How Bruce Arena defied the odds and led New England to the playoffs

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Throughout his long coaching career, Bruce Arena has looked at probabilities, and a couple of times what he thought was a virtual certainty turned into the exact opposite.

What exactly happened for the New England Revolution in Week 30 at Gillette Stadium? Their 2-0 win over New York City FC clinched an improbable berth in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“I always see the probability of doing this and that like when the US played the last qualifying game against Trinidad in my tenure – we had a 99 percent chance of winning that game,” said Arena, referring to the World Cup qualifier that led to the US national team missing the 2018 World Cup.

When the Revolution hired Arena as head coach and sporting director in mid-May, the team's prospects for the playoffs were dim. New England started the season 2W-8L-2D with eight points and a minus-19 goal differential.

“I think we had a 99 percent chance of not making the playoffs, so as they say [stuff] happens,” the 68-year-old Arena said.

How did New England go from bottom of the Eastern Conference table to clinching a playoff berth in four months? Three factors help explain the turnaround.

Forward Teal Bunbury, who scored the opening goal against NYCFC in the 66th minute, admitted the rocky start to the campaign led to "definitely dark times" among the squad.

Arena, unfamiliar with the players when hired, said the players’ resolve and willingness to buy into his vision has proven one of the main reasons the Revs have lost just twice in 21 games (9W-2L-10D) since May 10.

“Of all the teams I’ve had all the years, this is as good as any of them to coach every day, to deal with away from the field. That says a lot,” Arena said. “I give them nothing but high marks, even if we didn’t make the playoffs this year and kind of failed towards the end. I still think this season has been a real positive.”

A second key factor concerns the big midseason addition to the roster. When Gustavo Bou signed as the second Designated Player after playmaker Carles Gil, the 29-year-old Argentine forward was brought in to score goals. Bou has done that, with nine goals in 13 games since joining the Revolution in July.

Bou continued his knack for creating highlight-reel moments with a deft chip to seal the win over NYCFC on Sunday:

“You become a much better coach when you have a guy that can get a goal for you,” Arena said.

Bou’s impact beyond scoring goals is his ability to draw defenders, which frees up more space for Gil to pull the strings, as well as his own playmaking abilities, like springing Cristian Penilla with a pass that led to Bunbury's opening goal.

“To have players like that, they’re difference makers,” Arena said. “Even on a day when things aren’t going right, he can still get a goal and that’s a real positive to have on your team.”

A third reason for the turnaround concerns goalkeeper Matt Turner. The 25-year-old, who did not play the first 11 games this season after starting 27 times in 2018, has been one of the standout goalkeepers in MLS this season.

“When you have a goalkeeper that doesn't lose you games, he doesn't make mistakes, he doesn’t cost you goals and he still can make one or two outstanding saves a game, that's huge,” Arena said of Turner, who signed a multiyear extension with the team in August. “So he's been equally as important as anyone to us getting results.”

The final chapter of the Revs' 2019 season has yet to be written: They face Atlanta United on Decision Day and then will hit the road for Round One of the postseason, hoping they can continue to surprise along the way.