Revs aim to curb Dallas' unbeaten start
For the New England Revolution, Pizza Hut Park has been the stage for some unforgettable highs as well as some crushing lows. The Revs lost two MLS Cup finals at the venue, including the agonizing penalty kick shootout defeat to the Houston Dynamo in 2006. But New England's only trophy to date was also won at PHP, when the Revs defeated Dallas 3-2 in last year's U.S. Open Cup Final.
Five story lines to follow
1. New England's bizarre month
The Revs have seen just about everything in the first few weeks of the season. Star forward Taylor Twellman injured his knee warming up for the first game against Houston and hasn't played since. The team has also conceded two penalties, and had two players ejected. But through it all, New England has managed to put together a 2-2-1 record, and what's even more incredible is that coach Steve Nicol has seen worse in terms of tough breaks.
"The last season we played Dallas at the Cotton Bowl, we actually played with only two subs on the bench," said Nicol. "This is easy compared to that. It's one of those things that happens, and you just have to get through it."
2. Dallas' quick start
The Hoops' unbeaten start to the season has seen them vault to the top of the Western Conference standings, and had they not twice conceded late goals, their two ties might very well have been victories. Of course, Dallas knows all about getting out of the gate quickly. Last year the Hoops were in first place as late as August before slumping to finish third in the West. That cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs, something they hope to rectify this season.
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3. The Revs' midfield shuffle
After five games, Nicol is already on his third attacking midfielder of the season. Steve Ralston was also injured against Houston, albeit during the game. Now his replacement, Honduran Mauricio Castro, is suspended for an undisciplined but highly accurate kick to the groin area of New York defender Kevin Goldthwaite. Given Nicol's reluctance to break up the central partnership of Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz, it's anybody's guess who will become attacking midfielder No. 3. Wells Thompson? Kenny Mansally? Argenis Fernandez? Whoever it is might think twice before accepting the job.
4. Revamped D in "Big D"
In 2007, it wasn't until mid-June that Dallas recorded its first shutout in league play. In 2008, it's kept two clean sheets in the month of April alone. The difference? A switch to a three-back alignment with two holding midfielders has made Dallas tougher up the middle.
"I think the whole group have taken on board that we need to be better defensively as a unit and work harder when we don't have the ball," said Dallas head coach Steve Morrow. "I think we're definitely starting to embrace that."
5. On-the-job training
Nicol's lineup in last week's 1-1 draw against New York contained three players under the age of 20. Throw in second-year forward Adam Cristman, and you have a heavy reliance on youth. And while the Revs possessed the ball well against New York, the lack of punch in the final third was evident.
"I think [Cristman and Mansally] showed a wee bit of inexperience," said Nicol. "The back four of New York were all over them, pushing them, challenging them from behind, all of those things. They don't quite have the experience yet to get the kind of fouls that they should be getting. They end up standing up and trying to be physical. Consequently, we didn't keep the ball well enough in the final third."
Five players to watch
1. Kenny Cooper, F, FC Dallas
The former Manchester United reserve was sidelined with a broken leg for much of last year. And while he recovered in time to help Dallas reach the playoffs, he entered 2008 with something to prove, especially given the offseason trade of Carlos Ruiz. So far, Cooper has shown his quality, tallying four goals in as many matches to equal his output for all of last year.
"[Cooper] saw this season as a brand-new start for him," said Morrow. "He's been very, very focused and very determined to score goals this year, and he certainly feels the responsibility of leading the team in terms of goal scoring."
2. Matt Reis, G, New England
Amid injuries and suspensions, one constant for New England has been the play of Reis. His positional sense and shot stopping are as sharp as ever, and he was called upon several times to hold the fort in last week's match against the Red Bulls.
"[Reis] just gives you confidence," said Nicol. "If you're playing in front of a goalkeeper that gives you the confidence Matt does, then it makes your life a whole lot less complicated."
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3. Arturo Alvarez, F, FC Dallas
The Houston native showed promise in a midfield role last season, but this year he has formed an effective partnership with Cooper, combining his knack for the unexpected with Cooper's power and finishing. Alvarez has been adept in front of goal himself, scoring twice, including a header on April 12 against New York with the game less than a minute old.
"Arturo is enjoying the freedom of playing up top alongside Kenny," said Morrow. "I think getting him closer to the goal has made him look a lot more dangerous. Those are the positions we want to get him in."
4. Jeff Larentowicz, M, New England
The Revs' Joseph gets most of the headlines when things go well, but Larentowicz is also starting to garner some attention. In addition to his steady defensive play, the Brown University product has developed a knack for scoring from set pieces, with his vicious drive against the Red Bulls allowing New England to secure a 1-1 tie.
"Any time Shalrie wants to venture forward, he knows [Larentowicz] is going to be there," said Nicol. "Jeff is as strong as an ox, and any part of the game you want to play him at, he'll stand up to you, whether it's a physical battle or a football battle."
5. Duilio Davino, D, FC Dallas
When Davino gifted a goal to Chivas USA's Maykel Galindo in FCD's opener, fans began to wonder if the former Mexican international was set to become yet another high-profile bust. But Davino has recovered to become the kind of organizer Morrow hoped he would be. Davino can still be beaten for pace at times, and his matchup with New England speedster Mansally will be one to watch.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.