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Signal Intel: Fire, Revs riding confidence into early-season showdown

Expect a crowded midfield in today’s Eastern Conference slobberknocker

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire
MOAR GOALZ, NIKO!
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

We spoke with Jake Catanese of The Bent Musket in advance of today’s game - here’s what he had to say:

Hot Time in the Old Town: Off the top of my head, it's hard to imagine less likely striker duo in MLS than Juan Agudelo and Kei Kamara, as each have made their bones playing in modern single-striker sets. How has playing them together worked out, and are the Revs likely to stick with that alignment?

The Bent Musket: When the Revs originally traded for Kei Kamara last May, the idea was to give New England a true target striker in the box. Charlie Davies and Juan Agudelo were both solid strikers, but neither was great on their own at the top of the Revs old 4-2-3-1 formation. It never really worked out with Kei up top on his own, so late last season Jay Heaps opted to move to a diamond midfield and two strikers and Agudelo, finally healthy, tore up the league late in the year.

Overall, it's been a mixed bag. Kei hasn't had the production scoring-wise that he had in Columbus but I'd also like to think his presence is good for the team overall. He gets to occupy the defense while Juan and the midfield gets more space to run. The Revs tend to score by committee anyway, so Kei not piling up big goal numbers isn't a huge deal. More important than who is up top is the Revs mentality on offense, when on the road this year they've tended to sit back and absorb pressure. This isn't what they're good at, and staying on the front foot and pressing and countering to start their attack is when they excel. I'd expect Heaps to stick with the 4-4-2 diamond with perhaps a shift late in games to defend a lead to a 4-2-3-1 if needed.

HT: How does the midfield work now that there's two strikers? Is the Kelyn Rowe-at-left-back experiment a ripple effect of needing one less midfielder?

TBM: Yes and no. Kelyn Rowe made a few starts at right back last year when the Revs had a few injuries, so it's not an completely out of the blue thing. Then again, with a left back depth chart that includes Chris Tierney, Donnie Smith and Je-Vaughn Watson in some order, Rowe jumping all of them was a little odd. That being said, Rowe is a solid all-around player and has performed well as a fullback in limited action and the Revs shut out the Houston Dynamo last week with him and rookie Josh Smith in defense.

The midfield now features DP Xavier Kouassi as the lone holding mid, Lee Nguyen as the CAM and then Diego Fagundez, Scott Caldwell and Kelyn Rowe as the "shuttler" center mids in between. There in lies the problem, someone really good has to start on the bench. Or Rowe has to slot in at left back to get him onto the field. I'm not sure it's a long term solution, Heaps might've been playing the matchups with Tierney struggling early and Houston's speed in last week's game. But would I be surprised to see Rowe at left back again a few times this year? Not really.

HT: New England remade their central defense in the offseason - I'm curious how you think that's going?

TBM: Revamping the backline was a priority for the Revs, which is a shame because it meant letting go of Jose Goncalves. However, the new guys are alright, especially Antonio Delamea who has back-to-back MLS Team of the Week mentions in April and has been fantastic for New England from the get to. Benjamin Angoua was projected to be the other starter at centerback but he's been upstaged by 4th round draft pick Joshua Smith.

It's Smith's presence that has really been the surprise. A late round pick who's actually 25 years old, he's a former USYNT prospect with academy time in Germany and the big defender made his MLS debut in Portland against Fanendo Adi and didn't look like a rookie at all. His aerial presence on set pieces is also something that is noticeable because his 6'4" frame is a welcome addition to what is a usually meager Revs set piece attack, especially on corners. The Revs might not have a deep roster at just 23 players, but they're two deep at every position, including defense, which New England couldn't say last year.

Cody Cropper has also established himself as the #1 keeper over Brad Knighton and like the Revs backline he's been fine. As this unit gels and builds chemistry together, they're only going to get better.

Injuries: None

Lineup (4-4-2 Diamond): Cropper; Tierney, Smith, Delamea, Farrell; Kouassi, Fagundez, Rowe, Nguyen; Agudelo, Kamara

I'm going to put Caldwell on the bench for this one, but as always, there's no wrong way for the Revs midfield to set up. I want the Revs to be aggressive from the start and then Caldwell late off the bench to close out the game. I am not Jay Heaps however, so expect this to be wrong.

This is a perhaps the first throwback Fire-Revs game in a long, long time. I am very excited for this. And I want a win.

Prediction: Revs 2, Fire 1

My answers to Jake’s questions about the Fire can be found here.