Foxborough, MA (SportsNetwork.com) - This time last year head coach Jay Heaps was entering his second season in charge of the New England Revolution with the team coming off of a nine-win campaign.
Heaps had a young roster and many question marks, while expectations were relatively low for a franchise that failed to reach the postseason in the previous three years.
But the Revs not only exceeded expectations, they finished third in the Eastern Conference with 14 wins, snapping the playoff drought and raising hopes that this young team is on the verge of something big.
In order for New England to take the next step and become an MLS Cup contender the club must find a reliable striker to shoulder some of the scoring load, a void that has been created over the past two seasons because of injury problems to Saer Sene.
The 27-year-old looked like the future of the team when he bagged 11 goals in 25 games in 2012. But he sustained an ACL injury toward the end of the campaign and was limited at the start of last year, which was a big reason why he only netted five goals in 24 matches in his second season.
Sene suffered another serious injury in October when he dislocated his ankle and broke his fibula in a challenge from Montreal's Davy Arnaud, which will keep him on the sidelines to start this season.
Last year it was the emergence of Diego Fagundez that was one of the biggest stories not only for the Revs, but also in MLS.
The dynamic 19-year-old led the way with 13 goals and seven assists last season, and expectations are through the roof for this year.
Heaps knows he has a game-changer in Fagundez, but he is now looking to see how consistent his young talent can be as well as how well he does the little things.
"He's changed a lot of games scoring a lot of goals, but now we want to see his consistency," said Heaps. "Can he get more touches? Can he help us more in team possession or team defending, and really keep the ball and keep the sequence going?
"We know he can score. We know he has off-the-chart ability, and what I saw from him last year was a complete picture of what he can be. Now you add more consistency and we're talking about a national team player."
Taking some of the pressure off Fagundez will be another talented young player in midfielder Kelyn Rowe, who notched eight goals and eight assists in his sophomore season in New England.
The 22-year-old will combine with Lee Nguyen in midfield to give the Revs plenty of playmaking ability, with Nguyen chipping in seven assists last term to finish one behind Rowe for the team lead.
With Sene battling fitness problems for much of the season it was Juan Agudelo who served as the target man, and he filled in capably with seven goals in 16 games.
Agudelo is now plying his trade in the Netherlands, so the Revs have turned to Sporting Kansas City's Teal Bunbury to fill the void.
Bunbury, has a few things to prove after he began his MLS career with 19 goals in two-and-a-half seasons.
That production earned him call-ups the Unites States national team, but he fell out of favor last season in Kansas City and made only three starts.
In New England Bunbury will have the chance to redeem himself, with Heaps expressing his excitement over what he thinks the 23-year-old can bring to his team.
"What I really like about him is that he has all the qualities. He's very strong, he's technical, but he's also fast, so he can also stretch defenses," Heaps said of Bunbury. "Teal coming here, for me and our staff, it's something that we feel is a strong, strong piece to what we're trying to do."
Heaps must also figure out if Bobby Shuttleworth is the man to replace veteran Matt Reis between the posts after Shuttleworth started 22 games for the club last season.
Jose Goncalves was one of the best defenders in MLS last year, and along with Andrew Farrell, A.J. Soares and Chris Tierney, New England has few questions in defense.
ACQUISITIONS: Brad Knighton (GK), Charlie Davies (F), Teal Bunbury (F), Steve Neumann (M/F), Patrick Mullins (F).
LOSSES: Chad Barrett (F), Matt Reis (GK), Clyde Simms (M), Juan Toja (M), Juan Agudelo (F).
OUTLOOK: With so many young players it is difficult to predict which direction New England will go this season. If players like Fagundez, Rowe and Bunbury are able to continue to develop and take the next step, the Revs could be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. But they could just as easily struggle to replicate their form last season, leading to a step back for a club that overachieved in 2013. Talented draft picks Patrick Mullins and Steve Neumann will make sure New England's impressive crop of young players continues to grow, but how much production the club gets from the midfield will ultimately determine its fate.