The New England Revolution played two seasons in 2023: the one before legendary head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena was put on administrative leave, then resigned, and the one after that.
The Revs before that happened were second in the East, had comfortably gotten out of their Leagues Cup group, and were riding out a couple of crucial (but not season-defining) injuries while continuing to develop what’s become a steady pipeline of high-level young players, both foreign and domestic.
The Revs after that happened were dumped out of Leagues Cup, dropped from second to fifth in the East over the final 11 games of the regular season, cycled through two separate interim head coaches, and then were summarily shipped out of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in two games by a wounded Philadelphia Union team.
It is, in its way, the most disappointing season in club history, because for a good chunk of time there, it really did seem like the Revs had a good shot at ending their near three-decades-long MLS Cup curse.
I’m just going to throw in some quotes here:
“After much soul searching, I have decided to resign my position as head coach and sporting director of the New England Revolution,” Arena said in a statement back in the summer. “The investigation has been a hard and difficult process for me and my family.
“I know that I have made some mistakes and moving forward I plan to spend some time reflecting on this situation and taking corrective steps to address what has transpired. And while this has not been an easy decision, I am confident that it is in the best interest of both the New England Revolution organization and my family that we part ways at this time.”
Here’s veteran center back Omar Gonzalez, being very candid at the end of the year:
"From my experience, when the front office is in shambles, it trickles down to the team and you lose that confidence with the group, that cohesiveness with the group because if you want a winning team, you need a winning organization," Gonzalez said.
"That’s from my experience. When the front office is doing well and the team’s doing well, it just feels good. So once that shattered, you could tell how quickly things started to go downhill from there."
And here’s another center back, Henry Kessler, looking ahead:
“I think there was a Bruce era and now it's a new era. I think there has been uncertainty this year but I think there will be certainty, like I said, going into next season. I think things will be clear and I think the club will do that well.”
That’s basically the whole story.
Formation & Tactics
The Revs looked their very best at the start of the year when playing a narrow 4-4-2 diamond with Carles Gil at the 10, two tight shuttlers and Dylan Borrero playing as a second forward who provided both attacking width and depth.
It was a really gorgeous blend of tactics and personnel. Keeping the diamond tight gave d-mid Matt Polster the support he needed (and didn’t get in the past) when playing against teams that flood the midfield, while at the same time giving Gil the platform to find and make the game. Playing Borrero as a second forward gave the Revs an off-ball dynamism that would otherwise be lacking, and the whole thing was set up in a way that allowed for both fullbacks to get into the attack on the overlap.
It was so much fun, but then Borrero tore his ACL and it became a year of tinkering. The diamond got scrapped, then the two-man front line got scrapped all together, and then the injuries began to mount, and so by the time second interim boss Clint Peay took over, doing stuff like playing Polster at left back so he could pinch inside on the underlap to become a second defensive midfielder made some (not a ton, but some) sense.
So yeah, it was all held together with bandaids and toothpicks and Gil’s brilliance – just barely, anyway – down the stretch. And then it wasn’t.
They came roaring out of the gates, going 7W-1L-3D across their first 11 games and, as mentioned above, playing great ball out of that tight diamond.
I’m having trouble zeroing in on just one performance from that period, but if I’m forced to choose, I’ll go with the 4-0 drubbing of CF Montréal (I know, I know) in early April. It wasn’t just a resounding win, it was commanding – the Revs bossing the game with the ball – in a way that even the great 2021 team had trouble emulating:
Basically everything that happened after Arena’s departure. The final game of the season, a 1-0 home loss to the Union in which the Revs managed just two shots in the first half, and in which Mark-Anthony Kaye got sent off for a stomp, and in which the outcome never really seemed in doubt, iced a cake of sadness.
I was telling everyone who would listen that Noel Buck was a kid to keep his eye on entering this season, and England were unfortunately listening. Buck would have to become the best US-produced midfielder ever to crack the England national team proper, but for now he’s not worried about that – he’s too busy representing them at the U-19 level.
MLS has never really developed a player for one of the top national teams in the world. Some guys stopped off here along the way, but none you could point to and say “yeah, that’s a real MLS product.”
Buck could be the first. Whether he gets there or not, the Revs will make a lot of money selling him this winter or next.
Five Players to Build Around
- Gil (AM): Still an MVP-caliber No. 10.
- Borrero (FW/W): Hopefully he gets back to 100% because he’s a Best XI-caliber, Colombia national team-caliber guy.
- Tomás Chancalay (W): The Argentine winger was the one silver lining of the second half of the season.
- DeJuan Jones (LB): Assuming they don’t sell him this winter, he’ll remain one of the top fullbacks in MLS.
- Polster (DM): Still does the work.
The goal should be to get an elite No. 9 – can they get Adam Buksa back, maybe? – and to build around a front four of that guy, Borrero and Chancalay on the wings (with Nacho Gil and homegrown Esmir Bajraktarevic in reserve) and Carles still pulling the strings. Yes, it means a 4-2-3-1 instead of a tight diamond, but that’s absolutely fine!
The Revs were a 73-point team in 2021 and were on course for 65 points this year before everything blew up. If they get a DP-caliber No. 9, add some depth at both fullback spots and figure out how to replace Djordje Petrovic in goal, I think they can get there again next year.
Of all the open head coaching jobs in MLS right now, this one’s got the highest, most immediate upside.