BY CARL SETTERLUND
The New England Revolution (4-2-3, 14 points) are currently in a four-way tie atop the Eastern Conference standings, meaning that, for now, this Sunday’s 6 p.m. home match against the Western Conference-leading Seattle Sounders (7-1-2, 22 points) can be referred to as a meeting of the two conference leaders.
Points on Saturday by either the New York Red Bulls or Sporting KC will likely nullify that billing, and, either way, the eight-point gap between Seattle and New England, along with the Sounders’ five-game winning streak make clear who the favorite is – just don’t tell that to in-form Revs midfielder Lee Nguyen, though.
“It’s our home field, our home advantage and we’ve got to come out and put pressure on them,” said Nguyen. “We might be the underdogs, but this is our fortress and we don’t let anyone come in here and take three points from us this season.”
Nguyen is correct on that last account. New England is 2-0-1 at Gillette Stadium – dubbed by the Revs as “Fortress Foxboro” – including a pair of 2-0 wins over quality sides in the Houston Dynamo (Apr. 12) and Sporting KC (Apr. 26).
“I think clearly Seattle is, right now, the hottest team in the league,” said Revs head coach Jay Heaps, while team leaders Nguyen and Andy Dorman used similar descriptors (although each carefully slipped in the caveat of “right now”).
Dorman, New England’s fill-in team captain in the absence of injured center back Jose Goncalves, referred to Seattle as “the in-form team in MLS, right now,” while Nguyen phrased the Sounders “at the moment, the best team in MLS.”
What’s clear is that New England is brimming with confidence coming off last weekend’s first-ever win in Toronto, which included a decisive PK by Nguyen.
Nguyen has converted penalties in each of the Revs’ last three matches, making him the team’s leading scorer on a team with nine goals in as many games.
“It’s something you don’t expect to happen quite as often as it has,” Nguyen said. “You try to train for it as much (as possible), or as least once a week, to get ready for game day so in those pressure situations it trains your mind to be ready for it.”
DEMPSEY SET FOR REVS HOMECOMING
Along with the expectation of high quality soccer on Sunday, the New England fan base is also buzzing over the return of former Revs’ star Clint Dempsey, who was drafted by New England in 2004 and played three seasons for the club.
After a memorable seven seasons in the English Premier League, Dempsey made an equally high profile return to MLS last August. By then, New England had already played its only game of the season against the Sounders.
As a result, Sunday will be both the first time Dempsey has played against his former club, and his first game at Gillette Stadium since October 2006.
“When we played together before in New England, he was a much different player,” said Dorman, who was drafted by the Revs the same year as Dempsey.
Dorman did contend that several qualities about Dempsey remain the same.
“He’s always got that will to get in the box, get on the end of things and get goals, and that’s something we’ve got to be aware about on Sunday,” Dorman said.
The veteran holding midfielder said he thought Dempsey’s return would be a bigger focus among the fans than the players. “That’s kind of a sideshow to the fact that we’ve got to out there and get three points on home soil,” Dorman said.
MULLINS MAKE STRONG ENTRANCE TO FORWARD ROTATION
With Nguyen’s four goals leading the Revs – and no other player with more than one – Heaps has been assessing his options up top, and it looks like he has a strong card to play in 2014 first round pick Patrick Mullins (11th overall).
The 6-foot-1 lefty received his second start in last weekend’s win over Toronto, and he repaid Heaps’ faith with a 24th-minute equalizer for his first MLS goal.
“I think it was just great because it was something that our team needed at that moment and time,” said the 22-year-old rookie. “I wanted to make sure I provided an effect on the game, and I think that goal really helped us in a crucial moment.”
Mullins took a pass from Daigo Kobayashi on a quick counterattack, moved the ball onto his preferred foot, and confidently sent it past keeper Julio Cesar into the upper left corner, earning him Soccer By Ives Rookie of the Week honors.
“We’ve all seen him in training and know he’s a quality finisher, and he’s very technical, so we knew he had that in his locker,” Nguyen said.
While Mullins saw his first action since the season-opener, No. 4 overall pick Steve Neumann has subbed on in four of New England’s last five matches.
“I think they sense opportunity,” Heaps said. “When they’ve gotten into games, both of them have taken their chances, and I think that’s really important.”
Heaps said he watched Mullins frequently when he was playing in the ACC at the University of Maryland. Neumann played just around the corner at Georgetown.
“What you realize about (Mullins) is how smart he is as a player,” Heaps said. “He makes very good runs, he knows how to position himself to use his body, and those are key things. When you’re trying to prepare and put a game plan together he really understands what we’re trying to do, and that’s important.”