If you’ve followed Major League Soccer for some time and you’re of the persuasion that time is a flat circle, you might’ve felt some deja vu on Sunday afternoon.
A Bruce Arena-coached side hit the road to outfox a higher-seeded opponent with savvy tactics and big plays from star players, advancing deep into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs after ebbing and flowing during the regular season but finding form just in time down the stretch.
He did it with D.C. United two decades ago at the dawn on MLS, and he did it with the LA Galaxy from 2008-16, orchestrating perhaps the only two true dynasties in the league’s history. And now he’s doing it again with the New England Revolution, who are headed to the Eastern Conference Final after a crafty, gutsy 3-1 upset of Orlando City at Exploria Stadium six years to the day after their 2014 squad booked their ticket to that season’s MLS Cup final (where they lost to Arena’s Galaxy in extra time).
“Well, it wasn't pretty,” said Arena as he opened his postgame remarks to the media, managing in trademark fashion to be down-to-earth about the imperfections in his team’s performance while complimenting his players’ resourcefulness.
“We had to work real hard. That was a real good team … we made some mistakes in this game and we’ve got to get it better for next week if we hope to advance to the MLS Cup.”
Highlights: Orlando City 1, New England Revolution 3
Goalkeeper Matt Turner had to save a late Nani penalty kick to stave off the Lions despite the Revs enjoying a man advantage for more than half an hour. A miscommunication between Turner and center back Henry Kessler gifted Orlando their goal, and volcanic emotions on the part of the home side further inflamed an already-emotional occasion attended by a limited but raucous crowd.
Arena of all people knows that the results don’t necessarily have to be pretty at this time of year. They just have to move you along to the next round. And no one in league history has moved along as often or as successfully as he has.
Arena has mastered the particular rhythms of the postseason – the transformative effects of urgency and pressure, the massive importance of momentum, the supreme value of clutch performers, the manner in which all the ups and downs of the regular season fade into grainy prelude. Particularly after a regular season as quirky as 2020’s, with myriad disruptions and compromises imposed by COVID-19.
“The regular season, from the competitive part, it was very odd,” Arena pointed out. “This is now our 26th game. I think we've played 11 games against Montreal and Philadelphia. Never played Orlando in our conference. So just think about how odd that whole thing is competitively. So I wasn't too concerned about how the regular season went in terms of, are you in fourth place, second place, sixth place, eighth place? It didn't matter. It really didn't matter.
“The most important thing is have a team prepared when you're in the knockout stage, which we are now, and I think we got better towards the end of the year. And obviously the return of Carles [Gil] is huge for our team.”
Last week Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya noted that “playoffs are playoffs, they’re a different beast” after his Supporters’ Shield-winning team were upset by the Revs in Round One, and New England have soaked up that lesson well.
Injuries prevented them from fielding their three Designated Players – Gil, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa, a talented trio that reportedly cost them $12.7 million in transfer fees alone – in the attack together from July 17 to Nov. 2. But they didn’t rush their return, easing them back into flow just in time for the playoffs, and all three have produced.
Arena also tweaked the rest of the lineup to make the most of them, most notably by deputizing winger Tajon Buchanan as a high-octane right back, which helped slay Philly and led to both of Sunday’s goals while stifling Nani.
“We'll just continue to build,” said Turner. “And the job's not done yet. … Everybody played so well today and it was just a great performance for us and for our club's history.”
The Revs have already far outplayed their humble No. 8 seed in this year’s bracket, and won’t be fazed by whatever awaits them in next week’s conference final.
“We're conscious of the fact that we didn't finish with the seed that we wanted. We weren't too happy finishing eighth, but we are playing well right now, thanks to God,” said Bou. “We're strong mentally and physically, we leave everything on the field and we left everything on the field today.”