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New-look Revolution ready for a fresh start

2009 record and finish: 11-9-10, 42 points; third place in Eastern Conference, lost in conference semifinals Key additions: GK Preston Burpo, D Cory Gibbs, F Zack Schilawski Key losses: GK Brad Knighton, D Jay Heaps, D Chris Albright, M Jeff Larentowicz, M Steve Ralston, M Wells Thompson

The New England Revolution began transitioning late in the 2007 season, the most recent of their four MLS Cup final appearances. Coach Steve Nicol started modifying his reliance on the draft and homegrown talent, bringing in 18-year-old Gambians Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi.

Now, the changeover has been confirmed. Only Shalrie Joseph, Matt Reis and Taylor Twellman remain from the Revolution's '07 MLS Cup starting lineup. These days, Mansally and Nyassi rank next on the roster in terms of continuous Revolution service. The departures of Jay Heaps (retired), Jeff Larentowicz (traded to Colorado) and Steve Ralston (who went to St. Louis as a player-assistant coach after failing to come to contract terms with the Revolution) further illustrate the transformation.

When (and if, as MLS and its players' union must reach a deal on a collective bargaining agreement) the Revolution visit the Los Angeles Galaxy for the March 27 season opener, Joseph likely will be the only member of the '07 starting lineup performing. Reis (left shoulder, left knee) is out until May. The return of Twellman (concussion-related symptoms) has not been determined.

So, here is how the new-look Revolution will line up.

Despite Reis' injury and the loss of backup goalkeeper Brad Knighton (expansion draft) and defenders Heaps and Chris Albright (traded to New York), the Revolution have plenty of defensive depth. Preston Burpo will be in goal and Cory Gibbs in the center of defense, both players acquired in a trade with Colorado for Larentowicz and Wells Thompson. Kevin Alston returns at right back, with Chris Tierney replacing Heaps at left back. Gibbs will be paired with Darrius Barnes -- the only Revolution player to appear in all 30 games last season -- Gabriel Badilla or Emmanuel Osei. Both Badilla (Costa Rica), who played in the 2006 World Cup, and Osei (Ghana), who has Serie A experience with Livorno, also can play left back.

MLS team previews

Eastern Conference
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC
Western Conference
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders
FC Dallas

Senegalese midfielder Joseph Niouky Desire or holdover Pat Phelan could support Joseph. Nyassi and Mansally are slated to be on the wings, possibly challenged by Khano Smith, who has returned as a non-roster player after going to British side Lincoln City for a season. Kheli Dube and Edgaras Jankauskas are the strikers. Nico Colaluca and Michael Videira return in central midfield, and Honduran Mauricio Castro is back as a left wing backup.

Nicol also brought in several veteran midfielders to fill the team's two remaining foreign player slots, but no determination was expected to be made on contract offers before the team concludes training camp on Sunday in Cary, N.C.

The Revolution have had the most success using a 3-5-2 formation, keyed by Reis' mobility in goal and a plethora of accomplished midfielders. The team likely will return to a 4-4-2 now. But whatever the formation, the plan will be for Joseph to join the attack, instead of being in the holding position, which he mastered in his first seven seasons in the league. Joseph tied with Dube for the team's scoring lead with eight goals last season, and he often moved to forward in emergency situations.

But the Revolution's fortunes likely will be determined by the status of Twellman, who has struggled since absorbing a punch to the head while scoring a goal against the Galaxy on Aug. 30, 2008. The whiplash effects of the blow slowed Twellman for the rest of the '08 season, and he was held out of the playoffs as the extent of the injury became apparent. Twellman also sat out the first nine games of the '09 season, but then remarkably produced two goals as a reserve (in 110 minutes of playing time) before it was determined he had returned too soon. Twellman, who has scored 101 regular-season MLS goals, has since come under the care of a concussion specialist in the Boston area. The Revolution picked up the option on Twellman's contract in the hopes that he will return.

If Twellman does make it back, he will be the only holdover from the Revolution's 2002 run to the MLS Cup final, the first of the team's four losing appearances in the championship game. But despite losing much of the heart and soul of the team, the Revolution seemed optimistic during the preseason. Most of the current Revolution players do not carry the burden of the MLS Cup failures and are eager to establish an identity.

"This is a totally different team -- a lot of guys who have been here two or three years, at the most," Joseph said. "We are definitely lacking a lot of experience, but I think we make it up in youth, the vigorous stuff they bring there. They are really energetic, and they are just looking forward to the season. It will probably work in our favor they don't know the history of the Revs, or they haven't been there. So, they come into the season with a blindfold on, and they're just looking forward to a great season."

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

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