Revolution open with injuries, new faces
FOXBOROUGH - Revolution coach Steve Nicol might be facing his toughest challenge yet. In 2005, he decided to run the team's formation around a 22-year-old central defender out of Wake Forest, and it worked.
For four seasons, the Revolution thrived in a 3-5-2 courtesy of central defender Michael Parkhurst. His approach was more mental strategy than physical play. He earned the league's rookie of the year award in 2005 and was defender of the year in 2007. But at the end of last season, Parkhurst played out his contract and took his skills to Denmark.
Now the Revolution are facing a change in identity with their 2009 season opener tomorrow at San Jose. They are committed to playing a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1.
"Each year you encounter new issues and new problems and new things that you have to solve and this year is no different from the rest," Revolution goal keeper Matt Reis said earlier this week. "We probably have a few more question marks that we have to answer than we have in the past. But it's important for us to be organized and all on the same page."
Ideally, Nicol would have had a roster of healthy players during the preseason to find out where players fit best. But the injury bug that claimed key players at the end of last season has returned.
Striker Taylor Twellman has been out most of the preseason with neck pain and is not expected to play tomorrow. Defender Gabriel Badilla is hampered by a lower back strain and Achilles' tendinitis, and midfielder Mauricio Castro has a hamstring strain. All are out tomorrow. Meanwhile, midfielder Steve Ralston has a quadriceps strain and is listed as doubtful.
Despite the depleted roster, Nicol said he did not feel any more pressure during the preseason to get his team ready.
"We've got six guys injured at the moment, which is not good, but we haven't done anything different than we have done in the past," he said. "We've had injuries to start in the past. It's one of those things that it's hard to put your finger on it."
Nicol said this is an opportunity younger players can take advantage of. Earlier this week, the Revolution signed rookie Darrius Barnes, who was the team's third-round pick out of Duke. The 22-year-old defender started three seasons for the Blue Devils and made 77 appearances as a key part of a back line that posted 32 shutouts. He is expected to be on the back line with first-round selection Kevin Alston, who has impressed in the preseason. In recent practices, the two have been in the back with veteran Jay Heaps and second-year player Chris Tierney.
Having four players in the middle and four players in the back has eliminated any mystery for the Revolution.
"Whatever system they've decided, it's more comfortable to know that we're going to play that system game in and game out," Tierney said.
While most players are comfortable focusing on one system, there is an adjustment in working with a new lineup, Heaps said.
"I think we've had a transition," Heaps said. "For me personally, it's definitely a little different because I formed such a great relationship with Mike Parkhurst. You build a great give-and-take defensively. It's like a pitcher and catcher. You have that same rhythm. It's been an adjustment to build that with other players."
Heaps has praised the development of Barnes and Alston and their approach to working through their rookie season.
Midfielder Shalrie Joseph said the opening weeks have been about teaching and helping players become comfortable in their positions.
Joseph and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz provide the experience in the middle of the field along with Ralston. With a good number of first- and second-year players, Larentowicz said the preseason has been productive.
"Everybody has gotten a fair shake," Larentowicz said. "It hasn't been the same lineup every game [in the preseason]. The coaches did a good job of switching it around to see what works best, so that by the sixth or seventh week of preseason the coaches know who's where and what they can do."
The Revolution are looking to return to their winning ways after a disappointing end to last season. The Revolution were ousted from the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Chicago Fire, 3-0, in a total aggregate goals series. It was the first time the Revolution didn't reach the conference finals since 2002.
Monique Walker can be reached at email@example.com.