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FRANK DELL’APA | SOCCER NOTEBOOK

Revolution need to change strategy as well as personnel

Real Salt Lake’s Nick Besler heads the ball away from a flock of Revolution players in the goal area last Thursday.
Real Salt Lake’s Nick Besler heads the ball away from a flock of Revolution players in the goal area last Thursday.(steve griffin/AP)

The Revolution are on the verge of concluding their 23d MLS season with their lowest point total since the Steve Nicol era. The Revolution (9-13-11, 38 points), who meet the Montreal Impact in the season finale Sunday, are 2 points shy of their total in the 2012 season, Jay Heaps’s first as coach.

First-year coach Brad Friedel likely overestimated the talent level of his players and placed too much faith in some players’ ability to adjust and improve. Friedel described the Revolution’s performance in a 4-1 loss at Real Salt Lake last week as “awful.” Another way to describe the Revolution’s showing is that it was naive and unprofessional.

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The Revolution have become overly dependent on high pressing and hard running, an approach that cannot be expected to work in every situation and seldom for 90 minutes. Visitors to Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah (4,500-feet-plus elevation), often find themselves feeling sluggish, so the key is to play a possession game and contain the RSL midfield.

Attempts to do that mostly failed, but the Revolution could have survived had they not self-destructed. Their first major error was to allow an early counterattack off their own corner kick, an elementary mistake by defender Brandon Bye opening the door.

Soccer teams are not always on their game, not always clicking offensively, but that doesn’t mean they can’t keep things under control. Real Salt Lake was not at full strength yet easily overwhelmed the Revolution.

Friedel plans to bring in sufficient reinforcements to transform the Revolution next season. But that does not guarantee the team will challenge for a title; other teams are likely to improve, also.

Many of the Revolution’s recent difficulties resulted from a failure to establish an effective central defensive pairing. The team has completed only three .500-plus seasons since Nicol was dismissed eight years ago after finishing with a 5-16-13 mark (28 points).

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Ironically, the week Nicol departed, the Revolution brought in Colombian central defender Oswaldo Henriquez for a tryout. Henriquez, 29, is now a starter for Vasco da Gama in Brazil.

Filling the nets

Goal-scoring in MLS is at its highest level since 2001, and Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez (30 goals) and the New York Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips (three successive 20-plus goal seasons) have set records.

San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski has 144 career goals, one short of Landon Donovan’s MLS record. But Wondolowski, 35, does not seem to have many successors among US-born prospects.

Columbus’s Gyasi Zardes (16 goals) is the only US-born player among the top 27 scorers in MLS this season. Few domestic newcomer forwards have made an impact, with Real Salt Lake’s Corey Baird (eight goals) the only first-year pro among the top 50 scorers.

A total of 1,214 goals have been scored in 378 MLS games (3.21 per game) this season, compared with 3.26 per game in 2001.

MLS has attempted to discourage importing older players, but its most dynamic attackers include the recently acquired 33-year-old Wayne Rooney and 37-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Expert opinion

Afshin Ghotbi has mostly been ahead of the curve in analytics and behind the scenes as an assistant until recently experiencing success as a head coach in Asia. Ghotbi, born in Tehran, began his coaching career with the UCLA women’s team when he was 19. He played for the Bruins in the 1980s, then became a scout for the US national team for the 1998 World Cup.

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Ghotbi worked as an analyst for South Korea coach Guus Hiddink in the 2002 World Cup and was an assistant for the LA Galaxy when they won the US Open Cup/MLS Cup double in 2005. The Galaxy defeated the Revolution, 1-0, in extra time in the ’05 MLS Cup final, but Ghotbi missed the game, having left his position that week to rejoin South Korea for ’06 World Cup qualifying.

Ghotbi, 54, guided Piroozi to the 2008 Iran title, Shimizu S-Pulse to the 2012 J League Cup final, and had established Shijiazhuang Ever Bright among the leaders in China’s League 1 until being fired recently.

“Chinese football is literally like a rocket exploding, there are so many resources being placed in developing it,” Ghotbi said. “I’ve always tried to place myself in a region where the game was about to change and grow, and I had the opportunity to go to China to interview for the national team job in 2016.

“I spent a week there and they decided on a local guy and offered me to be an assistant, but the offer was not attractive enough. Then I was offered Shijiazhuang, which has a massive fan base but was about to be relegated from the Super League.

“I had never worked in a second division, so I was reluctant. I met with the owner and saw how they were rebuilding and I had seen images of the fans, and how incredibly loyal and supportive they are.”

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Ghotbi changed Shijiazhuang’s style of play to emphasize attacking, and the team went on a six-game winning streak, finishing in third place (one place from promotion) last year. But Ghotbi was dismissed with a record of 19-6-19 over two seasons. A video of his departure illustrated the attachment of Shijiazhuang supporters, Ghotbi breaking into tears as fans expressed vocal support when he was leaving the stadium.

“League 1 of China is much better than people think because of the resources, and salaries for foreign players can be $6 million to $8 million,” Ghotbi said.

Ghotbi, who coached players such as Joey Di Giamarino, John O’Brien, and Peter Vagenas at the youth level, believes MLS is lacking player development.

“In Belgium or Holland or France, there are different styles, so a player has to solve problems,” Ghotbi said. “In MLS, it is the same style clashing every week, and in the long term that doesn’t develop players. The typical MLS game, you rarely see the signature of a coach from beginning to end.

“The American player has an incredible spirit to win and a psychological edge; they are enormously athletic, very willing to learn. We have all the basics, we have everything here.

“It’s how we connect all the dots, create leadership and administration in the game to take players to the level of international players. And it all starts in the training. Players need to be constantly challenged to improve themselves at all levels.”

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