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Mar 3, 2008

Revolution's depth will be tested by offseason losses

Editor's note: This is the second of 14 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 record and finish: 14-8-8 (50 points), second in Eastern Conference.

Key additions: D/M Chris Albright, M Mauricio Castro, F Kheli Dube, D Rob Valentino, F Spencer Wadsworth.

Key losses: M Andy Dorman, D Avery John, F Pat Noonan, D James Riley.

Key questions facing the team

1. Who will replace Noonan?

The Revolution went shopping for strikers south of the border during the offseason. But holdovers Adam Cristman and Kenny Mansally, plus former Zimbabwe youth international Kheli Dube, are front-runners to complement Taylor Twellman. Spencer Wadsworth, a draft pick from Duke University and Costa Rican Argenis Fernandez (whose signing is yet to be finalized) are small and extremely active. None of the possible replacements will provide the experience and guile of Noonan. But their sheer speed and youthful enthusiasm will bring a different dimension to the attack.

2. Is Wells Thompson ready?

Thompson started in the Revolution's opener last season because of injuries, but took on a reserve role for most of the season and then emerged as a full-time starter ahead of Dorman in October. His dribbling ability on the right wing enabled Steve Ralston to move to a central midfield position.

3. Is the Revolution roster deep enough for an extended season?

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"New England made some big changes. Dorman and Noonan were important players that have had their influence over the years. But they had their injury problems and I think that forced the organization to rethink. It's still a very well-coached team. These players know how to win and how to stay together as a group. They underperformed last year and still got to the championship game. Nicol isn't going to panic if they start off weak. They're probably going to start off pretty slow. They'll build steam as they go through the middle of the season. We'll see how the disappointment of not having been moved to Preston North End affects Taylor Twellman. That guy has been through way too much adversity already, but he'll probably have another 12 or 13 goals this season. It depends on how many PK's they let him have."

Only 14 Revolution players performed regularly last season as the team played 39 games, reaching the MLS Cup final and winning the U.S. Open Cup. This time, the Revolution will also be involved in the Superliga in July and August, plus the Champions League. The young forwards and players such as Mauricio Castro, Gary Flood, Amaechi Igwe and Sainny Nyassi will have to gain experience early in the season in order to be prepared when they are needed later on.

4. Can the Revolution win the MLS Cup?

It would be difficult to imagine Joe Franchino, Jay Heaps, Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman never winning an MLS Cup. The Revolution made a breakthrough by taking the U.S. Open Cup title last year and the team has been refreshed with youngsters unburdened by past failures in the final. Chris Albright, who won MLS Cups in Foxboro with D.C. United (1999) and at the expense of the Revolution with Los Angeles (2002 and '05), is expected to provide defensive experience and also a championship edge.

Biggest X factor: Wells Thompson.

Nicol developed late first-round draft picks Noonan (2003), Clint Dempsey ('04) and Michael Parkhurst ('05) into national team players and, last year, traded up in the MLS SuperDraft to select Thompson with the No. 5 choice. Thompson's confidence on the ball and uninhibited attacking style are rare for a home-grown MLS winger. Thompson must be able to balance his ability to go forward with tactical sense defending.

Breakout player to watch: Kenny Mansally.

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England vs. Chicago
8 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose vs. Los Angeles
10.30 p.m. ET, (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Mansally and Nyassi arrived in New England after helping Gambia reach the second round of the U-20 World Cup in Canada. Visa problems prevented them from playing until September, but the time they spent training with the Revolution prepared them for this season. Mansally's combination of speed and strength, plus his impressive free kick in Gambia's win over Portugal in the U-20 event, caught the attention of scouts. But Revolution coaches were just as impressed with Mansally's tactical sense and instincts near the goal.

Outlook:

Despite the Revolution's MLS Cup failures, they have developed an effective mix of power and skill to support Twellman's scoring prowess. The Revolution, 43-23-28 in the last three regular seasons, have also developed a camaraderie similar to that of the Liverpool teams Nicol played for. But the loss of four key players (Dorman, John, Noonan, Riley) without compensation will test not only the strength of the roster but the Revolution's stick-togetherness. Nicol notes that nine of 11 starters return from last year's MLS Cup and most of the core of the team remains intact. Albright is a key to providing more flexibility in the Revolution alignment, which could vary from their usual 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2.

Should the Revolution play a 3-5-2, Ralston will be the playmaker, taking up a position he played before joining the MLS in 1996, only returning to central midfield last October. Matt Reis and central defender Michael Parkhurst keys the defense with their mobility, positioning and distribution, which allow the Revolution to load up a five-man midfield. Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz are a complementary holding pair in midfield. The Revolution are hoping for more consistency from the sometimes spectacular Khano Smith and Thompson on the wings, and have added Albright and Castro as alternatives. Twellman has been the most prolific scorer in the MLS since joining the league and has scored more goals (91 in regular-season play) than any U.S. player anywhere since 2002. Twellman had a difficult offseason, going through a divorce; the disappointment of a failed $3 million-plus transfer to Preston North End; and the loss of his favorite strike partner, Noonan, to Aalesund FK in Norway. If Twellman can strike-up an understanding with another forward, he could be rejuvenated.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.