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Revolution need work in defense department

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / February 2, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — The Revolution’s early years were characterized by disorganized, naive defending. Walter Zenga took the first strong step toward changing that as player-coach in 1999, but it was not until Steve Nicol became coach that the defending became consistent.

So after the Revolution regressed last season, surrendering 50 goals in 30 games, Nicol has concentrated on rebuilding the defense.

Both starters in last year’s season opener, Cory Gibbs and Emmanuel Osei, are gone. Ryan Cochrane, acquired from Houston in the MLS re-entry draft, is expected to start alongside Darrius Barnes, who missed the start of last season with injuries. A.J. Soares and an expected foreign-player signing will be given a chance to challenge during the preseason.

“Four guys fighting for two spots is perfect,’’ Nicol said. “You’ve always got injuries and all kinds of other things that go along with it. Every single one of them can possibly start. It’s up to them to push themselves forward and make it easier for me to pick a guy.’’

The Revolution seem set to play a 4-4-2 formation, but that could change if players emerge during exhibition games in Orlando this month and Kennesaw, Ga., next month.

Nicol played in a four-man back line with Liverpool FC and strongly advocated that setup as coach, until he found the Revolution loaded with skillful midfielders in 2004. The Revolution went to a 3-5-2 and turned the three-man back-line setup into an art form with Michael Parkhurst in the middle from 2005-08. But after failing to find a replacement for Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland), the team reverted to the 4-4-2.

“Right at this moment I couldn’t 100 percent tell you we’re going to play with 3, or 4, or 5, or whatever,’’ Nicol said. “We’ll have to see what suits us, once we get outside and start playing.’’

Cochrane, 27, started for Houston in MLS Cup victories over the Revolution in 2006 and ’07.

“I think that’s something I bring to the table that might be different,’’ Cochrane said. “Knowing what it takes to not just get there, but to win, kind of knowing when to rise to the occasion on the day.

“Because soccer can be kind of a fickle game. You look at the finals, both games could have gone either way. Our group found a way to get the job done. And that’s something unique to myself and guys around the league who have won, and I’m not sure there are a lot of guys in camp who can say they’ve done it twice.’’

Cochrane is used to performing with a physical partner in central defense. He teamed with Eddie Robinson in Houston and Chad Marshall on the US Under-20 national team.

“I think in preseason we can get a feel for each other, get a chance to play to each other’s strengths,’’ Cochrane said of Barnes. “I’m more of a guy who cleans up things.

“Darrius is a big guy, a real physical guy — I can do that as well, but my strengths are positioning and reading the game. Hopefully, we’ll work things out in preseason.

“It seems like this group is pretty similar as far as the characters, and team camaraderie and stuff. In Houston we always had a strong group off the field, which I think makes for a successful team. Having a lot of younger guys, and really having a group to build on to push for the playoffs, it’s really good to see.’’

Shalrie Joseph participated in yesterday’s training session after missing the opening preseason practice Monday. Vice president of player personnel Michael Burns said no fine will be imposed. “It’s the first day of preseason and we typically don’t like to do that,’’ said Burns. “At some point, Stevie and I will speak to him. I’m glad there is no issue and there is nothing wrong with him. He’s healthy and fine and we’ll just move forward and not make a big deal of it.’’ Nicol said Joseph’s absence “was a personal thing. He tried to get me but I had no phone.’’ Joseph declined to comment.

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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