To be clear, I expect Philadelphia Union to have a little too much for the New England Revolution. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from the first few days of the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, it’s that nothing is set in stone and very often, the unexpected does happen.
The Revs have not fared well against the Shield winners in 2020 — four regular season games, 0W-3L-1D, plus a loss at the MLS is Back Tournament — but under closer inspection, the matches Philly won haven’t been as one-sided as you’d think when looking at solely at the results. There was a 2-1 win in September that required a 95th minute Anthony Fontana goal to beat 10-man New England. There was a 2-1 win in October in a game that New England had three times as many shots and also scored an own goal. Most recently, these two sides squared off on Decision Day and that 2-0 result was perhaps the most dominant win the Union recorded. If we are to see an upset on Tuesday night, here is what needs to happen:
Let Carles Gil run the show
Carles Gil has only played in one of the five games across all competitions between these two sides in 2020. That one appearance was two weeks ago and it was just his second start in four months and his first 90-minute appearance since returning from injury. I recently included Gil in my Top 5 MLS attacking midfielders and so it should be no surprise that I think he holds the key to New England’s chances at an upset. The more he gets on the ball, the more he can make the things only he can make happen, happen.
He brings out the best in Gustavo Bou, Teal Bunbury and Adam Buksa because his game is built on linking up with others. Of course he has the individual skill to create for himself off the dribble or on the turn, but he really does look to combine with his peers and that should bring to life the best of Revs attacking qualities as they try to break down the Union’s very solid back line.
Attack from the start
The Union didn’t fail to score in any home game this season so chances are they will get at least one in this game, no matter how Bruce Arena sets his team up. With that in mind, I think the best approach for New England is to try and play on the front foot as much as possible — take Philly out of their comfort zone.
If you sit back and try to play defensive for most of the game, you are just delaying the inevitable against this dynamic Union team because sooner or later they will score. And once you find yourself behind you have to suddenly switch your whole plan and try to attack to get back in the game. This then leaves you more open at the back and that’s when Philadelphia normally get their second and third goals.
The best approach is to play an attacking game from the start, a game that takes defensive organization into consideration, but is also focused on making them react to you and putting them on the back foot from time to time. I want to see New England be bold, brave, force the issue and push the Union back towards their own goal. There’s no point of having Gil, Bou, Buksa and Bunbury if you plan to defend for most of the game — they shine at the other end of the pitch and I expect Arena to give them the freedom to play an attacking game.
Contain Brenden Aaronson
A lot has been said about Brenden Aaronson all year, but I still get excited to watch him. Even when he’s not at his very best, he’s one of those players you can never take your eye off because in a moment, he can turn the game on its head. At his core, he’s a creator. He’ll get a goal here and there but what he really wants to do is draw attention to himself and then play passes into the spaces the opponent has vacated.
I don’t suggest man marking him, but he does deserve special attention. Someone has to always be aware of him, he shows up all over the pitch and is pretty active in his movement so it can’t be the job of one person to follow him, it must be done by committee. Force him to give up the ball and let someone else try to make the game, if he receives the ball with his back to goal then you must keep him going backwards and not allow him to turn, because once he does, you’re in trouble. It’s a lot easier said than done, and Philly have dangerous weapons elsewhere, but I do feel he is the one that really elevates them to that special level they’ve reached this season.
Embrace the doubt
New England need to understand that most people outside of New England expect them to lose. Embrace it and use it as fuel to prove everyone wrong. The example I am about to give is not an equivalent scenario but some of the factors are still at play.
In 2012, I was on the Sounders team that lost 3-0 away to Bruce Arena’s LA Galaxy in the first leg. Knowing we needed to score at least three in the second leg to keep our season going was weirdly freeing in a way. No one expected us to do it and so we rallied around the underdog tag and decided to give it our best shot. That night, we played an unbelievable game and had LA on the ropes all night. We scored early on but it was called back for offside. Then we scored for real and created several chances. They couldn’t get near us. In the second half we scored a second (would have been the third we needed but for the marginal offside goal earlier), and everyone inside the stadium — including some Galaxy fans — felt we were going to win. 2-0 up, with all the momentum going for us and then Robbie Keane won and converted a penalty. Game over.
I tell that story not because it has a good ending but because it was the only way we could even give ourselves a chance as the underdogs. We had to go for it, scare them and make them respect us. Any other approach would have seen us lose by a big margin. New England need to have that same “what have we got to lose" attitude and just give it their best shot. The difference for them is, this isn’t a two-legged affair and they haven’t dug themselves into a 3-0 hole. If they are brave, they can win.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.