On May 8, the New England Revolution lost to the Chicago Fire by a resounding 5-0 scoreline. As bad as the loss was on its own, it wasn’t even the team’s only five-goal defeat of the week, having fallen 6-1 to the Philadelphia Union only four days earlier.
Through 12 MLS games to that point, New England held a league worst -19 goal difference, putting the team comfortably on pace to eclipse the MLS record for negative goal difference over an entire season. Despite possessing a seemingly tight-knit locker room, the year was on its way to being dismissively summarized in a single word: fiasco.
Flash forward to Saturday, as New England thrashed Orlando City 4-1, and the scene has changed. From the depths of the Eastern Conference standings, the Revolution have ridden an 11-game unbeaten run — tied for the longest in team history — back to relevance. In that span, the team has an almost mirror image goal difference: +14. Heading into the most anticipated game of New England’s year to this point, a team once bereft of hope is now unexpectedly in the midst of a playoff hunt.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround, though — as the team’s new coach is apt to remind anyone within earshot — there are many games remaining in 2019. Still, it’s tough not to marvel at what has been happening in Foxborough. From next-to-last in ESPN’s MLS power rankings, the Revolution have risen to fourth. A peripheral team earlier this season has become arguably one of the league’s best stories.
The journey from May to July has been one of the more eventful periods in the club’s recent history.
‘We have to make an immediate change in the coaching position.’
Less than 24 hours after the Revolution’s disastrous 5-0 loss in Chicago in May — which took the team’s record to 2-8-2 — head coach Brad Friedel was fired. Initially, general manager Mike Burns remained.
Burns had been in the team’s front office since 2005, and was one of the franchise’s original players in 1996. Yet his decision to hire Friedel — a legendary goalkeeper who nonetheless had no head coaching experience — backfired.
After a positive start in Friedel’s first season in 2018, the team nosedived in the second half of the season and missed the playoffs for the third straight year. Results in 2019 were on an historically bad pace. That said, the scope of the problem extended beyond the team’s coach. The decision to initially remove only Friedel — and not Burns as well — was met with disapproval from fans who were expecting sweeping change from the Kraft-owned franchise.
The feeling was strong enough over Burns that even one of the team’s supporter groups, the Midnight Riders, made an unusual public statement calling for him to step down.
“We purposefully try not to comment on personnel or on-field issues, but it seemed absurd to have the same [general manager] who oversaw two unorthodox and unsuccessful hiring decisions for head coach continue to make those decisions,” said Midnight Riders president Matt Zytka of Burns. “It’s tough when that person is a local legend and original player for the club, but it was clear that our membership was on the same page, and the reaction to the statement from our membership and the Revs’ fanbase in general was overwhelmingly positive.
“To the club’s credit,” Zytka added, “the front office was very understanding about why we felt the need to comment publicly and we were able to maintain a positive relationship throughout the ordeal.”
Within days, Burns was also fired, though Revolution president Brian Bilello would later clarify that that was always part of the plan.
“We had a string of holistically unacceptable performances on the field that caused us to say, ‘We have to make an immediate change in the coaching position,'” Bilello told reporters afterward. “Your general manager can’t change what’s going to happen in two days on the field, but a coach certainly could.”
The bottom line was clear within a week: Change had come to New England.
“I think conversations are always going to be had,” said former Revolution forward and ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman in a recent interview. “When Brad Friedel was hired, I said it, and I’ll still say it: It was his first job. Anyone trying to judge Brad Friedel as a coach right now, well that’s a little unfair because it was his first job. But that’s how Mike Burns went about things. That’s how he handled his interviews, that’s how he went after things, so the change from top to bottom was needed and was necessary.”
‘Does anyone know what’s going on here?’
A day after Burns was let go by the Revolution, the next step in the club’s plan was revealed. Bruce Arena, the most successful coach in the history of MLS, was being brought in to not only become head coach but also sporting director. The 67-year-old member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame and a winner of five MLS Cups was given full power to overhaul a team in need of a new direction.
“This is such a great sports town,” Arena said in his introductory press conference. “We want to try to elevate the Revolution on par with these other great championship teams in Boston.”
Arena wouldn’t fully take over for a few weeks, as he acclimated to the new situation. Interim coach Mike Lapper did his best to stabilize the team during that period, spurring a 3-1 win over San Jose in the first game following Friedel’s dismissal. Though no one realized it at the time, it was the beginning of what would become a season-saving unbeaten run.
“Mike’s leadership, tact, and class during a transition period for the club were remarkable,” Arena would later say of Lapper.
When Arena did fully take charge on June 2, it came against his old team: the Los Angeles Galaxy. Despite a bicycle kick goal from Galaxy superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, New England emerged with an unexpected 2-1 road win. In the postgame, Arena’s trademark dry sense of humor made its New England debut.
“This team has not been great,” Arena summarized of the early season disappointment. “That’s probably why I have this job and I’m not relaxing in Manhattan Beach right now.”
