Anyone who’s watched these Revs stomp all over the rest of the league for the past seven months or so can tell you that Carles Gil makes them tick. The silky Spaniard orchestrates the attack with his vision and passing range, racking up some absurd assist and chance creation numbers for the team that has scored more, lots more, goals than anyone in MLS.
So D.C. coach Hernan Losada sicced arguably his nastiest, most tenacious player on Gil, assigning veteran Brazilian defensive midfielder Felipe to harry and harass the playmaker over and above the usually organized noise of United’s heavy-metal pressing scheme. And for the first hour of the match, it worked, goosing the home side to a 1-0 lead over their frustrated visitors.
Felipe, a known master of the dark arts, might even have had reason to believe he was worming his way into Gil’s head:
In retrospect, the trash-talking was probably a mistake.
Led by their attacking trio of Designated Players, the Revs shifted through the gears, Gil putting Felipe in his place with a jaw-dropping golazo sandwiched between clinical strikes from Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou. By the end, a 3-2 road win emerged.
“They were man-marking Carles all over the field, with Felipe for the most part, and continued that in the second half. But you can't do that for 90 minutes and you can't do that on every play,” said coach Bruce Arena after what he called “an odd game, a sloppy game on our part,” but one that nonetheless eventually fell onto his team’s large and growing stack of one-goal victories in 2021.
United simply couldn’t keep pace in either physical or firepower terms, and soon became New England’s 10th away-day victim of the season.
“They picked it up a notch, and our top three attacking players got the job done,” said Arena. “Conceding the first goal is not a formula to win games, yet we showed the kind of character we’ve shown all year.”
So the Revs continue their inexorable march to the first Supporters’ Shield capture in their 26-year history and breaking LAFC's regular-season points record, looking very much like Arena’s dominant D.C. United and LA Galaxy teams of old: spearheaded by elite attacking talent at the top of the roster, reliable contributors further down it and animated by a resilient, defiant collective identity.
“All this season we have too much confidence in everyone, in every teammate,” said Gil, who hasn’t officially won the MLS MVP trophy yet – y’know, the one that bears the name of Arena’s old protege Landon Donovan – but can surely begin to plan for where he’ll display it at his home in Boston’s Seaport District.
“Yes, of course we know that this is a difficult league and we had a difficult moment, but always we have confidence, we know that we can score in every moment,” continued Gil, later adding that “we did a bad, difficult 60 minutes, but in 30 minutes we score three goals, we create many chances and we defended [well], so we are very happy.”
The “difficult moments” Gil refers to have been laughably fleeting by the standards of most of their peers; they’ve only lost four times all year. That, too, is a symptom of a highly successful side, however.
Most of us would cut them some slack for dropping two points at home to struggling Chicago last weekend, but expectations are such in their locker room that the result left them simmering, eager to return to winning ways despite a “trap game” type of situation in D.C.
In a league increasingly driven by homegrowns, Under-22 Initiative signings and other young talent, Arena is a proud throwback, and it’s reflected in his veteran-driven team. They’re short on teenagers but long on savvy pros who, in almost any situation, can say they’ve been there before. And all three of their DPs, who cost them a pretty penny compared to the mostly frugal Revs of bygone vintage, have delivered.
“We have a lot of good players on the field, a lot of good players that can come off the bench and change games for us, and they all have different qualities and can bring different ways to play and to attack the game on the field,” noted Tommy McNamara, shipped out by the cellar-dwelling Houston Dynamo FC last year en route to becoming a dependable central-midfield glue guy for Arena. “So I think that's part of it.
“I think the other side of it is also just experience. We have a lot of experience in the team and so maybe when things are going against us or things aren't quite how we want it to be, we kind of have experienced that before and as a group, we're like OK, it’s all right, we can come through this, we just need to survive this period and then we'll shift the momentum back into our favor again and we'll have opportunities.”
That’s been quite an effective recipe so far, and one that stands a solid chance of working even in the chaos and smaller sample sizes of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, especially with their home-field advantage assured as the New England winter chill descends.
Good luck to the rest of the Eastern Conference; they’ll need it come postseason.