Brad Friedel's unit opened the 2019 season with a come-from-behind draw against FC Dallas. Michael Barrios opened the match's scoring in the 13th minute, giving Dallas an early lead that held for the remainder of the first half, and almost 15 minutes of the second half. New England's newest signing, Carles Gil, finally drew the Revolution level with about 30 minutes remaining. Neither side was able to break through and earn a late lead, in part because of each team's efforts not to concede -- leaving both teams with their first point of the season.
Let's look at the starting 11...
[caption id="attachment_491874" align="aligncenter" width="466"] Headshots from revolutionsoccer.net.[/caption]
I hope everyone likes the new starting 11 graphic.
In lieu of Michael Mancienne's injury picked up during warm-ups, Jalil Anibaba started alongside Antonio Delamea at center back, with Edgar Castillo and Brandon Bye on the left and right side of them, respectively. Brad Friedel opted for Scott Caldwell and Wilfried Zahibo in the defensive midfield, leaving Luis Caicedo out of the starting lineup in MLS competitions for the first time since September 5th. Carles Gil tallied his first MLS start and played in the attacking midfield role. Cristian Penilla and Juan Agudelo ran the left and right wings, respectively. For the second season in a row, Teal Bunbury started in the lone forward role to open the MLS season. In goal, 12 season veteran Brad Knighton received the first season-opening start of his career, getting the nod over Cody Cropper and Matt Turner.
The defensive approach: After the initial scramble of the opening kick off (the players' excitement to start the season was blatant) and both teams settled into their games, the strategies became considerably more clear. When the FC Dallas center backs got on the ball with time, and Friedel directed to hold off on the press, his players fell right into their desired shape -- a shape that looked all too familiar.
The defensive 4-4-2 that Friedel wielded so frequently in 2018 was in full effect on Saturday. Its identity was shown when the ball started from the opponent's goalkeeper or center backs. Gil popped up to Agudelo's height and applied pressure to whatever side Agudelo was not. Caldwell and Zahibo then became responsible for either cutting off passes into the midfield or applying immediate pressure when the ball did make its way into the midfield. On the field, it looked like this.
[caption id="attachment_491987" align="aligncenter" width="487"] Headshots from revolutionsoccer.net.[/caption]
This shape applies pressure to the opposing team's center backs and doesn't allow them to get too comfortable in possession. Of course, that discomfort also may have been sparked by the irregular instances when Friedel's unit did press (which seemed far more infrequent than league/team media predicted). But, the early press was effective in causing early dispossessions -- there were two in the first two minutes -- and creating problems for Dallas' backs when they were on the ball.
The 4-4-2 also cuts off easy passing channels into the midfielders, effectively creating a disconnect between Dallas' center backs and midfielders. Much of the distribution from Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler went into the wide areas of the pitch or sent long.
The other component of New England's defensive game that was prevalent throughout the match was the pressure from the center backs on Dominique Badji. There appeared to be a significant focus for the center backs to give him a hard time as he was receiving the ball. Because of Anibaba and Delamea, Badji couldn't generate any hold-up play and that made it tough for Dallas to build going forward. In total, Badji only connected on two positive (going forward) passes (one of which was the flick to Barrios on their goal), and missed on his four other positive pass attempts.
Breaking down Gil's goal: There was nothing all that special about the goal itself. Gil simply took a shot from about 12 yards out through a couple of Dallas defenders that beat Jesse Gonzalez near post. However, the play from Jalil Anibaba to create the goal was brilliant.
When the free kick service was initially cleared, Anibaba realized that Castillo and Caldwell were able to recover the second ball so he brought himself back to an onside position for the next attacking chance. When Castillo played the ball to Caldwell, whose body was facing forward, Anibaba saw space in the corner, and made a bent run in behind Reggie Cannon. This was an impressive timed run and executed perfectly. By bending his run along the Dallas back line, he stayed in an onside position and broke to the corner as soon as the ball left Caldwell's foot.
As he approached the ball in the corner, Jesse Gonzalez was likely preparing himself to collect the impending cross because the ball was bouncing in front of Anibaba and he was serving it with his weak foot. That was a recipe for a cross ending up over the end line, or a weak service that Gonzalez would surely grab. But, the Revolution center back put the ball exactly where Gonzalez couldn't collect it; high in the air and to the back post where a group of players were waiting.
His efforts paid off as Delamea got his body in position to earn a header that he could put back into the mix. After going back and watching, it's clear to see that Gil noticed Delamea would win the header and raced past Santiago Mosquera (who got caught ball watching, not a good look in your own box) to put himself in a position to get on the ball in that space. After taking a clean first touch to set up the shot, he rifled (it was a clean hit, no spin on the ball) it past Gonzalez.
Set pieces were a positive on the night for Friedel's side. The team was able to generate multiple opportunities on three free kicks and ultimately convert shortly after a fourth (Gil's goal). The service on these free kicks was sublime (thanks to Gil) and the timing of the team's runs into dangerous areas was sharp.
If you look back at one of the free kicks (it's included in the video below), Gil showed maturity by stopping his run-up to the ball, allowing time for his teammates to reset their runs, and play the ball moments later right into the group of Revolution players crashing to the goal. It's a good sign that Gil is a player that does little things like this well (at least so far), it can make the difference in tight games or situations.
The team's set-piece success is certainly something to keep an eye on. This could be a rare occurrence in the scope of the whole season, but they have the personnel to be a dangerous team on set pieces.
Carles Gil: No doubt here. The Revs' new addition played a great game (not just on set pieces and the goal). He did well to switch the ball across the midfield and make passes that broke lines of the opponent. It's early to peg him as a success for New England's front office, but it's feeling like he could be the best addition to the team.
Scott Caldwell: Caldwell played a subtle great game. He was all over the place (as usual) and made plays box-to-box. I only had him for one giveaway and he finished the game with a passing percentage just under 85% (including the pass into Anibaba on the goal). His gritty play stymied an FC Dallas opportunity in the 81st minute and he earned two free kicks for the team (one of which resulted in the goal).
Jalil Anibaba: I'm including Anibaba on this list largely because of the work he did to help create the goal. In tight games, it's play like this that is the difference between coming home with a point or not. However, he also did well in giving Badji a hard time on the ball and made a crucial block in the 20th minute.
Wilfried Zahibo: It should be no surprise that Zahibo is on this list following the game. Bad performance for the French midfielder. See the video below.
Brad Knighton: Knighton's decision to punch that ball in the 20th minute was poor and should have been caught. The punch was weak and didn't even clear the ball from the box. When a goalkeeper makes a decision-making error, it can encourage the opponent to take more shots and make plays that force the goalkeeper to make more decisions.
On Barrios' goal, Knighton's positioning looked off to me. I felt as though he could have come out a couple steps farther (and not sacrifice the other side of the net) to cut down Barrios' angle.
Reflecting on this game, I can't help but think about changes that could have been made to put the Revolution in a better spot to go on and win the game. Around the 65 minute mark, I thought the team could have used a substitution. More specifically, I thought Zahibo needed to be pulled. I don't think it was necessarily a good spot for one of the young guys. A 1-1 game going down the stretch might have been too big of a situation for them to be effective.
But I thought it would have been a good time for Fagundez to come on (I think he came on too late). I also thought Luis Caicedo could have replaced Zahibo, given the season that he had in 2018. His fresh legs would have offered the team some spark and it wouldn't have sacrificed defensive strength; in fact, it likely would have made them better.
Looking back, New England left some opportunity in Frisco. That game was winnable, especially if substitutions were made more aggressively.