First, our questions for Steve...
1. The Revs haven't had the best of times as of late. What needs to change in the last four games to turn things around?
They need to lock the defense back down. I'm not sure what changed between the first and second halves of the season, but the Revs have regressed hard, and while the defense is still probably above average, it's not anything like the stingy outfit we saw in the Spring and early Summer months. Heaps has moved some pieces around, benching Bobby Shuttleworth and Stephen McCarthy, and while the wisdom of those moves can be questioned, it is unquestionable that said moves have not really produced different results. Jose Goncalves remains a constant star and Chris Tierney is solid and dependable, but outside of those two, consistency has been an issue.
I think another part of it is immaturity. There's still some greenness to this team, and while it's not the enormous issue that it was last season, there's still an element of inexperience that can doom this club. Take last week for example: if A.J. Soares plays smart and doesn't go down after taking what he considered a foul (it went uncalled and would have been a bit harsh if called) from Brad Davis, but rather tracks back and gets into proper position, the Houston goal probably never happens. A veteran understands when to use a little gamesmanship and when to suck it up and play the game. Soares, though a three-year veteran at this point, still struggles with some of the mental aspects like that, as do the other young players.
2. If the Revs don't make the playoffs, do you expect changes? Is Jay Heaps out? Are players going to be sent packing? Which ones?
I expect changes even if they do make the playoffs, though I doubt Heaps will be one of those changes. I can point to mistakes he's made throughout the season that have cost the Revs a sure chance at the postseason, but at the end of the day this is the best season they've had since 2009 and I don't think the front office is aggressive enough to even consider firing him. I don't necessarily disagree with that, either. He's young and he's improved as a coach, certainly, though there are still patterns developing that have spanned both of his seasons on the touch line that worry me.
As far as player shakeup goes, there's a core here that is going to stay, but some pieces will definitely be moved. Agudelo is obviously gone, and Saer Sene might follow him right out the door and overseas. That leaves serious gaps in the attack. Furthermore, I'd expect high-paid dead roster weight like Juan Toja, Andy Dorman, and possibly Chad Barrett to be cast aside, as well. Then there are the depth players that haven't really seen the field; those whose contracts are up will probably go, unless they get re-signed at the same or similar rates. Plus Matt Reis might retire; I don't think he's talked much about the possibility, but he's not getting any younger, that's for sure.
I would expect the core of Fagundez, Rowe, Nguyen, Caldwell, and the main defensive rotation to stick around, though.
3. Who should Red Bulls fans be on the lookout for Saturday?
Why, Diego Fagundez, of course! He's the obvious choice, but really there's a couple of threats. Juan Agudelo, whom you are quite familiar with, is the main guy to watch, though. He's questionable with hamstring issues, but if he's healthy enough to start or play big minutes, he completely changes the game for this squad. It's not just his own vaunted scoring ability that does it, either; the team transforms when he's on the pitch. Again, last weekend is a great example; the Revs struggled for an hour to generate any real offense. Agudelo came on, and three minutes later they were ahead 1-0.
If not him, then Kelyn Rowe. Luis Robles has been pulling off some great saves of late, but if Rowe drops the hammer and gets it on frame, Robles doesn't stand a chance.
4. How's Juan Agudelo doing?
I think my previous answer covered this. To elaborate, he's been doing incredibly well...when on the field. He arrived injured, hurt his knee midway through his tenure here, and recently has dealt with a hamstring issue. If not for the injuries, I think he'd have caught up to Diego Fagundez on the club scoring chart by now, and we might be sitting pretty in fourth or even third place in the East.
Juan just makes the entire team better. He has an incredible rapport with the other young guns in the squad and it shows every minute he's playing. I wish he could play more, frankly. Next season is going to be tough without him, especially after we got to see what he can really do this season. He fits the current 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 system perfectly as the lone striker, and he can shift to the wing if another out-and-out striker is brought on. I can't be more effusive in my praise of the kid, he's just that good.
Steve's questions for us...
1. Three games left the Red Bulls are not only on top in the East, but they have a legitimate shot at the Supporters' Shield. Could this be the year that New York ends its long trophy drought?
But I'm not the guy to ask these types of questions. I'm the eternal sports optimist. Most of the rest of the Red Bulls fan base isn't like me.
The key to the Red Bulls locking down the Supporters' Shield is simple: Just win. The Sounders have two games in hand, but have a tough schedule, and one they may have to face without some key players. Real Salt Lake is only a point behind, and have a cushy schedule down the stretch. The Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City both have games in hand, but even if you spot them points, neither overtake the Red Bulls.
In a situation like that, the one point lead becomes all important. If the Red Bulls take care of business, they can hoist their first (legitimate) piece of silverware. It's a big ask, but they have tons of confidence right now, so it seems doable.
2. On that subject, with only three remaining matches, there are a number of clubs with a game in hand on you both in the Shield race and in the quest for first in the East. Which of the upcoming three matches do you think presents the biggest chance for the Red Bulls to stumble in their quest for dominance?
If I had to pick one game, it'd be away to Houston, but only because they're on the road.
3. Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry are obviously killing it right now. Has there been any other less-known player who you can point to as a true driving force for the Red Bulls?
Jonny Steele and Lloyd Sam play out on the wings, and both are solid players. Sam has only got going recently, but has brought a ton of offensive dynamism to the team. Steele has a lot of ability and a ton of grit.
And both can hit a good cross. Even from midfield, Cahill finds a way to make a secondary or tertiary run into the box, making his forehead available for crosses from the two. That alone makes the team that much more dangerous going forward.
4. Mike Petke is a member of the Young Coaches' Without Much Pro Coaching Experience Club along with guys like Jay Heaps, Ben Olsen, and Caleb Porter. Petke seems to be experiencing some pretty serious success this season. What do you think sets him apart from the others on the list, if anything at all? Is it just the quality of the club that's getting it done?
Two things: Passion and skill.
Petke is the MetroBulls all time leader in games, minutes and yellow cards. He's the first to tell you the Red Bulls are his "hometown team" and he's always wanted the gig. The players can tell you that, too; shortly after taking the job, a lot of players talked about his passion for the team. That's a huge change of pace from the Hans Backe era. You can see that he's imbued the team with some of that, too.
The other thing is skill, not on his part, but from his team. I'm not sure any of the aforementioned coaches have as much talent on the roster as Petke does. While that can make things tough, it also makes things way, way easier, so long as everything goes as planned.