COLUMBUS, Ohio – Eight minutes of stoppage time.
Clinging to a 1-0 lead as the clock hit the 90-minute mark, that’s what stood between the New England Revolution and a long-awaited return to the MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday afternoon at Crew Stadium.
It felt like an eternity to those in red, white and blue, but after 480 agonizing seconds, referee Hilario Grajeda mercifully blew the final whistle, officially sending the Revs back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
“We had to just dig deep,” said Revolution head coach Jay Heaps, who joked that he picked up a few gray hairs when he saw the eight-minute figure flash on the fourth official’s board. “Eight minutes was kind of fitting to make sure we got through it.”
Fitting indeed for a side which went 3-0-1 in the final month of the regular season – including 2-0-1 on the road – to not only return to the playoffs, but also clinch the East’s third seed and set up a conference semifinal date with Sporting Kansas City. All three of the Revolution’s victories in October were by a single goal.
The goal which won it for the Revs on Sunday was a work of art worthy of clinching a postseason berth. In the 28th minute, Juan Agudelo received an entry pass from Andrew Farrell before releasing Lee Nguyen with a clever backheel. Nguyen’s smart return pass then set up Agudelo for a simple side-foot finish.
“Me and Lee have pretty good chemistry,” said Agudelo. “There was a little bit of joga in there. Those goals build the team up and build chemistry when you play like a team. It’s fun.”
The slick sequence provided the necessary breakthrough on an afternoon more about grit and determination than silky soccer. New England was heavily out-possessed by the Crew (68 percent – 32 percent) and completed only 66 percent of its passes, but a lockdown defensive performance kept the Crew at bay for 90 minutes.
Or more precisely, 98 minutes.
“Today was a little more defending than we’re probably used to,” admitted A.J. Soares. “We like to keep the ball and go forward, but it’s something you’ve got to do. Some games you’ve got to score four goals, some games you’ve got to give up zero goals. As long as you find a way to win, that’s all that really matters.”
“It’s a credit to all our guys, because it wasn’t the prettiest game,” said Heaps. “It showed a lot more heart than any game I’ve seen because there were situations where we just had to fight and dig in deep. You look at the possession battle and we lost it, but every other battle I felt like we won.”
Goalkeeper Matt Reis – who appeared in seven straight postseasons with the Revs before the recent three-year drought – called it “huge for the organization” to get back into the playoffs. But while it’s an accomplishment the team is proud of, they’re also hopeful it’s just the first step in a longer journey.
“At the beginning of the year you set goals, and the first one is to make the playoffs,” said Reis. “We check that one off and now we’ll have to move on and try to advance.”