The New England Revolution are heading to their fifth MLS Cup. All four of their prior trips to the MLS season's capstone have ended in some manner of heartbreak – a Pescadito breakaway, a Pando Ramirez deflection, the Houston Dynamo...
This time, however, luck and final third precision seem to be very much on their side:
Aggregate xG map for the New York - New England playoff. Tough result for NY. Revs took their chances. pic.twitter.com/5vIlmrthf0— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) November 29, 2014
There are compelling and myriad historical lessons to learn from the Revolution's previous Cup appearances, and most will be hashed and re-hashed over the next eight days. What matters right now, however, is this: New England got a 2-2 home draw and a 4-3 aggregate win, and they'll face either the LA Galaxy or Seattle Sounders next Sunday.
Here's what happened in Saturday's fantastic match:
1. Revs invite New York forward
New York controlled most of the first leg – a 2-1 New England win – and were driven forward in large chunks of the game by Lloyd Sam. Revs boss Jay Heaps made a mid-second half adjustment in that one, bringing Kevin Alston in at left back for left midfielder Kelyn Rowe, and pushing Chris Tierney higher up the pitch.
That move didn't really reverse the tone of that game, so much as change where it was played while squeezing one of RBNY's most creative players. So it stood to reason that, while protecting a lead at home, Alston was a good bet to get another appearance, maybe even from the start.
It played out exactly that way, and this is a pretty good example of why the best lineup to finish a game isn't always the best lineup to start a game. Alston plays a deeper left back than Tierney, who plays a much wider left midfield than Rowe. The positional effect was enough to invite New York, including and especially Sam, up the field and get him into an attacking rhythm, while begging New York to play left-to-right:
That map's just from the first half. New York always have a pronounced left-to-right bent anyway, but for the first 45 it was simply ridiculous. They were going to Sam early and often, and probably should have had a goal earlier than they did.
New England's backline, to their credit, scrambled frantically and tirelessly. Bobby Shuttleworth, meanwhile, continued his magnificent second half of the season in net.
But the pressure was intense, and New York's first-half goal came on a left-to-right chip from Thierry Henry. When New England adjusted in the second half – Alston came out higher and Tierney was generally more central – Sam got space to create RBNY's second goal.
2. A Battle in the Central Midfield
Charlie Davies had both Revs goals in this one, but let's save a special place for the series decider. We're going to get to it in a minute, but what's got to be noted is how it came about. In a word, "indiscipline."
Just like last week, there was a momentary bit of confusion in central midfield, an overzealous attempt at an interception, and some scrambling from RBNY.
Here's how goals are made:
Richard Eckersley had a mostly excellent game, but there's no reason for that challenge at central midfield – not when Dax McCarty had been, quite frankly, owning Lee Nguyen. It was rash and impetuous, and it forced Jamison Olave out of the center and onto the wing, where he had to shut down Tierney.
New York barely cleared the first bit of danger from that scenario after Luis Robles bobbled Tierney's bending cross, then never got enough time to snap back into position to handle New England's second bite.
And so you get the series-deciding goal, one where your dominant central defender is out trying to shut down a winger, your 5-foot-7 d-mid is trying to beat a center forward in the air, and your right back – Eckersley himself – is sort of drifting off the near post, not doing much of anything.
Any coach in any sport will tell you "the little things matter," and it's tempting to write that off as a cliche, or some sort of thoughtless mantra.
Don't. The little things matter a lot, especially in the playoffs. New England's second goal in Leg 1 came when Eckersley bombed into the midfield to attempt a tackle he didn't quite win, and the same thing happened in Leg 2.
The little things killed the Red Bulls.
3. High & central from the golden left boot
Davies deservedly won Man of the Match for his two goals, and his positional sense continues to be his best asset. Whether or not he's truly 90 percent of the player he was five years ago is arguable, but what's not is that he still has an international-cailber soccer brain, and that fundamentally his movement in the final third is elite.
Davies does most of his damage either on the break (hello, Columbus!) or by working strictly between the center backs. He'll flare to the touchlines if New England need him in possession, but for the most part his best bet is to make those darting, gap-splitting north-south runs between defenders to pull them out of Zone 14 – i.e., Nguyen's neighborhood. He is, first and foremost, a decoy.
Except for when he's not:
Center Forward 101, right there. And that's also Classic Left Midfielder 101, as Tierney hit the cross early, and in so doing didn't give the Red Bulls defense time to get set and attack the ball. This type of thinking – early balls from the flank – is antithetical to how cross-allergic New England played all year. They finished dead last in open play crosses in the regular season, and most of those were of the "pull-back to the trailing runner" sort.
It was a different game in this one, though:
Chris Tierney completed 6 of his 12 total crosses against the Red Bulls. Both numbers are tied for the most he's had in 2014.— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) November 29, 2014
Doing this to the lineup – one simple change – vastly altered how the Revs would play on both sides of the ball. Give Heaps credit, because it proved to be just enough to beat a team that, quite honestly, outplayed his over two legs and will be tormented all offseason by memories of missed chances.
And that, in the end, is the biggest difference: the Revs took their chances. Whichever team does that is the one that deserves to advance.