MLS is Back Group Stage #2 Breakdown: Revolution 1, D.C. United 1 – Overall quality of play improves as fitness levels loom

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For the first 60 minutes of the game on Friday night, the Revolution looked as though they may have turned a corner as a middling team in MLS. Their work as a unit was clean, they had a clear purpose in the way they moved the ball. That was until the engine of their play (the midfield) decreased their pressure and movement, which ultimately led to New England losing control of the game.

Let's look at the starting 11...

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I like what Bruce Arena decided to start with in this one; don't change what wasn't broken. No changes across the back as Alexander Büttner and Brandon Bye started at left and right back, respectively. Antonio Delamea and Michael Mancienne started at center back. In the middle, Arena went with the two players that did the job well in the first Group Stage game in Kelyn Rowe and Scott Caldwell. Above them, floating between the central midfielders and the forward was Gustavo Bou, sitting just below Adam Buksa. Cristian Penilla and Carles Gil played at outside midfield and Matt Turner started in goal.


Hold up play

I wanted to start with this because this is the most impressed I've been by this club's hold-up play since I started covering them. The players at the top of the formation did a great job of checking into space, receiving the ball, and holding the ball or distributing it once it got to them. This allowed the midfielders some time to find space underneath the forwards to get the ball back and continue the play forward.

A team becomes really easy to defend if they don't have height in the formation. If your only option forward is to play one of your forwards or wingers through, then you become predictable and it becomes difficult for the midfielders and outside backs to get forward with them; it isn't a holistic attacking style.

But the Revolution did the opposite, they were able to play as a unit and get midfielders beyond the forwards because the forwards would check down to offer height, and open up space behind them.

I've included some examples of what I'm describing in the clips below.

Handling pressure

Ever since Carles Gil and Bruce Arena arrived, the Revs build-up play has improved, but I thought the players did a particularly good job of building from the defense against D.C. Compared to Montreal in the tournament opener, D.C. United applied considerately more pressure to the Revolution's midfield.

Carles Gil mostly had free reign over the center third of the field against Thierry Henry's side, but he had to get more creative - and needed some help - on Friday. Bou sank very deep to aid in relieving the pressure that the central midfielders were experiencing, and Buksa was great in creating another layer of options for the outside backs to play into.

Overall, the Revolution handled the pressure well and did well to combine and escape it; which disheartened and fatigued the opponent because they had to continuously track back after their initial line of defense was broken. I've included some of the better segments of play below.

Positional freedom

I've covered this before, but it was a blatantly apparent positive factor in the Revolution's game. There are three players in the current lineup that are the most fluid in their positions; meaning that they often float into areas where that position wouldn't otherwise go:

  1. Carles Gil - This one is the most apparent. Gil is clearly given the go-ahead from the coaching staff to simply find space to get on the ball so he can create.
  2. Gustavo Bou - Bou also often travels all over the field to get on the ball, but he largely hangs much higher than the other midfielders to assist Buksa in giving height and finding space.
  3. Cristian Penilla - This one isn't as clear, and I don't think it would otherwise happen if Carles Gil wasn't on the other side of the field. More recently, Gil and Penilla will switch sides of the field if they - or the coaching staff - see any chance of a mismatch; and that's why Penilla moves around the pitch recently.

This is beneficial because of what it does to the opponent. If you picture both formations on paper, it works out to be a 3v3 in the midfield, with a forward above them, 2 wingers on either side of them, and the four defenders behind them. And you'll often see that teams stay - more or less - in those concrete positions.

But New England does not. Gil will often float below the other two midfielders if they push on (which drags out the opposing midfielders) so that he can get the ball off of the back line, and wide when the space is there. At the same time, the other two midfielders will move out to where Gil was prior to his run, which drags the other team's players out of position if they should decide to follow.

So put yourself in the shoes of a D.C. United midfielder. You're following Kelyn Rowe's run in the midfield and facing your attacking third as a Revolution center back is on the ball. Rowe has his back to goal and is checking down and out of the midfield near the outside back. A second later, you hear your center back shouting to you that a man (Gil) has run into the midfield and just received the ball off of the center back. But you followed Rowe, so you're technically not in position. All the while, Brandon Bye is pushing into the space that Gil vacated, and he's beyond the midfielders' defending line in the wide channel if the ball gets to him. It gets the other team thinking, and it may cause them to switch from to more of a zonal approach than one that focuses on following a man, or vice versa.


