Their first-ever Supporters’ Shield! A new single-season points record!
A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Revs didn’t miss a single step until the postseason, at which point they went straight into the drink. It was a disappointing end.
It should not overshadow what a spectacular 2021 season this team had, though. The Revs had themselves the MVP in Carles Gil, the Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year in Matt Turner and a budding superstar they sold for a reported $7 million to a Champions League club in Tajon Buchanan. They played open, attacking, attractive soccer, scored a ton of goals and logged an absurd number of one-goal wins.
It was the best regular-season they’ve ever had, and one of the best regular-season in MLS history. And you know where I stand on the Shield – it’s the best trophy to win and the truest indication of who the best team is. Give me eight great months of sustained excellence over a three-week hot streak every single time.
Formation and tactics
One of the questions I kept harping on at the beginning of the season was “Would it be worth it to the Revs to sacrifice midfield control and play a 4-4-2 diamond, thus getting both Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa onto the field at the same time in their best spots? Or will Bruce Arena have to drop one of those guys and go to a 4-2-3-1 in order to own more of the most valuable real estate on the pitch?”
Bruce toggled back and forth for a while and actually seemed to be leaning in the direction of the 4-2-3-1, but by early July the diamond had won out. Bou and Buksa, with Gil underneath them pulling the strings, was such a potent combo against most teams that it would’ve been self-sabotage not to start them all together.
It wasn’t just a diamond, though: It was an extraordinarily wide diamond, like, to the point it almost seemed like he was asking Matt Polster to play 1-v-3 in central midfield for huge chunks of games.
It’s weird and different, and generally not how the diamond is used. It’s usually a super-compact formation designed to shunt play into one channel or another (think about how RSL used to set up shop in the attacking half in order to get Javier Morales on the ball in the left half-space), or more recently it’s been a pressing system thanks to the Ralf Ragnick revolution.
Not under Bruce, though. Bruce’s diamond was a lot of space, a lot of pace, a lot of skill and a lot of vibes.
Unfurl the Revs’ 2021 regular-season schedule, tape it to the wall, blindfold yourself and toss a dart at it. Any date it hits is probably going to be a highlight, which is how it goes when you win 22 games en route to a record-setting 73-point season. Even if they weren’t quite as good as their record indicated (which Arena himself conceded after losing in the playoffs), they were damn good and played a ton of fun, attractive, winning soccer.
So within all of that, a regular-season win over hapless Chicago Fire FC should not stand out. But it does, because that 3-2 win on Sept. 22 is the one in which it became absolutely clear that the Revs were not, in fact, going to blow this. They were going to hold onto – and even extend – the lead they’d built over the previous five months, and they’d do so because their best players were repeatedly going out there and being their best players in the biggest moments.
That was part of a 10-game unbeaten run to close the season, and this is the type of goal MVP awards and Supporters’ Shields are made of. Finding a way to collect full points even on short rest and even with a rotated squad is a type of magic few teams are able to keep up over the course of a full year, and the Revs did it like no other.
This wasn’t the game they technically won the Shield – that came a month later vs. Orlando – but this was the game they made it clear that they absolutely weren’t going to lose it.
The 4-4-2, and often conceding central midfield with it, was the right gamble in the regular season. For the second straight postseason, though, it was not.
Once you get to a high enough level, most games are won by exerting control over central midfield. That control can come in two ways:
- control the ball
- control the pitch by denying space
The Revs did neither and NYCFC did both, and so the Pigeons absolutely deserved to advance in the Eastern Conference Semis.
NYCFC followed the same blueprint Columbus drew up last year and just flooded central midfield, not just via the natural numerical superiority the 4-2-3-1 provides in the most valuable real estate on the pitch, but also by pinching in one of their wingers. Polster was overrun and the Revs never really adjusted.
It says something about how good New England's top-end talent is that they damn near won the game anyway, and at least took it to PKs. It says more that they've gone out in the playoffs in this exact same way two years in a row despite all that talent.
It’s kind of a cheat to list Buchanan as a revelation since he really broke out last year in the playoffs, and I suspect his long-term home will be in that spot (fullback) or the spot he more often plays for Canada (wingback) than the half-shuttler, half-winger role he played for the Revs this year.
Regardless, he was really, really good – if not exactly Best XI-caliber good – with 8g/5a in about 1800 minutes, and he represents the first time since Clint Dempsey forced his way out 15 years ago that New England have developed a player and gone on to sell them for many millions of dollars.
That’s not a game they’ve been interested in playing basically ever, but it really does seem like a new era in that regard.
Those were supposed to be the three big additions this past winter, the guys who’d push the Revs one round deeper than they’d gone in 2020. All three registered pretty disappointing 2021 seasons.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Gil (AM): Rightfully won the league MVP. An elite No. 10 in his prime, at the peak of his powers.
- Turner (GK): The best goalkeeper in the league for three years running finally got his due.
- Polster (DM): The second-best d-mid in the league this year, he should be getting looks from the US men's national team.
- Andrew Farrell (CB): The veteran is now New England’s all-time appearances leader, and just had his finest year.
- Henry Kessler (CB): His second year was not without some bumps in the road, but he has the look of a high-level MLS center back who’ll be around for a decade.
I didn’t list Buksa – the second-best center forward in the league this year – because there’s been a lot of talk about a potential winter sale. It’d make sense given his profile not only in MLS, but his growing stature in Europe given his performances with Poland. There have been fewer whispers about Jones, but those whispers are still there, and they make sense. Jones got dunked on by Taty Castellanos in the playoffs, but he’s been excellent (and only getting better) for a year-and-a-half now, and has physical tools that would fit him into any league in the world.
It would not shock me if one or both of those guys is sold. If that happens, adjust the priority list accordingly.
Whether they are or not, though, Bou remains a massive question. They have to figure out how to get him on the field in big games against good teams without having to concede the midfield. He’s not really a No. 9 so he can’t lead the line in a 4-2-3-1, but he’s not comfortable dropping into central midfield to add numbers and become an ad hoc playmaker.
He is only a second striker. He’s very good at it, but his very presence limits flexibility. That is a problem they have to solve if they’re going to follow their first Shield with their first MLS Cup.
I think that means “get another high-level central midfielder and shift to the 3-5-2 so you can play Bou and a true No. 9 together without automatically losing the midfield numbers game.” But I guess we’ll see.