New England Revolution coach Brad Friedel has shuffled players in just about every position this season.
The one exception, until recently, was goalkeeper.
But against New York City FC on Sept. 5, Friedel broke with his 26-game streak of putting raw goalkeeper Matt Turner in between the posts and opted instead for the steady hands of veteran shot-stopper Brad Knighton.
The switch has, in many ways, paid off: Knighton helped the Revolution beat NYCFC 1-0 to snap a nine-game winless run and clinch their second road win of 2018. Knighton started the two games since then as well, and the Revs are now unbeaten in three with a chance to make it four Saturday night when they face Toronto FC at BMO Field.
“When the season started, Matt won the spot outright. But when you play the game this long, you know you have to push every day to make it difficult for the coach to make a decision,” Knighton said after training this week. “With a goalkeeper, it’s obviously not like the other positions, where you can get a run in off the bench or start here and there.
“I kept my head down and worked hard…I don’t know what Brad’s process was when he made his decision to start me, all I can say is that I did what I could to make him have to make a decision.”
The Revolution followed up the 1-0 win against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium with an impressive 1-1 draw at Los Angeles FC, which has been almost perfect at home this season, and then an equally disappointing 2-2 draw at home against the Chicago Fire.
“We can control our own destiny and take back some points against Toronto. They’re not the same team last year. … I think they’re beatable.”
Knighton made 15 saves in those three matches, his efforts, without question, helping keep positive results intact despite New England’s accident-prone back line.
“You guys blow the mistakes out of proportion,” Knighton said of the media. “They aren’t our true nature. But every season has highs and lows. A lot of stuff happens. There are bad bounces, but they aren’t on just Matt or me, or Cody [Cropper]. It’s a team effort, regardless of what way the ball bounces.”
Knighton is taking a glass half-full approach with regard to his team’s defensive woes. Friedel is striking a similar chord. Though analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com says New England has just a 6 percent chance of making the playoffs, Friedel said after last Saturday’s tie against Chicago that he believes his team will be in the postseason.
But even Friedel won’t deny how precarious the situation is.
With just five games left – including three on the road – the Revs are five points out of the Eastern Conference’s sixth and final playoff spot. They do have a game in hand on the sixth place Montreal Impact, who they’ll play in the season finale Oct. 28, but any chance the Revolution have of reaching the playoffs is predicated on them ending the season on a winning streak while Montreal and D.C. United stumble and skid.
But Knighton, for his part, deserves credit for his individual performances, specifically his leadership of the back line in the last three matches.
Knighton has been a back-up for most of his career and spent most of this season benched in favor of an inexperienced keeper almost 10 years his junior. He says healthy competition enables all three Revs shot-stoppers to work harmoniously, and he believes Turner could be in line for a brilliant career.
But with the 2018 Revolution season headed toward the finish line, Knighton has his charge as both starter in net and veteran leader. For the record, he’s ready for Toronto and what’s left of the regular season and doesn’t care that the odds are stacked against his squad.
“It’s not pressure,” Knighton said. “The season isn’t down to five games when you play 34. The last couple of years we’ve had a summer dip and so games now mean more.
“We have a lot to embrace here. Everyone wants to play in big moments. The big moments are here. It’s now about scoring the right goals and taking the right chances. We can control our own destiny and take back some points against Toronto. They’re not the same team last year. Sure, it’s a lot of the same players but they aren’t as united. I think they’re beatable.”