The 2021 Supporters’ Shield is far from locked up, though the New England Revolution are clearly in the driver’s seat and trending toward their first piece of MLS silverware.
The Bruce Arena-steered side, with 10 regular-season games to play, holds a 10-point lead atop the overall league table, staving off the Seattle Sounders. They’ve scored an MLS-high 45 goals and are 14 points ahead of Orlando City SC and Nashville SC, their closest competitors in the Eastern Conference.
But how much stock, if any, does Arena put into that trophy hunt? Not a ton, it turns out. The Revolution’s head coach and sporting director even said he’s not sure the Philadelphia Union should have earned the Supporters’ Shield last year during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
“I think if you have a Supporters’ Shield, you should have two Supporters’ Shields this year,” Arena said on this week’s The Call Up episode. “Really we’re playing East plays East and West plays West. To say at the end that one team deserves a Supporters’ Shield and likely has not played a dozen other teams in the league seems a little odd to me.
“I think it’s a great accomplishment if either winner in either conference has a great season and all. But I think even if it’s the New England Revolution and we come out on top in points, I think there’s an asterisk next to that Supporters’ Shield.”
As Arena noted, the COVID-19 pandemic’s lingering presence created conference-centric scheduling, helping reduce travel. New England’s only Western Conference opponents this year are FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids. The Revs registered a 2-1 loss in Frisco on June 27 and will host the current No. 2 seed in the West on Oct. 27 in a possible MLS Cup preview.
Still, there’s no denying that the Revolution have thrived during their third year with Arena at the helm. Assist leader Carles Gil is the presumptive Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa are in the mix for the Golden Boot presented by Audi, Tajon Buchanan secured a club-record transfer to Belgian First Division side Club Brugge and Matt Turner has emerged as the US men’s national team’s starting goalkeeper during World Cup Qualifying.
But how good are they really? Even Arena isn’t quite sure yet.
“I think that remains to be seen,” Arena said. “We have a good team. I think in MLS everything boils down to the postseason. I think people tend not to get overwhelmed by results in the regular season and the playoffs tell it all, so we’ll see a little bit more as we get towards the end of the year. We have a good team and the question you asked is a good one because I don’t know the answer to that either. I think we’re going to find out over the last 10 regular-season games and the playoffs."
Using the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs as a litmus test, New England are hoping to advance past last year’s Eastern Conference Final trip, where they lost to eventual winners Columbus Crew. That's especially considering the club’s quarter century-plus history, one that’s clouded by five MLS Cup trips that all came up empty.
For New England to get over that hurdle, Arena takes confidence from the locker room they’ve assembled. It contains MLS veterans like Andrew Farrell and Tommy McNamara in key roles, as well as international talent that’s acclimated to the league’s rigors.
“Teams are together every day for a long period of time and it’s important that you have the right kind of harmony in locker rooms and on the field,” Arena said. “It’s like any other relationship you have in life. You tend to get on each other at times, so if you have a good group of people you’ll have less trouble than you typically have in team settings.
“This is a really good team. We have some great senior leadership, we have a nice balance between domestic players and international players, and for the most part we get along pretty well.”
For more from Arena, check out the full The Call Up episode here.