There was a time when the New England Revolution and D.C. United were considered the aristocracy of the Eastern Conference. From 2005 until 2007, the two teams annually slugged it out for the top spot in the standings. That changed in 2008, as New England stumbled to a third-place finish while United failed to make the playoffs altogether.
The 2009 campaign was expected to see that trend continue, but with the MLS season now four weeks old, there are some signs that the old Eastern power base could be making a comeback. United, predicted by some to finish dead last in the conference, have looked a pretty competitive outfit in the early going. New England, meanwhile, are one of three unbeaten teams in the league, and when they square off against the Black-and-Red on ESPN's MLS "Game of the Week" (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), they'll be looking to reassert their championship credentials.
Five storylines to follow
1. Late lapses cost United
The Black-and-Red have netted five points from four games so far. That's not a bad haul, but that total would have been even higher had they not coughed up late goals in two of their matches. Especially galling was a 2-2 tie against Los Angeles that saw United blow a two-goal lead. But head coach Tom Soehn is taking a patient approach with his young side, and is pleased with the increased competitiveness and depth his team is showing early on.
"Right now, I consider us an honest, hardworking team," Soehn said. "We can still clean up a lot of things. But this early in the year it's a positive because we're getting minutes from a lot of different guys, and they're quality minutes."
New England at D.C. United
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
2. New England reloads
It seems that every year, Revs head coach Steve Nicol has to deal with the loss of a key performer. Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst are among the departed, but instead of bemoaning his fate, Nicol has retooled his roster. Not only have rookies Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston helped New England get off to a 2-0-1 start, but 20-year-old veterans Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally have contributed as well.
"We couldn't have asked for anything more," said Nicol of his young players. "They've just done real good jobs. They've been solid, nothing spectacular; they've done the simple things well and made good decisions."
3. United bring back their MVP
Sometimes trades don't work for any of the parties involved, and that was the case when United dealt former league MVP Christian Gomez to Colorado last year. Replacement Marcelo Gallardo never did work out for the Black-and-Red, while Gomez was a bust for the Rapids. So United went out and reacquired their one-time talisman, but the early returns have been mixed. Gomez has only showed flashes of his previous form, although Soehn thinks that's down to the team rather than the individual.
"As we get further into the season, I still hope we'll get better in possession," Soehn said. "When we are, it's going to free up Christian a lot more. But with some of the young guys, I don't think it's a perfect possession game yet, so he's going to have to spend a little more time defending than on the offensive side."
4. Wounded Revs get a welcome break
Given the Revs' unbeaten start, you'd think a 12-day layoff is the last thing they need. But with the likes of goalkeeper Matt Reis, forward Taylor Twellman and defender Gabriel Badilla all hobbled by various ailments, the break actually came at a good time. The downside is they're all still a while away from getting back in the lineup. Nicol said Reis saw a doctor Monday about his inflamed right knee. Twellman is back doing conditioning work, but has yet to participate in contact drills due to persistent neck pain. Badilla? All Nicol would say about Parkhurst's presumed replacement is that his return from back troubles is "a long, long way off."
5. Soehn's change in philosophy
After seeing his side miss the playoffs last year for the first time since 2002, Soehn is clearly on the hot seat. But he admits that the experience, one in which a glut of injuries helped scuttle United's postseason hopes, caused him to undergo a serious rethink of how he constructs teams.
"It's making sure we have a list of 24 guys that we felt could contribute," Soehn said. "We probably counted on one or two individuals entirely too much, and we found last year that if they're not on the field it cost us dramatically. This way we have a wealth of quality, and if one steps out it doesn't fall off."
Five players to watch
1. Steve Ralston, M, New England
Anyone needing proof of Ralston's value to the Revs need only cue up the game tape from their last outing against Dallas. In the first half, with Ralston sitting on the sidelines, the Revs looked listless and uninspired. But once the midfielder was introduced at halftime the transformation was near-immediate, as Ralston's sharp passing and composed play helped inspire a second-half fightback that resulted in a 2-1 victory.
"Just the fact that Ralston is there gives everyone around him confidence," Nicol said.
2. Luciano Emilio, F, D.C. United
While United still waits for Gomez to catch fire, their other former MVP, Emilio, has already burst into flames, scoring three goals in his past three matches. Considering that last season it took the Brazilian until May 29 to record his third league goal, it appears as though he's ready to reprise his 2007 form, when he led the league in scoring.
"[Emilio] came into the season a lot fitter and hungrier than normal," Soehn said. "That relates directly to his performance, and it's not just about scoring goals for him. It's all the other little stuff he does. The goals are a component of that, but he's just working real hard."
3. Darrius Barnes, D, New England
In 2005, Nicol handed a starting defender position to Parkhurst, and the former Wake Forest product delivered with a rookie of the year season. Four years later, Nicol is relying on another ACC product in Barnes to anchor his defense. While Barnes is a more physically imposing player than Parkhurst, the early returns have seen him deliver some solid performances, even in the three-back alignment in which Parkhurst once excelled.
4. Ben Olsen, M, D.C. United
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The early impressions of United so far this season are that of a team that is much tougher to play against than in 2008. Part of that is down to the return of Olsen, who sat out much of last year with recurring ankle problems. While Olsen lacks the mobility of his younger days, he still provides the requisite grit needed to excel in a central midfield role, where his savvy positioning has done much to stifle opposition attacks. Soehn is keen to ration Olsen's minutes, and left him out of last weekend's 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, but that move was precautionary in nature, and he should be back on the field against the Revs.
5. Shalrie Joseph, M, New England
The Grenadian remains the premier holding midfielder in MLS, and it has been his displays, along with midfield partner Jeff Larentowicz, that have helped New England successfully navigate the season's opening weeks. Now with Ralston back in the lineup, the full range of Joseph's ability should be on display.
"When you have someone like Ralston who keeps the ball, not only does the whole team get further up the field, but someone like Joseph can show a lot more of what they've got on the attacking end of things," Nicol said.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.