Health of Twellman and Ralston critical for the Revs
Editor's note: This is the second of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. The third will be Dallas on Wednesday.
2008 record and finish: 12-11-7 (43 points), third in Eastern Conference.
Key additions: D Kevin Alston, M Ryan Maxwell, M Michael Videira.
Key losses: F Adam Cristman, D Michael Parkhurst, M Khano Smith.
Key questions facing team
1. Can Gabriel Badilla replace Parkhurst?
Badilla might be the Costa Rican version of Parkhurst, a cerebral, quick-thinking, smooth passing central defender. But Badilla has not convinced Revolution coaches he can direct a three-man back line, so the team will likely start in a 4-4-2 alignment. Jay Heaps and Rob Valentino are candidates to flank Badilla in the middle, but the Revolution have been seeking reinforcements in Central America and West Africa. The combination of Parkhurst and Matt Reis' sweeper style in goal kept the Revolution secure and also able to quickly launch attacks from the back.
2. Will Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman return to form?
Ralston sustained a broken leg in a clash with Kansas City's Herculez Gomez on Oct. 11 and the Revolution did not win again after that. Ralston appeared to have recovered but the injury raised questions about his chances of surviving a season as a playmaking target of opposing defenses. But Ralston, who holds the MLS record for games played, could return to the right wing, the position he played before being converted to a central midfielder late in the 2007 season. Twellman took a punch to the head while scoring against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Aug. 30, the blow the first of several which led to a concussion, a loss of form and an early end to his season. Twellman has usually recovered from injury-plagued seasons, and he will have plenty of motivation on the way to re-establishing himself as either a challenger to become the league's leading scorer or for another chance at a European transfer.
|John Harkes' Take:|
|"Stevie Nicol always seems to be the magician that pulls something out of the hat. He never seems to be worried. He's lost plenty of star players over the years, but he's always able to bring in new players, younger players, that can somehow go under the radar. With Michael Parkhurst departing, someone that's been completely solid for him every single season on a consistent basis, he's got to replace that. He's hoping to get Stevie Ralston and Taylor Twellman back from injuries that ended their respective seasons last fall. With Khano Smith gone, they lose some of that wing play, but it's going to be down to Ralston and Twellman. Ralston's already been a leader, but now it's time for Twellman to step up and not just be a goal scorer, but be a man that can take this team by the scruff of the neck and pull them through a season."|
3. Is there another Nicol special among the draft choices?
The available collegiate talent pool has leveled off in recent years. So, Nicol has not been able to produce gems after taking Pat Noonan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst with late first-round picks, and grabbing Cristman, Andy Dorman, Kheli Dube and Jeff Larentowicz late. This time, the Revolution took defender Alston and outside midfielder Maxwell in the first round. Videira, who had a short stint with Hamilton Academical, could be the midfield creator of the future.
4. Who's the next to go?
The Revolution have lost Dempsey, Dorman, Avery John, Pat Noonan and Parkhurst, plus expansion victims Jose Cancela, James Riley and Khano Smith in recent seasons. Only Dempsey's departure provided compensation, with most of his transfer money being invested in a youth development setup. Joseph and Twellman have attracted $1 million-plus transfer offers from British clubs, but this could be their last chance to make a move. Sainey Nyassi seemed like the Revolution's best prospect for export this past season, but faded as the season progressed.
Biggest X factor: Badilla.
Badilla performed for Costa Rica in the World Cup in 2006, and appears to have the sophistication required for Nicol's defensive scheme. But Badilla struggled at times in 2008 and it became apparent he needed time to adjust to the MLS. The Revolution had not paid a significant transfer fee for a player since the '90s until shelling out about $250,000 to CD Saprissa for Badilla. If Badilla fulfills expectations, the Revolution will be able to line up in a 3-5-2, maximizing the team's personnel. But the Revolution are also hoping to bring in an experienced, physical central defender to either play alongside Badilla in a 4-4-2 or take over in a three-man back line, shifting Badilla outside.
Breakout player to watch: Kheli Dube.
Dube scored four times this past season, all of his goals in his first five starts, but did not convert in an MLS game after early June, partly because of injuries. But Dube, who played for Highlanders in Zimbabwe before attending college in the U.S., displayed guile near the goal and was able to connect with Twellman in the few times they performed together.
Seattle vs. New York
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET, (ESPN2)
Some clubs measure success as much by the players produced for export as by the trophies they collect. The Revolution have been making their mark by sending players overseas and, in the past two years, finally starting to win tournaments -- the 2007 U.S. Open Cup and '08 SuperLiga. But the Revolution's No. 1 goal of winning the MLS title continues to be elusive. And, after four MLS Cup finals in six years, the Revolution's elimination in the first round of the playoffs in '08 might have signaled the end of a cycle.
In any case, the Revolution are reloading this season, with eight draft choices, including '08 pick Videira, who has returned from Scotland. Since becoming Revolution head coach in 2002, Nicol has developed a highly competitive core group of players and emphasized a style of play based on a passing game. While the Revolution will continue to follow the lead of players like Heaps, Ralston and Twellman -- starters in the team's first MLS Cup appearance -- the Revolution torch is in the process of being passed. Young players such as Badilla, Castro, Dube, Larentowicz, Mansally, Nyassi, Pat Phelan and Wells Thompson will determine how far the team goes. However, following last season, Nicol and assistant coach Paul Mariner indicated they were not satisfied with the Revolution roster and spent part of the offseason scouting in Ghana.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.