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The New England Revolution are not a terribly good soccer team. With nine points through their first nine games, they're well off a playoff place. One of their wins came against Portland at home; not the hardest three points to get in Major League Soccer, although their other two (away to Los Angeles and home to Colorado) were perfectly respectable. Sizable sometime-St. Germain striker Saer Sene is off to a good start in his first MLS season, but other than that the Revolution have little first-class firepower. They also suffer from playing in Gillette Stadium, maybe the lamest home-field advantage in the league.
The Vancouver Whitecaps played midweek, but used very few of the same players who'll see action today. Eric Hassli will probably start and had a good run earlier this week, Sebastien Le Toux came off the bench in Edmonton to single-handedly win the game (no big deal) and will probably start as well, and probably one defender as well. The other eight names will be fresh.
This will be a great test of the Martin Rennie Era. What we have this afternoon is a game Vancouver should pretty much win, but which is miles from a sure thing. If the Whitecaps are coming out well-prepared and gung-ho, they have almost every advantage over the mediocre Revolution. If they're mentally tired, or thinking about the next two weeks, or their concentration falls short in any perceptible way, New England is certainly good enough to make us regret it.
Let's take New England's last game, a 2-1 loss away to Real Salt Lake, as an example of how they operate. The Revolution had 22 minutes of a one-man advantage between Will Johnson being sent off and Fernando Carderas receiving a (since rescinded) straight red for a little bump on Jamison Olave. Good to see Dave Gantar doesn't only ruin games in Canada.
When Johnson was sent off, Salt Lake was already in front 2-1 and had just lost their best defending midfielder. This ought to have been a very strong position for New England, but they did little to exploit it. Salt Lake successfully slowed the game down and maintained possession and an element of control. New England got a couple of fine chances on Nick Rimando but, honestly, I never really felt like New England would get back into a draw. When Carderas was sent off it was time to go home.
I think Salt Lake is generally overrated: their ability to play beautiful soccer is stronger than their ability to play winning soccer and they probably lead MLS in glorious, game-of-the-week draws over the past couple seasons and, while Rio Tinto Stadium is a fearsome place to play, Toronto FC was almost able to draw there. Still, despite falling behind on a superb Blake Brettshneider goal they pretty much had control and the three points was no less than they deserved.
Yet New England wasn't nearly out of options. That Brettshneider goal was great. They give off that nasty underdog vibe: you might be better than us but don't you dare disrespect us. Real Salt Lake early on was playing too casually, looking too hard to get a couple quick goals and sit on 'em, and New England showed why you just couldn't play that way against them. Salt Lake won when they started taking New England seriously, but they still needed that lesson.
I've said before that Rennie's teams have sometimes taken lesser opponents a bit too lightly. That wasn't a problem against Edmonton (no, not even the beginning of the second leg; that was just Edmonton playing good soccer rather than Vancouver playing bad soccer). But it's hard to maintain such a high level of concentration long-term. Vancouver is a fairly good team on a very good team's winning streak; they've played some crappy opponents and done the job every time. Is it cynical of me to say that, at some point, that's got to give?
I still say Vancouver comes out with the three points. New England's defensive play is a weakness and Hassli is finding his shooting legs. Camilo Sanvezzo is out but as long as Hassli, Le Toux, Omar Salgado, and Matt Watson keep doing what they've been doing we'll knock one through Matt Reis eventually. And if the Whitecaps turn it into a bunkering game where we dare New England to beat us, as Rennie loves to do, I can't imagine anybody but Sene threatening the defense. Between them, Martin Bonjour and Jun Marques Davidson should be able to contain that threat.
On the other hand, maybe I'm as overconfident as I fear the Whitecaps are becoming.