cost New England. Behind him at striker the Revs have Gustavo Bou (who probably plays best as a second-striker), Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, and Justin Rennicks.
Bou has proven a reliable scorer, when healthy. He just hasn’t been healthy in recent years. Nor has Bobby Wood, who joins the Revs after missing most of 2022 for RSL. Jozy Altidore failed to inspire confidence for 2 teams last year managing 3 goals in 23 appearances for New England and Liga MX’s Puebla.
Not to put too much pressure on the situation, but the Revs best bet for success relies on the success of Giacomo Vrioni. New England needs for him to live up to his paycheck.
What’s the Formation?
Even if the Revs manage to stay healthy and Vrioni is a meaningful contributor, they still have a problem to solve ahead of the season. How to fit all of their best players onto the field at the same time.
New England’s 4 designated players (including young DP Borrero) all play in the attack. New England played with 4 attackers last season in a 4-2-3-1, so I think it’s likely they’ll all be day-1 starters this season. The issue is that Gil, Bou, and Vrioni ALL play their best soccer centrally. In a 4-2-3-1 at least one of those three players will need to play on the wing.
If Bruce Arena attempts to alleviate this issue by switching to a 2-striker formation, it either leaves Borrero with nowhere to play or it weakens the defense by leaving Matt Polster without support in defensive midfield.
Here's a possible starting lineup for the #NERevs with the number of MLS minutes listed beneath each player's name.
Dave Romney (14,205 minutes) will challenge for a starting spot, but I'm leaving him out for now.
BTW, the Revs could certainly use a 4-5-1. pic.twitter.com/DEm4NqKw8u
— Seth (@SethMan31) January 18, 2023
The Revs also have 3 starting caliber center backs, with the addition of Dave Romney. This isn’t so big of an issue, but it does mean that New England is paying a significant sum for a center back benchwarmer. Switching to a 3-in-the-back formation solves this, but also forces the team to choose between wingbacks (Bye and Jones) or outright wingers (Borrero and N. Gil) to give the team width.
It’s going to be a tricky puzzle for Arena and his staff to solve. If they can solve it, New England has the talent to compete for trophies. If they can’t, however….it could be another early exit.