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Revs-FC Dallas preview: A welcome surprise – team defending bolsters New England

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(Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH — You may recall — if you’re a Twitter denizen on the #NERevs hashtag, you were sure to see it — a little over a month ago, I wrote a piece in my local newspaper about how the New England Revolution were a barely below average soccer team.

Now wait! ... before you hurl the rotten fruit at me, remember something: this statement came after their 2-nil defeat at the hands of Philadelphia in the March 3 season opener, as the Revs finished the match with nine men following some rather shambolic defending. Other than a brief spurt of attacking verve in the first 20 minutes, the Revs really couldn’t get the offense going against the Union.

In all, that statement was true ... at the time.

But since then, the Revolution have not lost: Robert Kraft’s soccer stepsons are unbeaten in their last four headed into Saturday night’s tilt with unbeaten FC Dallas at Gillette (7:30 p.m., NBCSB).

Sparking all of this success over this last month-plus? A high-pressing style with a relentless work rate which gets the ball into dangerous spots, all to fuel the offense. New England has 10 goals, seven by offensive-minded players, and three from Leominster’s Diego Fagundez. And if we’re being honest, it really should be more considering how the Revs executed that style in the first half against NYCFC on March 24. Major League Soccer is a finisher’s league, and the Revolution should have won that match in a walk.

The aforementioned high press and the way the Revolution work together in defense — an all for one, one for all-type of display — has been an incredible bright spot in the first month-plus of the 2018 season.

First-year Revolution manager Brad Friedel noted how the hard work put in by the players, especially on the defensive side, has been the key to the club’s 3-1-1 start — the second-best start through five matches in club history.

“I think all the players have taken on the changes exceptionally well,” Friedel said between training sessions at Gillette earlier this week. “They’ve all applied themselves exceptionally well. Now it’s up to the players and us as a staff to stay focused and take – the old cliché – take every game one at a time, and as it comes. Dallas is going to be a very difficult opponent, as every opponent that we face will have some players that can hurt us. We’re going to have to stay on our toes at all times. Once you win, lose, or draw a game, you have to quickly forget about it and move on to the next.”

Friedel sounds almost Belichick-ian when you listen to him speak, because this isn’t the first time he’s said something to this effect. He noted after the 2-1 win over Colorado on March 10 that they have to enjoy it, then forget it and move on and concentrate on NYCFC. I’m half-expecting Friedel to walk into the press room Saturday night wearing a pale gray Revs hoodie, the sleeves cut off as he takes the dais. But I digress…

Since the draw with New York City, New England has put together two W’s: an acceptable performance on the road against Houston, and an absolute demolition of Montreal at home. Some will criticize the performance against the Dynamo, and it’s deserved. Truly: even with a man advantage, the Revolution didn’t have the pedal pushed through the floorboards on the offensive side, but they did enough to get three points. They won’t be pretty in possession this year, that much is clear.

Last Friday night against Montreal was different: the Impact went down to 10 early on, and New England just didn’t relent en route to a 4-nil victory.

Two matches, two-straight clean sheets for the Revs.

Don’t look now: the draw to NYCFC is seemingly forgotten.

“Getting clean sheets is not just with a back four and a goalkeeper; it’s a team-oriented scenario,” Friedel said. “But with the way that we want the team to play, we are going to be open at times, so you might concede a chance or two. We feel this is the best way for us to play and for us to create as many chances as possible. But it really does start with whoever’s playing as the No. 9 up top, all the way back to whoever’s starting in goal. Collectively, the team is doing a very, very good job of defending as a team, but defending—you have to work really hard in order to do it, especially in the manner that we want to defend.”

Right now, things are working. The first-team selections are gelling, and the newcomers in Cristian Penilla and Luis Caicedo — two South Americans that supporters had scratched their heads over when the club announced their signings, but have since celebrated; go figure — and Wilfried Zahibo have paid dividends so far.

Friedel’s platooning, shall we say, of Juan Agudelo to come off the bench and give an infusion of pace in the second half of matches has also worked, to a degree. Teal Bunbury, the aforementioned No. 9, has performed above expectations the last two weeks.

And Diego is Diego. I, for one, am glad that he’s the central attacking midfielder now; I’ve thought he should have been the CAM for the last three years. What do I know?

And dare I say it, the defense has held its own over the last four matches. Like Friedel said, they are defending as a team, and they have to stay on their toes at all times.

But moments of concern will happen, and while I respect the manager’s desire to eliminate that from happening, I’ve grown to accept that New England will never be an absolute rock in the back; there are a handful of world-class defenders in MLS, and none of them play on the plastic pasture in Foxboro. People need to realize that even the best defenses in Europe get shredded every so often by good attacking players — which MLS has in abundance, and Dallas has a few of them. So does L.A. Galaxy (you’ve heard of Zlatan, right?). So does NYC. And so on down the line.

And as it happens, so does New England. When the Revs rise to the occasion, they can be a killer offensive team (see also: last Friday). I’ve said this since 2015: this team has the offensive talent to make the onion bag burp with regularity. The last two seasons, they just didn’t do it enough — especially on the road — to be effective. As a result, playoff-less soccer on Route 1. I repeat this for those in the back, just in case you didn’t hear me: MLS is a finisher’s league. You finish, you win.

I also re-read the quotes from Friedel: The opposition will have their chances. Every opponent that we face will have some players that can hurt us.

I read that and I wonder if other managers realize it works both ways when they play the Revolution.

Barely below average? That’s fake news. Right now, New England is trending upward. The Revolution are making the onion bag burp, thanks to the high line of defensive pressure.

The opposition in MLS, so far in 2018, just doesn’t know how to handle that.

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