When the New England Revolution made a coaching change early in the 2019 season, the outlook was bleak.

The Revs had won just twice in their first 12 games, and in their final three matches before ultimately parting ways with Brad Friedel, the team conceded 15 goals. That miserable start occurred amid the backdrop of the club having already missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs during each of the last three seasons and having last won a playoff game in 2014. It looked as if another rebuild, another new era, another call for patience was coming.

And then legendary MLS and US men's national team manager Bruce Arena arrived, taking over as head coach and sporting director. The Revs made the playoffs in 2019 despite the disastrous start. They made a run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2020. Now this year, they've won the Supporters' Shield and set a new single-season league record for points – all with one game left.

"I mean, I said that to the team," Arena told media Wednesday night, "‘Man, what a show I inherited in May of 2019.’"

It's easy to forget, too, that Arena's hiring wasn't met with a ringing endorsement. His reputation wasn't at its peak. Arena took over the USMNT for the second time in 2016, leaving the LA Galaxy to become national team manager with World Cup qualifying hanging in peril. He couldn't rescue their Russia 2018 hopes and resigned about seven months prior to arriving in New England.

It didn't take long for one of the league's greatest ever managers to add more hardware to his trophy cabinet.

"To think how far they’ve come is kind of remarkable," Arena said. "It really is. That shows the character of these people – not only the players but the staff. You know, we come to work every day, it’s a pretty good work environment. And I guess they accomplished more than any team in the history of the league. So, that’s a heck of a story. So, you guys all have something to write. You don’t have to write about the formations and all the other stuff. You can write about it. It could be a history essay.”

It is a heck of a story, Bruce. Let's look through just how this team has evolved, both internally and externally, since Arena took over.

1
Designated Player trifecta
Carles Gil – Gustavo Bou – All-Star Game

A longtime Bruce-ism, particularly around playoff time, is that your best players need to be your best players to win anything in MLS. In a salary-capped league, your DPs and high-earners have to be worth their budget charge – and then some.

That is a simple takeaway, but the Bruce-ism holds weight. And simple takeaways are my favorite takeaways. While Supporters' Shield-winning teams in years past can be more balanced – think 2020 Philly, 2018 RBNY and 2016 FC Dallas in the TAM era – MLS Cup-winning teams have almost always been led by the best players producing at their peak. The Crew had Lucas Zelarayan last year. Seattle were led by Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz in 2019. Atlanta by Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron in 2018. Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley paced Toronto to their 2017 treble. You get it.

When Arena took over, he inherited Carles Gil. He very quickly built the team around the Spanish talisman. Then he and his staff went out to identify further reinforcements. The club spent big money to acquire Gustavo Bou in the summer of 2019 then Adam Buksa that winter. Both have had their ups and downs, and it took a little bit to optimize the spacing and maximize each player's individual ability in the same starting XI, but it'd be churlish to call either signing anything but a success.

Gil has 4g/18a, Bou has 15g/9a and Buksa has 16g/4a this season. They have a combined 35g/31a. That is a PHENOMENAL return on investment.

Goals + assists by MLS DPs, by team
Team
G+A by DPs
DP Mins
DPs
New England
66
6,506
Gil, Bou, Buksa
Nashville
33
3,325
Mukhtar, Loba, Cadiz
Atlanta
33
4,221
Josef, Barco, Araujo
Sporting KC
32
3,506
Pulido, Russell
Seattle
32
4,923
Ruidiaz, Joao Paulo, Lodeiro
Columbus
31
6,746
Zelarayan, Zardes, Nagbe
Miami
29
6,080
G. Higuain, Pizarro, Matuidi
Orlando
28
3,739
Nani, Pereyra
San Jose
27
4,407
Chofis, Espinoza
NYCFC
26
4,702
Moralez, Medina, Magno
Cincinnati
26
7,431
Acosta, Brenner, Kubo
LA Galaxy
24
5,047
Chicharito, dos Santos, Cabral
Austin
24
5,424
Dominguez, Driussi, Pochettino
Portland
23
3,300
Blanco, Y. Chara, Niezgoda
Minnesota
22
4,562
Reynoso, Hunou, Gregus
Toronto
22
3,629
Soteldo, Pozuelo, Altidore
LAFC
21
3,689
Vela, Rodriguez, Rossi
Chicago
19
5,665
Beric, Aliseda, Gimenez
Real Salt Lake
18
2,775
Rusnak
D.C. United
15
2,210
Arriola, Flores
RBNY
14
1,920
Klimala
Vancouver
12
2,351
Gauld, Cavallini
Dallas
10
2,807
Jara, Acosta
Philadelphia
8
2,210
Monteiro
Houston
6
2,479
Quintero, Hadebe
Montréal
3
2,208
Wanyama
Colorado
1
470
Namli

