FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Coaching for more than 40 years does not insulate New England Revolution head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena from players surprising him. It's just tougher to sneak something past him.
“Have I been surprised with anything? I'm really not sure of that,” Arena said of the Revolution, who face Atlanta United in Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs on Saturday (1 pm ET | Univision, TUDN in US; TSN4, TVAS in Canada). “I've seen these players through the years, most of them. I'm not surprised.”
Arena conceded the players that he was least familiar with have opened his eyes, most notably the imports.
“Probably, our new international players, it's been interesting getting to know them,” Arena said. “I'd say I've been pleasantly surprised by, obviously, Carles [Gil] and Gustavo [Bou]. But I'd say [Wilfried] Zahibo as well has been a surprise for me. I'd say [Cristian] Penilla has been a surprise, especially of late, where he's played very well. I think our goalkeeper, Matt [Turner], has surprised me.”
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Aside from individual players, Arena has had a couple of collective team surprises. One is the versatility of some players this season when tasked with playing unfamiliar positions due to injuries or suspensions: Attackers Juan Agudelo and Fagundez playing as defensive midfielders, young defenders Brandon Bye and DeJuan Jones, each drafted out of college as pure wingers, getting comfortable in new positions, as well as playing Jalil Anibaba at left back and moving Farrell to center back full-time and watching him grow comfortably into the position.
“You’ve got to adapt to what you have as a coach,” Arena said. “Guys have been very cooperative and fit into roles that sometimes are not their typical roles and maybe not even that pleasing to them. But they've done whatever is necessary to help the team. That's probably the most pleasant surprise I've had, is to see how cooperative these players have been."
Arena was hired to coach a team that started the season 2-8-2 and despite the results it was not a fractured group. They were hungry for success and closed the season with three losses in their final 22 games to earn their first postseason berth since 2015.
“That's probably the biggest surprise for me, is how wanting they've been to be a team, to be a successful team,” Arena said. “That's been pleasant.”