New England Revolution

Amid the Revolution’s best start in years, Bruce Arena is keeping an eye on the ‘very unique’ MLS schedule

New England approaches a busy summer schedule from a position of strength.

Matt Turner save
Matt Turner makes a save during the Revolution's 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati. Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP

Eight games into the 2021 season, the Revolution remain perched atop the Eastern Conference. Aside from a singular blemish in a 2-0 loss to Nashville on May 8, New England has maneuvered through the early portion of the season with an assuredness not seen in more than a decade.

Slow starts have been an unwelcome trait of Revolution teams over the past two seasons. In 2019, a series of disastrous performances in April and May led to the dismissal of then-head coach Brad Friedel, and the introduction of Bruce Arena. That Arena (following interim head coach Mike Lapper) managed to help guide the team back to the playoffs that season was a near-miraculous accomplishment, only made possible thanks to a club-record unbeaten run later in the season.

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In 2020, the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic (and ensuing multi-month shutdown) meant that New England wouldn’t play an eighth game of the year until August. Even still, the Revolution struggled to gain traction, with just two wins in that time.

Clearly, avoiding a similarly slow start in 2021 was a priority.

“We wanted to start the season strong,” noted New England captain Carles Gil following the team’s 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati on May 29. “We didn’t do that last year. It was clear that we had to start strong.”

Through eight games to begin the season, New England have managed to win five, with two draws and the lone defeat. Even more reassuring for fans searching for progression from 2020 has been the home record. After mustering just two wins at Gillette Stadium in the 2020 regular season, Arena’s team already has four in four games.

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What’s arguably most impressive about the conference-topping start is that it’s happened simultaneous to another Arena priority: Developing the team’s depth.

Across the eight games so far in 2021, Arena has quietly deployed eight different lineup combinations. While there has been continuity in a few positions — goalkeeper Matt Turner, center back Andrew Farrell, and midfielder Carles Gil have each started every game — the rest has been up for some level of rotation.

And yet, the constant has been the team’s ongoing success.

“It’s not like we have the luxury to be experimenting a whole lot,” Arena explained when asked about the rotation. But as the coach who once declared that in MLS, “the second half of the season is the season,” he’s keeping his eye on the bigger picture.

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“We’ve still got to think of playing 34 games and how we get through the 34 games,” Arena noted.

Added to that are challenges posed by international teams and the demands placed on MLS teams as a result. The summer of 2021 features an unusual amount of international games, given the 12-month postponements of the European Championship, Copa América, and the Tokyo Olympics due to COVID-19.

This, combined with the regularly scheduled CONCACAF Gold Cup and June international break, creates further selection headaches for Arena and other MLS coaches who will see certain players depart to represent their countries.

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“This season is probably very unique in the history of Major League Soccer,” Arena explained, “because I think once we get into July, there’s going to be an unusual number of games. There’s going to be some type of international break certainly for the North American players playing in the Gold Cup that’s going to take players away, which is challenging. It’ll cost us some players as well. So, we have to have other players ready.

“That’s part of the reason for doing this,” he added of the lineup rotation.

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To Arena’s point, New England will go from a three-week international break from late May through June 19 into a run of five games in two-and-a-half weeks. And in a season that spans from April through November, the Revolution are scheduled to play more than half of their games in a punishing three-month run from June through August.

Yet unlike in years past, Arena’s team approaches the busy stretch from a position of strength. Not only is the depth of the squad greater than in previous seasons thanks to continued signings, but the Revolution are not scrambling to get back into the playoff race.

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New England has set the tone for the rest of the Eastern Conference so far in 2021. How the team responds to the rigors of a busy slate of games remains to be seen, but given Arena’s commitment to diversifying his lineup choices through the first eight games, it won’t be because of a lack of planning.

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