FOXBORO - Changes had to be made to the heart of the New England Revolution defense, especially in having a presence at midfield.
Xavier Kouassi may be the answer, or at least a part of the solution for the Revolution, who begin the home portion of their season schedule Saturday afternoon in Foxboro.
Kouassi made his long-awaited MLS debut, starting and playing 79 minutes at the base of New England's midfield diamond at Dallas last weekend. It was a milestone appearance for the 27-year-old Ivorian, who was sidelined for more than a year after suffering a major right knee injury just days after signing with the Revolution last February.
"I thought he put in an excellent shift," said New England coach Jay Heaps. "I thought the first half was near perfect from his positioning, breaking up plays, and taking some of the pressure off of our center backs by winning second balls, by winning loose balls, so they can worry about the balls that may be dangerous in behind.
"He gave everything he had."
Kouassi was thrilled to be back on the field, and it was clear that his teammates were just as excited to see him return, having watched his comeback unfold over the course of the past 13 months.
On Saturday, Kouassi will make his New England debut as the Revolution play their first home match of the MLS season at 2 p.m. against new MLS member Minnesota.
After more than 400 days since his last competitive appearance and coming off major knee surgery, there was no hesitation in Kouassi's game.
"It looked like he wasn't afraid to step into some challenges, as if he wasn't afraid to get injured again," said midfielder Juan Agudelo. "It's very bright for us to have a player like that back."
Kouassi did so well, in fact, that Heaps left him on the field for longer than anticipated. After maxing out at 45 minutes in the preseason, Kouassi played almost to the 80-minute mark, showing no signs of fatigue.
"It was hard to take him out," Heaps said. "I thought Kouassi did a really good job. He showed his physicality and he broke up plays."
With Kouassi holding down the midfield, Scott Caldwell was pushed to the right side in a slightly more advanced position.
That left Kouassi to protect the backline, clog passing lanes, win loose balls and keep possession flowing through the midfield.
In losing to FC Dallas, New England mustered just four shots, with three on goal, and totaling just four corner kicks. The Revs only owned ball possession 40 percent of the time while being scoreless for the final 80 minutes after Lee Nguyen converted his 14th career penalty kick.
Although FC Dallas eventually broke through with a pair of goals in the late stages - capitalizing on what Heaps called individual moments - Kouassi was largely solid in his role, working doggedly to break up attacks while harassing and harrying Dallas in the middle of the park.
"He was outstanding," said Caldwell. "Really, really good positionally and ball-winning. It's great to see after waiting so long for him and seeing he's healthy and back at it with the guys."
His MLS debut was a massive step for Kouassi, although some work does still remain for him to hit full stride for the Revolution's home opener.
"He was tired coming out of that game," noted Heaps. "It was probably five or 10 minutes longer than we had planned, but it was such a tight game, there was no real moment to get him out, because up to the 70th minute, I never felt like there was a ton of pressure on us.
"Now it's about just getting games underneath him and getting sharper," said Heaps. "Hopefully, he continues to build on that fitness."
And for the Revolution building an attack and winning matches, with a delayed home season debut.
"We would have loved to have had a game in between (the March 11 game being postponed in Foxboro due to cold), we don't control the schedule," added Heaps. "Like any home game, any home opener, there's pressure and there's a good pressure.
"We want to perform well in front of our home crowd, we want our crowd to impact the game, we want to get them into the game, and we want to get three points.
"That's the mindset," said Heaps. "There were moments in both games (Colorado, Dallas) that are positives, but we can be better. I think we all know that and Saturday is another chance to get better."