The New England Revolution are headed back to the playoffs. That much was determined with a hard-fought 2-0 win on Sunday against the best team Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, New York City FC.
— X- New England Revolution (@NERevolution) September 30, 2019
On the surface, such an accomplishment might seem mundane for a club that’s tied for the second-most MLS Cup appearances in league history. Yet that fails to account for the four-year playoff draught, and the depths experienced by the team in the first half of 2019.
Looking ahead, the Revolution will confront a new playoff format that might actually favor New England’s resurgent team.
Here’s an overview of how the Revolution got back to the playoffs for the first time in years, and what fans might see in the postseason:
Why making the playoffs was so difficult in 2019
The Revolution began the season under the leadership of head coach Brad Friedel and general manager Michael Burns. The duo oversaw a mediocre 2018 in which New England finished eighth, out of playoff contention.
Neither lasted beyond May, when the team staggered to a 2-8-2 start to the season that included back-to-back losses by five-goal margins. The complete turnover in leadership signaled a new direction that the club hadn’t seen in years.
Former U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena was brought in to replace the two (along with being named head coach, he was given the title of sporting director), and set about reorganizing a talented but underperforming roster. Few gave New England any chance of postseason contention in 2019, given that the team at the time was last in the conference.
Something strange started happening even during the tenure of interim coach Mike Lapper: New England began what would become a club-record unbeaten run. It vaulted the Revolution all the way back into a playoff spot, which even a late-season slump didn’t destroy.
For the players, the year was a roller coaster.
“You go through a whole coaching change, general manager change, losing games, winning games, tying games, new players, I mean it’s all-encompassing,” forward Teal Bunbury told reporters. “It’s a lot of stuff. So as a human in a workplace, that’s a lot to deal with.
“But I think we’ve all been able to do it together,” Bunbury continued. “That’s the big thing with this group is we were all able to stick together through it. I think a lot of people outside of the locker room don’t really get to see how tight-knit we are as a group, and I think that in this league, that’s what you need. You need to be able to work for each other.”
How the playoff spot was officially clinched
Entering Sunday, New England held its playoff fate in its own hands, needing a win at home to officially lock up the club’s first playoff appearance since 2015.
Facing the Revolution was New York City FC, a team that had beaten New England 2-1 three weeks before in controversial circumstances at Yankee Stadium. New York was attempting to lock up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
As has become a pattern for New England, goalkeeper Matt Turner made a number of important saves to keep the Revolution in the game:
— X- New England Revolution (@NERevolution) September 29, 2019
And on the other side, Gustavo Bou — an Argentinian forward signed for a club record fee in July — played a role in the first goal before adding an insurance score on a highlight-level chip of New York goalkeeper Sean Johnson:
Bou has already settled in nicely for New England, with nine goals in his 13 games with the club. He’s combined with Spanish midfielder Carles Gil — the Revolution’s other vital signing from earlier in 2019 — on several occasions to produce clutch goals amid the playoff push.
The game ended as a 2-0 Revolution victory, securing (at least) the seventh and final playoff spot.
What are the Revolution’s chances in the playoffs?
With the playoff berth locked up, New England still has a game left in Atlanta on Sunday at 4 p.m. Exact Eastern Conference seeding is still to be fully determined, but the Revolution will play a first round game against either Atlanta United or the Philadelphia Union on either Saturday Oct. 19 or Sunday Oct. 20.
As a lower seed, the odds are admittedly stacked against a Revolution run to MLS Cup.
Still, there’s a new twist on the league’s postseason format that could benefit an underdog like New England. Whereas in previous seasons multiple rounds of the playoffs before MLS Cup were played over two games (with the winner decided on aggregate scoring), the new format is single elimination throughout the postseason.
The higher seed gets home field advantage, and the bracket doesn’t re-seed after each round. The commitment to a single elimination style throughout the playoffs could help the Revolution pull off a surprise.
“Playoffs come around and it’s a whole different ballgame,” Arena told reporters after defeating New York on Sunday. “And this year, the one-game playoff series is really interesting. I think it probably favors the underdog more than the favorite.”
And Arena, who has won MLS Cup five times in his National Soccer Hall of Fame career, likes what he sees in the team’s attitude.
“The playoffs are close games, usually,” Arena noted. “They’re hard-fought. I think we have the right characteristics to compete in those types of games.”
New England likely won’t be intimidated by a road playoff environment. Since arriving earlier this season — his first win as Revolution coach came on the road in Los Angeles — Arena’s team has lost only once in league games on the road.