FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When Bruce Arena and Frank de Boer came together for a handshake and hug before their Decision Day presented by AT&T matchup on Oct. 6 between the New England Revolution and Atlanta United, the two coaches looked like reunited friends.
As it turns out, it was the first time they had formally met each other.
They’ll meet again this Saturday (1 pm ET | Univision, TUDN in US; TVAS, TSN4 in Canada) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. Since it’s a single-elimination game, odds are tactical adjustments from Arena and De Boer will prove crucial.
One leg up there, at least from a Revolution perspective, could be assistant coach Dave van den Bergh. The former Dutch winger, 43, came up through Ajax’s youth system and made his debut in 1995 as De Boer’s teammate. From an early stage, Van den Bergh could see De Boer’s tactical acumen, communication and organizational skills.
“Tactically, he read the game so well already,” Van den Bergh said. “At that point, he was basically dictating what was happening on the field between him and [defender] Danny Blind. It was pretty obvious that they had a really good grasp of tactically how our team should be and then in responding to whatever the other team did.”
That didn’t translate to immediate success in MLS, though. As De Boer replaced Tata Martino, the Five Stripes limped to an 1-3-2 start, with their only win coming on April 13, a 2-0 result at New England. But Atlanta, the reigning MLS Cup champions, eventually clicked to finish second in the Eastern Conference. They’ve already captured the club's first U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles this season, too.
“I think he found a really good system that fits the players that he has now in Atlanta,” Van den Bergh said. “Instead of trying to force the players into his system, he adapted the system.”
Arena added Atlanta is difficult to deal with because “they're looking to score goals for 90 minutes and they don't take no for an answer.”
One player who struggled early in De Boer’s tenure was Josef Martinez, as the 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP scored only twice in the first seven games this season. The Venezuelan got back on track and finished with 27 goals, good for third in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.
As for potential adjustments that either he or De Boer might make Saturday, Arena said fixing something that is not broken is counterproductive. He said good coaches always try to fine-tune what works best for them.
“Successful coaches do things generally right most of the time, so when things don't go right, you don't deviate much from what you do,” Arena said. “You just keep doing it and make it better."