FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – As the New England Revolution prepared for Saturday night’s match against the New York Red Bulls with a trio of training sessions this week, head coach Steve Nicol had one singular focus: get back to basics.
After the Revs (2-6-2, 8 pts.) had their winless streak extended to seven games (0-5-2) last weekend in Toronto, Nicol claimed his club’s biggest issue was an inability to properly pass the ball with consistency. As a result, the Revs struggled to maintain possession for long stretches and attacking threats were often cut out before they could generate momentum. With the Red Bulls (5-4-0, 15 pts.) on tap Saturday night, Nicol was well aware that improvement was needed.
This week’s training sessions included a variety of passing drills, possession exercises and small-sided games, all aimed at breaking the game down simplistically.
“I’ve certainly been complaining about the passing,” said Nicol. “When you can’t train, you can’t practice. Obviously passing is something we would practice, so we haven’t been able to do that. So I’ll give [the players] a bit of slack on that, but now we’ve got plenty of time, so we need to refocus and get concentrating again.”
The time Nicol mentioned is a reference to the club’s training schedule, which finally returned to a bit of normalcy this week after a hectic stretch of games in May. Because the Revolution played seven games in the first three weeks of the month, the club rarely had time to train and the players spent most of their days recuperating rather than actually practicing.
With one full week in between their last game against Toronto FC and this weekend’s game against New York, the Revs were able to conduct three consecutive training sessions on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for the first time since April.
“I think it’s really important because we get to train the whole week,” said forward Kheli Dube. “We can do the basic stuff we need to do during games. When you’re playing seven games in three weeks, you don’t train very much, so sometimes all the basic stuff you do kind of goes away.
“As you could see last game, we need to pass the ball more,” he continued. “But if you come in this week and start training, then everything just flows again.”
One factor which will instantly improve the Revolution’s possession game will be the inclusion of captain Shalrie Joseph, who surprisingly returned from a five-game absence to play the full 90 minutes last weekend in Toronto. The 2009 MLS MVP finalist’s influence was apparent against TFC, even though he slotted into the starting lineup without the benefit of a single training session with his teammates since the end of April.
Perhaps more than any other player in the league, Joseph’s impact cannot be overstated.
“It means everything,” said Pat Phelan, who has filled in as a central defender for the Revolution’s last two matches and could find himself there once again with Darrius Barnes (R ankle sprain) out and both Cory Gibbs (R hamstring strain) and Emmanuel Osei (R leg infection) doubtful on Friday’s injury report. “We’ve been struggling. He fills in a lot of holes, brings a lot of leadership, great distribution, he’s a threat on set pieces. We just can’t say enough about him, so we’re excited to have him back, for sure.”
Having missed four weeks of training, there are obvious questions about Joseph’s fitness level and game sharpness. With three training sessions now under his belt, Joseph isn’t worried about his fitness but does admit that it will take time to recover that sharpness on the ball.
“The fitness is going to be there, I’m not concerned about that,” said Joseph. “The sharpness is going to take another week or two to come back, but it’s all about just getting out there and giving 110 percent. The guys know I’m going to have their backs no matter what.”
Joseph’s return not only provides a boost on the field, but in the locker room, as well. The 32-year-old captain is a veteran leader on one of the league’s youngest teams, and his presence will be crucial as the Revs try to overcome the mental hurdles associated with a seven-game winless streak.
“Guys are thinking about it and guys are talking about it on a daily basis,” said goalkeeper Preston Burpo, who called the current winless skid one of the worst streaks he’s been involved in during his time in MLS. “You just keep doing what you believe you should be doing and hope that you play well, get a lucky bounce and things start turning for you.”
According to versatile defender/midfielder Chris Tierney, the only way to deal with the winless streak is to forget about it.
“You’ve just got to have a short memory in pro soccer,” he said. “The quicker you forget about losses and move on to focus on your training and working on the things you do well, the better the results are going to be. We’ve just got to forget about what’s happened, not think about how many
A sense of urgency might help the Revs focus, as Saturday night’s match against the Red Bulls is the Revolution’s final regular-season home game before taking a two-week break for the group stage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The Revs will follow up this weekend’s game with a trip to Seattle to face the Sounders on June 5, and then won’t play another league match until hosting the Chicago Fire on June 27.
With this being the last home game for four weeks – especially considering the current seven-game winless streak – Saturday night’s visit from the Red Bulls takes on extra significance.
“Every home game is huge, but obviously we’re not on a great run” said Nicol. “The best time to end a run like this is to win at home, and that’s what we aim to do on Saturday.”