FOXBOROUGH — The last time the Revolution made a coaching change, in 2011, the team was in need of a complete makeover. Not now, though. The Revolution remain mostly intact, and when they kick off their 23rd season at Philadelphia Saturday, coach Brad Friedel’s roster will include 16 returning players, including nine starters from last year’s finale.
Gone are leading scorer Kei Kamara (Vancouver), plus two of the team’s highest-paid imports, defender Benjamin Angoua (Guingamp) and midfielder Xavier Kouassi (FC Sion). Their replacements include a dynamic trio — Ecuadorean left wing Cristian Penilla, left back Gabriel Somi, and midfielder Wilfried Zahibo — plus at least one more recruit expected soon.
“They are additions to an already talented squad,” Friedel said. “I said it when I first took the job: The squad didn’t need [major changes], it needed to be tweaked. And we’re still looking to bring in one or two more very, very exciting players to add to the quality of the squad.
“We have a good group dynamic, and in order to keep that going, we’ve got to win some games.”
Those “tweaks” are significant, partly because Friedel is tapping into extensive connections and scouting resources. Friedel has advantages over previous Revolution coaches with the combination of his experience playing in Europe, an expanded staff, and increased funds available for acquisitions via the league’s allocation program.
“Our staff here knows every corner of the globe,” Friedel said. “Not that we know every single player out there, but it’s not far off.”
Penilla, 26, who can also play striker, is an example. Penilla is from Esmeraldas on the Northern Ecuador coast, an area that has produced several prolific players in recent years, and made his reputation at Pachuca in Mexico.
“There’s not a lot of guys like that on a lot of clubs around the world, to be honest,” Friedel said. “He’s a very talented player. We tracked him for quite some time before we were able to get the deal done. It was our scouting network; he wasn’t just brought to us.”
Somi, 26, played for Syrianska, an Allsvenskan (first division) club representing Sweden’s Syrian community, then moved to Ostersunds, competing in the Europa League. Zahibo, 24, of Guadeloupe descent, was born in Marseille and has been playing in Spain for Valencia and Gimnastic de Tarragona.
“We’d much rather have players at the beginning of their careers, or in the middle their careers, in their prime, so we can get great benefit from them,” Friedel said.
Friedel also is willing to move players on, for the right price. The Revolution have not made a significant transfer since Clint Dempsey went to Fulham FC on a $4 million deal in 2006.
An issue with Nguyen
But the biggest question for the Revolution is Friedel himself. After a stellar three-decade professional career in Europe, he returned to the United States to become a commentator for Fox Sports, while coaching the Under-19 national team. Friedel has strong connections and credibility within the game, but has never been in charge of a club team.
Friedel is the eighth coach in Revolution history and he is not the first to be hired despite lacking a track record. In 1999, ex-Italian national team goalkeeper Walter Zenga took over as player-coach; former US national team defender Fernando Clavijo reigned from 2000-02; and Jay Heaps guided the Revolution from 2012 through last season, two successive years of missing the playoffs costing him his position.
Among Friedel’s first tests has been dealing with the holdout of Lee Nguyen, a spectacular playmaker and team captain a year ago. The Revolution did not accommodate Nguyen’s trade request, then he reported to camp 3½ weeks late and likely will be held out of the season opener.
Friedel has named French central defender Claude Dielna captain, while subjecting Nguyen to a rigorous conditioning program.
“Lee missed 3½ weeks of preseason, he’s getting up to fitness, and when he’s fully fit to join the group, he’ll join the group,” Friedel said during a training session as Nguyen ran sprints separate from the team. “And then it’s up to him to see how he applies himself in training.
“It’s a different style of play, it’s a much more physically demanding style of play, that’s with and without the ball. If he adapts to it, like any player on the squad, he’ll have a chance to play.”
Asked how a similar situation would be handled on European clubs, Friedel replied: “It would never happen, and if it did, there would be huge repercussions.”
Nguyen apparently hoped he would be dealt to another MLS team.
“I talked with Brad and Mike [Burns, general manager] and I told them I’m going to be professional, going to come back and go about my business like a professional, and see how things go,” Nguyen said.
“I mean, nothing can really be said right now. I just told them what I wanted at the end of the season and right now there’s nothing to be done, so I’m back here and just doing what I’ve got to be doing.”
Signs of progress
With Nguyen away, the attacking midfield role has been taken by Diego Fagundez, who led the team in scoring in 2013, when he was 18 years old.
Teal Bunbury and Penilla provided the goal-scoring threats in preseason as the Revolution compiled a 2-1-3 record and won the Mobile Mini Sun Cup tournament in Tucson, Ariz. The Revolution should have enough firepower, as US national teamer Kelyn Rowe returns on the right wing and forwards Juan Agudelo and Krisztian Nemeth recover after missing most of the preseason with injuries. Zahibo and Scott Caldwell are set for holding midfield roles. Dielna and Antonio Delamea are paired in central defense, with Andrew Farrell at right back and Somi at left back, and Cody Cropper expected to start in goal.
“The formation can change from time to time; the philosophy will stay the same,” Friedel said. “We want to try to get our wingbacks or fullbacks, whatever system we play, high up the field as possible. We want to try to create most of the game in the middle and attacking third, because we have some very exciting players going forward. We want to create a lot of combinations between our front 4-5 guys, whatever formation we pick.”
Heaps installed a high pressing system that led to inconsistent performances (a 2014 MLS Cup appearance, but no postseason wins since), and Friedel is emphasizing similar tactics.
“From the first game to last, there’s signs of progress,” Friedel said of the preseason. “Obviously, you’re not going to flick a switch and it’s going to be perfect, but we’re very pleased with what we’ve seen so far.”
Friedel will encounter several unique obstacles. The Revolution operate in the shadow of the Patriots, so they are a second-class tenant in their own stadium. The stadium is outsized for MLS games, and its synthetic surface detracts from the style of play.
Also, the Revolution are 0-5 in MLS Cups, so even if Friedel guides them to the playoffs, he faces the possibility of extending a remarkable streak of frustration.
“Every club has different bases for success,” Friedel said. “Blackburn Rovers would have a different form of success than a Real Madrid. What I will say is we want to take one step at a time, try to win our first game, and then take it game by game from there. But the staff and players are ambitious so, of course, we would like to win trophies.”