New England Revolution

3 takeaways from the Revolution’s playoff upset of the top-seeded Philadelphia Union

Bruce Arena's plan worked to perfection. Now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.

Revolution upset Philadelphia
Adam Buksa's header finds the corner of the goal in the Revolution's 2-0 playoff win. Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Despite entering the night 0-4-1 against the Philadelphia Union in 2020, and having lost seven straight times at Subaru Park, the Revolution upset the odds to pull off a 2-0 statement win over the Eastern Conference’s top seed.

Polish striker Adam Buksa opened the scoring for New England in the 26th minute on a well-timed header, and converted right back Tajon Buchanan added a second four minutes later, with both goals coming from Carles Gil assists.

New England, having already defeated Montreal 2-1 in Friday’s play-in game, navigated the difficult path of playing the 2020 Supporters’ Shield winners, and came away victorious.

A Sunday clash in Orlando against Orlando City at 3 p.m. awaits in the conference semifinals.

For Revolution head coach Bruce Arena, who added another win to his MLS-leading postseason tally (now 34-12-6 all time), it was affirmation of a perfectly deployed tactical plan. For New England as a team, it was a breakthrough moment after a regular season dominated by near-misses and unfulfilled potential.

“The regular season this year was – I don’t even know what the right word is to describe it,” Arena said afterward. “I had said months ago that the teams who get in the playoffs, it’s going to look different because it’s such a crazy year. I think teams who had veteran players and most players returning and had an identity as a team were going to have an advantage during the regular season because of less practice time, the layoff, and all that kind of stuff.

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“And then when playoff time comes around and other teams that are in it have a little more time together, they’ll challenge the teams that were very good during the regular season,” Arena added. “You see that’s been the case. We didn’t give our guys a message about the last, whatever it was, five games we played them. We didn’t really care. We knew what they were about, and we knew what we needed to do.”

For Philadelphia, who emerged as the East’s top team in an unprecedented and difficult regular season affected by COVID-19, it is at least partly the end of an era. Attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson, one of the Union’s most important attacking players, is leaving for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria on a $6 million transfer.

Still, while Philadelphia took the field as the top team in the Eastern Conference, it ended up being the Revolution who were the game’s protagonists. Here are a few takeaways:

Bruce Arena finally found his best starting XI.

For much of the 2020 season, the Revolution had to find a way to get results without Gil, the team’s most important midfield creator. The 28-year-old Spaniard, winner of the 2019 MLS Newcomer of the Year award, missed most of this year with an Achilles injury.

And even after Gil returned in the fall, Arena struggled to work out New England’s best XI. In the regular season finale against Philadelphia, Buchanan — naturally a winger — was used as an outside midfielder, with Brandon Bye at right back.

When combined with forward Teal Bunbury also being inserted into a wide role, the result was an unbalanced formation that lacked midfield support. The Union, playing in their customary narrow midfield diamond (4-1-2-1-2), easily stifled the Revolution and won 2-0.

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In Tuesday’s playoff matchup, Buchanan was instead deployed at right back (where he played against Montreal in the play-in round due to Bye’s absence because of injury). This conveniently allowed Arena to move back to the 4-2-3-1 shape that New England had found success with even when Gil was out.

The result of the changes was that New England were far more balanced, with midseason signing Matt Polster and Braintree native Scott Caldwell acting as holding midfielders, and a more natural progression of attacking players arrayed in front of them than had been used in the loss earlier in November.

The Union, vulnerable to wide attacks, were on the receiving end of Buchanan’s attacking instincts for the Revolution’s second goal of the night, when Gil played in the 21-year-old Canadian, who beat Philadelphia left back Kai Wagner before lashing it into the goal.

“It’s a different position, something I’m learning on the fly,” Buchanan said of playing right back. “But it’s not too much different than playing wing. I just have more defensive responsibilities and just picking my moments when I’m going forward. I know Carles [Gil] is an excellent player and he’s going to keep the ball and get me the ball. So when I do pick my moments to go I know I just have to be clean in the final third and produce something when I get the ball.”

New England’s defense was able to hold out in the second half.

Part of the Revolution’s issues throughout the regular season were down to a consistent string of defensive mistakes, especially in conceding set piece goals.

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For New England goalkeeper Matt Turner, who hasn’t been shy about communicating his frustration with the team’s defensive mishaps at times, it was a particularly sweet way to record the team’s first clean sheet since early October.

“It’s something we really focused on and we’ve had a lot of conversations amongst ourselves and we knew every time they had a set piece it was a big moment for us,” said Turner. “If you look at the goals against us this year, I think we probably have the best record of goals against in the run of play but probably the worst in the league at defending restarts. Every time we cleared a ball on a set piece I think it added a little boost to us.”

Even in the second half, as the Union pushed harder and harder to get back into the game, the Revolution defense held firm.

The Eastern Conference is now wide open.

The other Eastern Conference result from Tuesday was second-seeded Toronto FC (playing in Hartford because of COVID-19 travel restrictions) losing 1-0 to 2020 expansion team Nashville SC.

Both of the east’s top seeds are now out, leaving plenty of opportunity for an increasingly confident Revolution side.

New England will face an Orlando team that will be playing without starting goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who received a second yellow card and was sent off during last Saturday’s penalty kick win over New York City FC for leaving his line too early.

As a result, Orlando will have backup Brian Rowe in goal.

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While Orlando have a proven 2020 tournament pedigree (having advanced to the final of the MLS is Back Tournament over the summer), New England finally have all three designated players healthy and playing at their best soccer of the season.

Sunday’s playoff matchup will be a chance for the Revolution to continue what has already been a special playoff performance.

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