Obviously there's more to the game than just goal contributions, but teams invest DP spots/money in their attack exponentially more than other positions.

Anytime the Revs step on the field, they'd be right to feel confident their big three is more talented than their opposition's top three players. Not a ton of teams in MLS can match that. They are all capable of winning a match on their own. All three can lead a team for stretches, and all three have this year.

2
Developing young talent, maximizing the SuperDraft
Tajon Buchanan Revs solo shot

Behind the obvious stars, the Revs have received strong value on the roster from a handful of youngsters. In particular, under Arena, the Revs have shown there is still plenty of value to be found in the SuperDraft, even as some teams treat it as an afterthought amid the growing success of MLS academies.

Tajon Buchanan blossomed from intriguing youngster to can't-miss talent, MLS All-Star, written-in-pen Canadian national team starter and the subject of a $7 million transfer to a Champions League side (Belgium's Club Brugge) in less than two years. He was selected No. 9 overall in the 2019 SuperDraft.

Buchanan didn't play a ton during his rookie season, contributing two assists in 10 appearances (four starts), then broke into the regular rotation during the 2020 regular season. He had two goals and two assists while appearing in all 23 matches (11 starts). This year, he absolutely exploded as his end product developed. Buchanan has 8g/5a in 26 appearances (18 starts) as he looks to win another trophy in New England before heading to Europe in January.

"He’s come a long way," Arena said on Wednesday, reflecting on Buchanan. "I remember telling him at the end of 2019, I was on the field with him one day in training at the end of the year, and I said, ‘Tajon, there’s no reason to believe that you can’t be playing on our team on a regular basis next year.’ I could see the talent he had, it just wasn’t coming together and there’s still ways to come, but you could see the potential he had as a player."

The player selected No. 11 in that very same draft? DeJuan Jones. The winger-turned-fullback won a place in the team quickly his rookie year and now is a key cog in this Shield-winning side, with three goals and five assists in 30 appearances. Between Gil and the 2019 SuperDraft duo, the previous regime clearly left the current group with some building blocks.

During Arena's first draft as Revs sporting director, the club landed Henry Kessler No. 6 overall in 2020. The center back immediately won a starting role under Arena, who generally leans on veterans, such is Kessler's talent and maturity. He also featured for the US U-23 national team and ... blah blah blah because he's also responsible for one of the very best moments across the league this season.

3
MLS veterans playing key roles

Longtime defender Andrew Farrell has been among the team's most important and consistent players for years. He has played nearly every single minute so far in 2021, a season marked by fixture congestion and teams negotiating injuries. That in and of itself is quite the achievement. But Farrell's play has merited his ever-presence and he and Matt Polster are among the club's unsung heroes.

Meanwhile, Matt Turner has climbed from third-string goalkeeper flying to play matches on loan with the Richmond Kickers on the weekends to MLS All-Star and USMNT starter since signing with the Revs as an undrafted free agent in 2016. It has been an incredible rise.

Farrell and Turner were already part of the squad when Arena took over, but Polster was signed in the summer of 2020 from Rangers. The former Chicago Fire FC draftee has been just what the team needed, turning in strong and consistent performances at defensive midfield. He does the dirty work defensively and initiates possession from deep. Every successful team needs this type of player and Polster has been everything they hoped for.

Behind this trio, some MLS vets have played key depth roles to round out the squad like Teal Bunbury, Tommy McNamara, Ema Boateng and A.J. DeLaGarza, the latter three all signed by Arena.

It's been the perfect winning blend. No one has done it better in the MLS regular season.