This is something to keep an eye on. It happened around the hour mark and really turned things worse for the white shirts. The midfield was showing fatigue, and some of the other players were showing clear signs of fatigue around them. Thus, strings of 4-6 passes were becoming strings of 1-2 passes before being broken up; mainly caused by less purposeful and dynamic movement off of the ball.

But now that the Revs are two games into the tournament, Arena might have a better idea of what his players are able to handle over a 90-minute stretch. He may bring on his substitutions sooner, with the goal of getting them on so that they can get involved for longer periods of time, while avoiding a drop in the level of play caused by the starting 11.

This is up to Arena to resolve, because it's too late to improve the fitness levels of the players before the next couple of weeks. We'll see how - and if - he decides to resolve this with different moves in the third Group Stage game against Toronto.


Adam Buksa - I only have positive things to say about Buksa after this one. Not only has he proven that he has legitimate aerial wit and talent, but he was great in the hold up and impressive in the build of the attack as well. I didn't have him for any true giveaways, he was able to produce three key passes, and he put in a great effort to help earn his team a point.

Carles Gil - This game doesn't even crack one of his top performances in this league, but he still showed that he's the heart and soul of the entire unit. Nothing should be more indicative of that than the massive drop-off in the team's play after he left the field.

Kelyn Rowe - I'm putting Rowe here because of his play in the first half. He did a great job of establishing a presence - physically and on the ball - and was positionally sound on both sides of the ball.

Oh, and he almost stung this one into the back of the net, but rung the crossbar. The technique on this shot is extremely impressive.

It should be noted, though, that Rowe's performance halfway through the second half wasn't nearly as quality as it was in the first. His fitness definitely seemed to affect his game and that made all the difference in his ability to continue to make plays late in the game.


Antonio Delamea - This shouldn't need much explanation; which is a shame because he was good otherwise.

Cristian Penilla - I know, he took the shot that ended up in a goal after Buksa placed the rebound in the goal. But Penilla isn't performing at the top of his game. The burst in pace that he flashed during his first two seasons with the club seems to be a shell of what it used to be.

However, since Arena took over the team has converted to a more conservative and indirect style of play. When Brad Friedel was still at the helm, their game was more direct and allowed him to turn on when the ball went over the top, instead of being part of a build with combinations and creativity. That's not his game.

I wonder if Penilla is on a short leash now. He hasn't been all that great in either game of the MLS is Back tournament and the team has plenty of options to try on that wing.

The substitutions - I wanted to put Diego Fagundez here. He is barely half the player that Carles Gil is and doesn't seem to have any sort of dynamic nature to his play. He's not able to cover the same ground as the other midfielders and has not been able to make up for that with creativity and play-making ability.

Not only is he not where he needs to be physically, but he isn't even playing a full 90 minutes. Recently, he's been coming on as a substitution when everyone on the field has already been playing for over an hour. At that stage of the game, he needs to be bring the level of play up, not bringing it down.

I don't want Henry Kessler to be included in this group, because I thought he was decent in the defense. He was aggressive on forwards with their back to goal and no-nonsense on the ball. But the other three (Justin Rennicks, Teal Bunbury, and Tajon Buchanan) need to bring something to the table when they come on the field late.

I know it can be tough to get in a rhythm with your teammates when you come on for a short period of time; but that's the job, and there are other players around the league that do that job really well. Look no further than what Federico Higuain has been able to do with DC United so far, or what Jordan Morris has been able to do off the bench for Seattle. That's what this club needs from their substitutions, or it's going to hurt them repeatedly.



As I look forward to the game against Toronto, I wonder if Arena makes any noticeable changes to handle Ayo Akinola, who has created serious problems for other teams in the tournament. He's a physical player and is far more athletic than the Revolution center backs that we've seen so far this tournament (Delamea, Mancienne, Kessler). If Andrew Farrell is fit to play, he's likely the best option to handle Akinola.


Tom Benedetto, BSJ's Revolution analyst, is a former assistant men's soccer coach at SUNY Potsdam, where he served as team captain in 2015 and helped guide Potsdam to a school-record 10 wins and the program's third straight playoff appearance. In his four years with the Bears, Benedetto played in 71 games with 64 starts. He set the program record with 24 assists. He's fifth on Potsdam's career scoring list with 42 points. Benedetto's Class of 2016 won 32 games in four seasons, more than any other in the program's 59 years.