An expression in sports starts to pop up in MLS circles in the late spring. “You’re as good as your record says you are.” With 10 weeks’ worth of MLS data, you’re going to start hearing it more and more. Essentially the concept is; if you’re winning games, it doesn’t matter how poor you look. Likewise, if you’re losing games playing attractive soccer is little consolation.
New England is about 30% of the way through their season. Their record says they’re good. Not just good, in fact — the best. In the East, at least.
— New England Revolution (@NERevolution) May 1, 2023
The Athletic just published an analysis that showed that teams in 1st place in their conference after 10 weeks have an 80% chance of finishing the season in the top 4. That bodes well for a Revolution team that’s sole focus is delivering an MLS Cup to their fans after 27 years and 5 brutal Cup losses.
But something happened on Saturday that made me question this team’s trophy chances. In the 15th minute of their matchup with FC Cincinnati, Dylan Borrero landed awkwardly on the turf and would need a stretcher to leave the field. While we don’t have official word on his injury yet, Borrero is a crucial piece of the Revs’ attack. An irreplaceable piece, in my opinion. If he misses significant time, New England will need to be creative to cover his production.
With that in mind, let’s ask ourselves; are the Revs as good as their record says they are? What can they do if Borrero misses the season? What needs to go right, and what can’t go wrong for New England to make an MLS Cup run in 2023?
New England faced their toughest opponent since LAFC this past weekend, in FC Cincinnati. Cincy sat tied on points with the Revs atop the table headed into the match. Only the Revs’ superior goal differential set them ahead in the rankings. Given that Cincinnati and the Revs were so similar, this matchup served as a good measuring stick.
A win against a top opponent at home would add to the Revs’ case as shield contenders. A loss would do the opposite.
In the end, we got…. neither.
A tough and contentious 1-1 draw leaves the Revs in a sort of “Are they for real?” limbo.
New England wasn’t without their chances to claim all 3 points. In fact, per the Apple TV broadcast, the Revs amassed a whopping 2.92 expected goals during the match. My rule of thumb is if it’s above 2.5, that’s an indicator of a dominating attack.
Going the other way, Cincinnati earned 1.91 expected goals. They continued their trend of underperforming their xG. It’s worth noting that a large chunk of Cincinnati’s expected goals came from a penalty kick awarded for…reasons.
— Seth (@SethMan31) April 30, 2023
Unfortunately, even with an xG advantage, there would be no exclamation point for the Revs. As such, we’re left wondering how good this team is. I want to say they’re good, but most of the Revs’ wins this season have come against weaker opponents.
I graphed out below the Power Ranking position (data from mlssoccer.com) of each Revolution opponent, using their ranking from the week they played the match. And well…
Per Kris's request here is a rolling Power Ranking based strength of schedule.#NERevs average power ranking faced this season is 15.4 and it's seemingly either top 5 teams or basement dwellers.
— Andy From Revs Nation (@AndyRevsNation) May 1, 2023
Of their 6 wins this season, only one has come against an opponent that ranked within the top 18 in the power rankings at kickoff. Worth noting their only loss was against the (at the time) #2 ranked LAFC, so that seems to bode well.
More challenging matches await; let’s see if New England can continue to earn results.
Something that is going to make earning results all the more difficult is the injury to Borrero. At the time of writing, I don’t have official word on how sever the injury is or how long he’s expected to be out. Just watching the play, however…
New England Revolution winger and Colombia int'l Dylan Borrero is leaving the game via a stretcher.
Looked like his leg got caught in the turf. Borrero leaving with tears in his eyes. Just an awful sight, hard to watch.
Get well soon 🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/1lOaGz6CYI
— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) April 30, 2023
We’ve all seen injuries like this before, and I’ll be surprised if this isn’t a season-ender for Borrero. It absolutely sucks to watch, especially when it happens to a member of your favorite team.
Unfortunately for the Revs, the focus now needs to turn to “What can we do without him”? Borrero brought both technique and energy to the Revolution’s flanks. He contributed 5 goals and 3 assists in about 1,100 minutes of MLS action since joining the team last season.
The Revs will need to find a way to replace that production. How is an entirely different question since there is no immediate/like-for-like substitution ready and waiting on the roster.
So, what will New England do?
There are 3 basic routes New England can go, assuming Borrero is out long-term.
One route is signing a replacement, either from abroad or within the league. That brings a host of roster complications. Borrero is a U-22 initiative signing. This is a special class of player within MLS that, provided they meet the age requirements, hit the team’s salary budget at a highly reduced amount. Long story short, Borrero counts on the salary cap at a rate much lower than they’re paying him.
That makes a like-for-like replacement from outside the roster difficult. Theoretically, if he goes on the injury reserve list, New England can bring in a player of equal or lesser value to fill his spot. Borrero’s contract runs through 2025, with a team option for 2026. Any U22 initiative-type player would need to be off the roster upon his return. Else, New England could increase their number of U22 spots by cutting one of their DPs. That wouldn’t solve the eventuality of having 2 U22 players that play the same position.
There is a possibility they look within the league. I have some ideas on who could be a fit, but any interleague trade will cost GAM, and who knows how much of that the Revs even have.
More likely than bringing in a new face, in my opinion, will be promoting someone from within the roster.
Ema Boateng had an excellent game on Saturday, scoring the Revs’ only goal. Homegrowns Jack Panayotou and Esmir Bajraktarevic can play on the wing, with the latter getting the nod on Saturday after Borrero left the match. New England also has Tommy McNamara and Nacho Gil on their injury list. Both can play wing, but neither has a timetable for their return.
I think the most likely answer, at least in the short term, is a formation shift. Bruce Arena has been fairly flexible in his formations this year, fluctuating from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 throughout the year. With no surefire replacement on hand and little depth on the wings (until Gil and McNamara return), I think we’re most likely to see a 4-4-2 in the coming weeks.
Deep Today, Shallow Tomorrow
Injuries were a big problem for the Revolution in 2022. A glut of injuries in the summer, for my money, derailed what could have been a pretty good season.
As it turns out, 2022 wasn’t an isolated event. Injuries have continued to plague this team. New England hasn’t been able to roll out a first-choice XI all year.
That’s mostly been ok because Arena did a good job filling out the squad with depth this offseason, and the homegrown players have continued to develop.
However, with long-term injuries to Borrero and Kessler, that depth keeps getting thinner and thinner. The Revs were fortunate to have a player of Andrew Farrell’s skill and experience to fill in for Kessler, but not all positions have that quality of depth. The lower end of the roster is filled with quality players, but often overlapping positionally.
Given the crazy amount of injuries already, there’s very little wiggle room going forward. The following are a list of players that New England cannot afford to lose if they hope to compete for anything this year.
New England has built their roster around the Spanish playmaker and has no like-for-like substitute on the bench. Few players in the league could replace the talent, but New England doesn’t even have someone who plays the same style available behind him.
There’s cover behind Petrovic, but expecting anyone to provide what he does is unreasonable. His penalty save on Saturday was his 5th in MLS. He’s been in MLS less than a full year. Think about how insane that is.
— Greg Burud (@GregBurud) May 1, 2023
These two come as a pair because they’re both excellent, and neither has adequate cover behind them in case they get hurt or sold to another club. The Revs have Christian Makoun, Ben Sweat, and Joshua Bolma, who can play outside back. I’m not convinced Makoun and Bolma are naturally suited to that position. After his performance against Hartford in Open Cup, I might say the same of Sweat.
There are other players that would cause the Revs some grief if they left with an injury, but none as impactful as those four. If any of them miss significant time, it may be the difference between a successful season and one to forget.