New England Revolution CCL blunder defined by "too many mistakes" at Pumas UNAM

Television broadcasts have a funny way of catching unfiltered moments from New England Revolution head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena.

One of those unrestrained instances came Wednesday night at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario after Sebastian Lletget skied his fourth-round penalty kick against Liga MX’s Pumas UNAM.

Arena, clearly frustrated, was caught bemoaning “what the f--- was that?” And cue the viral Twitter clip, summing up the overall mounting frustration about Leg 2 of their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal series.

Ultimately, the Revolution drew Pumas 3-3 on aggregate and lost 4-3 on penalty kicks. In isolation, the scoreline wasn’t horrible. But considering New England carried a 3-0 lead from Leg 1 in Foxborough, and how one away goal in Mexico City would’ve required their hosts to score five, yet another chapter of CCL heartbreak was born.

“We made some mistakes that caused goals, but that's the way it goes,” Arena said postgame. “There's no excuses. We certainly could have been a little bit better. And the third goal is an example, we just made too many mistakes on that particular play.”

That play Arena referenced was a 59th-minute strike from Sebastian Saucedo, a former US youth international and Real Salt Lake homegrown who’s been at Pumas for three seasons now. It settled the 3-0 scoreline, which got rolling via a brace from Juan Ignacio Dinenno, the CCL Golden Boot leader with five tallies.

Each slip-up shined a bright spotlight on how New England were missing center backs Andrew Farrell and Henry Kessler, with that duo starting the majority of their MLS 2021 Supporters’ Shield-winning season (earned by a league-record 73 points). In stepped Jon Bell, he of 13 MLS games, and Omar Gonzalez, the 33-year-old former US international that Arena reunited with in free agency this offseason.

The Bell-Gonzalez partnership had some shaky moments, and goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. should have stopped Saucedo’s aggregate leveler. The 30-year-old has stepped in for Matt Turner to start the year, with the USMNT No. 1 (or No. 2, depending on Zack Steffen’s form/availability) ultimately not featuring in either of New England’s two CCL games – a notable occurrence since his summertime move to Premier League side Arsenal was delayed, in part, because of an expected deep run in the continental tournament.

To phrase it another way, half of New England’s first-choice defensive core – aside from fullbacks DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye, plus defensive midfielder Matt Polster – was absent, and it showed.

“We're not surprised the way that the game looked,” Arena said. “We knew it was going to look like that and the altitude was going to be a factor. And give them credit, we made too many mistakes today.”

Had New England advanced, they would have faced Cruz Azul in the semifinals come early April after the Liga MX side downed CF Montréal earlier Wednesday night. Rather, that side of the bracket has an all-Mexican complexion and the other half could be an all-MLS one, should Seattle Sounders FC advance past Club Leon on Thursday night (8:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN) and meet New York City FC, which skimmed past Guatemala’s Comunicaciones on Tuesday evening.

With the Revs missing out, plenty of questions will be raised. Perhaps chief among them: Why weren’t they more aggressive in putting the series to the sword, knowing what an away goal would do? And the what-ifs arise when thinking of several missed Adam Buksa chances, especially since the Polish No. 9 had a brace in Leg 1. Gonzalez’s 91st-minute header was robbed by Pumas goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera, too.

“At the end of the day, that's the decision we made and we went through it,” Bye said of the team’s posture. “We have to be together on that. Whatever the decision was, whether it was go find a goal, defend, whatever it is we made that decision as a team, as a coaching staff, as a unit and that's something that we have to live with.”

As for Arena’s take on the more-defensive tactical approach being the correct choice? He only offered a simple “yes” during his postgame press conference.

The misgivings now leave New England shifting focus to the 2022 MLS campaign, following an offseason where their three marquee signings – Gonzalez, Lletget and former USMNT striker Jozy Altidore – were made with CCL aspirations in mind.

They came up short, though, with New England’s regional foray defined by second-leg anguish at Pumas and Round of 16 advancement after Haiti’s Cavaly AS withdrew due to visa issues. It, simply, wasn’t what the club drew up.

“We’re going to be mad,” Bye said. “We’re going to be disappointed. We had three goals up at our place. It’s not a result that we wanted."