What was even more surprising to experts around the league was that New England — in shambles only weeks earlier — kept the unbeaten run going. Even a bizarre July 4 game in Colorado that was delayed more than three hours due to lightning didn’t derail the Revolution. The team won by another 2-1 scoreline, and a soundbite miscue inadvertently turned into a meme for the unlikely unbeaten run.
“Does anyone know what’s going on here,” Arena deadpanned as technical difficulties prevented a halftime interview. It became an unofficial summary for New England’s unforeseen success.
Arena’s experience in MLS is already paying dividends for New England.
“Am I surprised at the 11-game unbeaten run?” Twellman asked. “Yes. But am I surprised at the manner of how Bruce Arena and his staff have done it? No. That is why he’s the most successful coach in MLS history. There’s a reason why. It’s not a fluke.”
It's that special time of the year when start cranking out the standings animations … #MLS
Behold the Eastern Conference. (Notice the Bruce Arena Effect [tm] in NE's trend line.) pic.twitter.com/cQIkDqHWJG
— Mark McClure (@mrkmcclr) July 22, 2019
Explaining how the Revolution have turned things around.
While Arena is the central component of the new-look Revolution, he consistently deflects credit for the unbeaten run.
“I think this streak has a lot to do with these players,” he said after the recent win against Orlando City. “They’ve really been terrific to work with and they’ve played well. They’ve dealt with the good and the bad along the way, so it’s real positive.”
The team’s play on the field has finally started to reflect something that the players maintain has been there all season.
“I think the attitude in the locker room has been great all year,” said goalkeeper Matt Turner. “I had a conversation with Scott Caldwell earlier in the season and we said this is one of the closer groups that we’ve had here. That’s definitely the case. I think it’s just a tight-knit group of guys that all get along and they’re not afraid to hold each other accountable on the field.”
One thing Arena has added to the mix is a more relaxed team culture. Instead of rigidly maintaining some of the strict policies under Friedel, players have been allowed a greater degree of freedom. Gone, for example, is the decree that all players must arrive for home games four hours in advance. Under Arena, the rules have changed. It’s helped to build greater trust. The result has been a nearly identical roster from May has looked transformed in July.
“It’s basically everybody who was here before,” noted defender Andrew Farrell, “but it’s just putting guys in different roles, kind of giving the leadership and confidence to certain guys who have brought the locker up. It helps people’s confidence, guys are a little bit looser.”
Of course, Arena is more than just the head coach. He’s also the sporting director, which has allowed him to begin bringing in new talent. The first acquisition of his time in New England was a record expenditure for the club: Argentinian forward Gustavo Bou.
The 29-year-old arrived from Mexican side Club Tijuana earlier in July at the price of $16 million in total salary and also the transfer fee. In his debut against the Vancouver Whitecaps on July 17, Bou scored a spectacular volley as the Revolution stormed to a 4-0 win.
— New England Revolution (@NERevolution) July 18, 2019
Arena’s recruitment of Bou offers the potential of a greater sign: After years of having one of the league’s smallest payrolls, the Kraft ownership might be ready to spend.
“People are deliriously optimistic right now,” Zytka explained. “Getting a player of Gustavo Bou’s quality is great in any context, but it’s hard not to interpret it as a statement of intent at this point. For a club that often has been criticized for rarely spending big, beginning this new era with the most ambitious signing in Revs history is a huge move not just on the field but for the club culture as a whole.”
Tactical tweaks have helped stoke success. Forward Juan Agudelo was given a new role in midfield, looking comfortable in possession when called upon. Teal Bunbury came back into the regular starting lineup and produced five goals in six league games. Farrell switched from right back to center back, providing covering pace. As a team, New England now plays with a more balanced style, differing from the one-size-fits-all press preferred by Friedel.
Up front, the newly-signed Bou “gives them a completely different complexion of a team going forward,” as Twellman explained. And attacking midfielder Carles Gil is one of the most dynamic players in MLS this season, with a goal and an assist in each of his last three games.
As good as the team has been since Arena arrived, the real work remains ahead. The upcoming clash this Saturday (7:30 p.m. kickoff) with Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) is one of the more anticipated games of New England’s season to this point. The rest of August includes difficult games against the Seattle Sounders and the New York Red Bulls.
Beyond the short term, the Revolution continue a greater uphill fight to grab a share of the spotlight in a crowded market.
“You’ve got to win not just to be relevant in Major League Soccer, you’ve got to win to be relevant in Boston,” Twellman noted. “The way the last 18 years have gone, it’s remarkable to see what this city has done. So first and foremost, you’ve got to win just to be relevant here.”
Yet Arena has kept the team focused on the immediate challenge of competing for a playoff spot in 2019. And as an experienced MLS coach, he’s aware that New England is officially in the most critical part of the year.
“In MLS,” Arena said simply at the end of June, “the second half of the season is the season.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Bruce Arena is the club’s technical director. He’s the sporting director (along with being head coach). Curt Onalfo is the Revolution technical director.