The New England Revolution back line still isn’t clicking

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benjamin angoua new england revolution

Benjamin Angoua of the New England Revolution. Photo/Alex Dolan

The New England Revolution entered 2017 needing to address one key problem: their weak and lackluster back line.

In 2016, the club surrendered 54 goals. That wasn’t terrible compared to other Eastern Conference clubs, but it also didn’t provide enough insurance for a gun-shy attack that produced just 44 goals. Goal differential kept the Revolution out of the playoffs last year, though it’s tough to be a league champion when you concede so much.

Moreover, the club officially lost its anchor in the heart of the back line, captain and former league Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves. With that, the roster had no true center backs and, at best, had only questionable full back depth.

Revolution General Manager Mike Burns and the Revolution coaching staff acquired defensive help in the winter, though transactions took longer than expected.

The club eventually acquired three new players: Slovenian center back Antonio Delamea from Olimpija Ljubljana, Ivorian center back Benjamin Angoua on loan from Guingamp, and rookie center back Josh Smith who was drafted out of the University of San Francisco but also played for the Karlsruher youth teams while growing up in Germany.

But through five and a half months of the 2017 season, it’s clear that this trio of acquisitions has done nothing discernable to improve the team’s defensive woes.

The Revolution sit outside playoff contention and have conceded the third-most goals in their conference. They’ve also given up more than two goals in a game six times this season.

This, in part, is why the club moved to acquire defender Claude Dielna on July 28.

Dielna is available for selection for the first time this weekend when the Revolution host Vancouver.

That said, the Dielna acquisition may do nothing to fix what appears to have gone wrong with Revolution back line this season:

  1. Benjamin Angoua has struggled to adapt to the playing style of MLS and communication between him and Antonio Delamea has been difficult due to an obvious language barrier. But from a tactical vantage point, it appears that both of these players are trying to be sweepers when one needs to be a stopper. This has been fairly obvious since the first game of the season, a 1-0 loss on the road at Colorado. It also explains how a veteran like Angoua can so often appear to be out of position.
  2. Chris Tierney lacks the fitness to be as consistent as he’s been in the past. This has forced Revolution coach Jay Heaps to deploy Kelyn Rowe, a playmaking midfielder, at left back. In theory, Dielna should fill in on the left when Tierney is unavailable. However, Dielna has yet to play a competitive match for the Revolution and will need time to adjust to his new teammates—and the league’s style of play.
  3. The lack of depth at the back probably makes it hard to motivate players and make training effective. This is particularly alarming, seeing as Heaps has gone on record in the past and said competition for playing time at practice is a hallmark of success. But the Revolution only filled their 25th of 30 roster less than two weeks ago when they signed Dielna. Given that there are three goalkeepers, that means the Revolution can only now scrimmage 11 vs. 11. And even then, you’re counting on no one being injured. Xavier Kouassi and Chris Tierney have been out for patches of the season, while Rowe, Je-Vaughn Watson, Delamea and Juan Agudelo have been with their respective national teams for extensive periods in the spring and summer.

What’s especially appalling about the Revolution’s defensive struggles—both this year and last year—is that their coach and general manager are two of the best defenders in the team’s history. Heaps excelled at right back for the Revolution from 2001 to 2009 and represented the U.S. national team at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Mike Burns was a member of two American World Cup teams and one Olympic team and played for the Revolution from 1996 to 2000 before moving on to San Jose and Kansas City.

That the two most powerful persons in the club from a player personnel perspective have assembled and deployed a defense that has been so poor and so short-staffed for so long is a devastating surprise.

As of now, the Revolution defensive depth chart is as follows:

Left Back Center Back Right Back
Chris Tierney Antonio Delamea Andrew Farrell
Kelyn Rowe* Benjamin Angoua Je-Vaughn Watson
Claude Dielna Josh Smith London Woodberry
Donnie Smith Je-Vaughn Watson*
London Woodberry*
Andrew Farrell*

 

*denotes non-natural position

While versatility is a boon for any team, Heaps and Burns have overestimated the Swiss Army Knife abilities of this roster. Case in point: Rowe is not a left back. Tierney can go on record and say Rowe is a left back, Rowe can say publicly he’s willing to play anywhere including left back, but none of that changes the fact that Rowe is not a left back.

Rowe was practically left for dead on the first of Chicago’s four goals last weekend. He started at left back in that game, which is remarkable considering he started and scored in a playmaking role for the U.S. national team less than a month ago.

And, what does using Rowe at left back say about Donnie Smith?

And furthermore, what did using Woodberry and Farrell at center back for parts of last season accomplish other than proving that the Revolution have been in denial about their defensive ranks?

Half the depth chart needs an overhaul because players are used in positions where they have little to no competency. Beyond that, it’s a numbers game. Outside of signing Delamea, who could plausibly start for Slovenia in next summer’s World Cup assuming they qualify, the Revolution haven’t properly invested in defense. Josh Smith is in need of more playing time to fully develop, Angoua hasn’t looked the part, and full back depth has been woefully unremarkable.

And that’s just scratching the surface.

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