Failing to become the eighth team to secure the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double. A 23-day wait between lifting the Shield and their Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs opener. Going behind early, yet again, only to lose on penalty kicks and dish more heartbreak to their long-suffering fanbase.
There were plenty of areas to dissect after the New England Revolution were upset in Tuesday night’s Eastern Conference Final, dropping a 5-3 shootout to New York City FC following a 2-2 draw in 120 minutes of pulsating action. It was an all-too-familiar feeling for the No. 1 seed, who will be replaying Adam Buksa’s missed penalty kick and Alexander Callens’ clinching one in their heads on repeat, losing to the No. 4-seeded Cityzens before 25,000-plus fans on a frigid Gillette Stadium night.
And center back Andrew Farrell, who’s approaching a decade with the Revolution, having witnessed their return to the MLS elite, summed up the team's emotions succinctly post-game.
“We had such a great year,” Farrell said. “So many guys, so many accolades, but we weren't able to finish it. We'll look back and obviously enjoy it, but at the end of the day it sucks.”
His bluntness comes after New England ran away with their first-ever Shield, setting a new MLS single-season points record (73) and booking a spot in the 2022 Concacaf Champions League. The much-discussed three-week break that ensued – as a result of their Round One bye and the November international break – was enough to get Buksa’s foot injury healed.
The prolific Poland international missed World Cup Qualifiers but returned in time for the playoffs. And the No. 9 delivered early, his ninth-minute header canceling out NYCFC’s third-minute opener from Santiago Rodriguez.
But Buksa’s PK was stopped by Cityzens’ netminder Sean Johnson, in a shootout prompted by Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Valentin Castellanos and now-Club Brugge winger Tajon Buchanan trading extra-time goals as the playoff intensity ratcheted up. Yet NYCFC made one more play and Johnson won the PK battle of US men’s national team goalkeepers against Matt Turner, with Callens’ straight-up-the-middle rocket prompting euphoria from the visitors.
New England had grand dreams of raising MLS Cup on Dec. 11, a storybook ending for the league original. Instead, the Bronx bunch now enters this coming Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final at the Philadelphia Union (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes), having sent MLS Cup hosting priority to Portland in the Western Conference.
“At the end of the day, it's disappointing,” midfielder Matt Polster said. “This kind of group, having the season we did, it doesn't always replicate in the playoffs. It's difficult, it's not the same type of games. We knew that, but that's just a disappointing result. We had expectations of going the whole way and winning MLS Cup. Tonight just wasn't our night.”
Another failure for New England, a club that’s lost all five prior trips to MLS Cup? Or a bitter end to a buccaneering campaign? Head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena feels the answer is simple.
“I think any sensible, reasonable person would say that,” Arena said when asked if 2021 was a success, applying his trademark droll tone. “If you think otherwise, I think you need to have your head examined.”
This setback comes two-and-a-half years after Arena took over New England, pushing them to the playoffs every season from 2019-21. He’s breathed life back into the club, establishing a modus operandi that seems to have positioned them for long-term success.
Though it’s also not entirely clear how long Arena will lead them on the sidelines. The 70-year-old manager, when asked about his coaching future after the defeat, was rather vague and non-committal.
“We'll see, we'll see what makes sense,” Arena said. “Every day I coach is sort of a blessing. If it ends today, it ends today. It's not the end of the world. I'm really comfortable with the number of years I've been able to coach. We'll see if it continues. We'll see what makes sense and we'll think about all of it. Let the owners think about it a little bit and then we all move forward.”
Those answers and more will surface in short order, with MLS teams due to return for 2022 preseason by mid-January. CCL-participating teams like the Revolution open their Round of 16 series between Feb. 15-17, with the continental tournament draw set for Dec. 15. Then next year’s MLS season starts on Feb. 26, the earliest start to a season in league history.
For now, New England exit the playoffs wondering what could have been. As Farrell noted, MLS teams are largely measured by their playoff success or lack thereof.
“It's devastating because so many guys put in such good efforts throughout the year, fans were great,” Farrell said. “But it's very disappointing.”