FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Shortly after sporting director and head coach Bruce Arena arrived on the scene in mid-May, he laid down a challenge for Cristian Penilla.
Arena had seen what Penilla was capable of producing – the Ecuadoran had notched 12 goals and seven assists in his debut MLS season in 2018 – but after a slow start to his sophomore campaign with just one goal and zero assists through his first nine appearances, Arena wanted more.
“He can be (a contributor), but he’s got a way to go,” Arena said even after Penilla started to click with two goals and two assists in the first four games following Brad Friedel’s departure. “He has to have a better understanding tactically, and we have to get him fitter so he can go for 90 minutes.
“We’ve got to get him to be able to play hard for two 45s, and if we can do that, he’s going to be really dangerous.”
Fast forward two months and it’s all starting to fall into place for Penilla. The 28-year-old winger – who was the New England Revolution’s JetBlue Team MVP and Players’ Player of the Year last season – has registered three goals and six assists during the Revs’ 11-game unbeaten run.
Like many of his Revolution teammates Penilla is currently operating near peak efficiency, with one goal and three assists in the Revs’ last three matches, all victories. That, according to Arena, has everything to do with how Penilla has responded to the challenge placed before him.
“I think he had a tough time the first month with me and the new coaching staff,” Arena admitted. “He’s responded quite well as of late. I think he kind of – the expression we used is ‘the light came on.’ I think he’s played very well.”
Penilla’s light is shining bright, and he’s now one of several players consistently contributing to the Revs’ attack. Carles Gil (three goals, three assists), Gustavo Bou (two goals, one assist) and Diego Fagundez (two goals, one assist) have all been red-hot through the current three-game winning streak, while Teal Bunbury has notched five goals in the last eight matches dating back to early June.
Perhaps no one is better suited to speak about the quality of the Revolution attack than Andrew Farrell, who has to face that group every day on the training ground.
“Obviously going against (Penilla) in practice, I’m out of breath right now,” Farrell said with a laugh, just as he came off the field on Tuesday morning. “We’ve got so many guys who are stepping up with even limited minutes – Penilla, Diego, Teal’s been great, Gustavo Bou, and Gil, and Juan (Agudelo). I could just keep going on and on.
“Everybody’s been great up top. You’ve just got to keep those guys going, keep the momentum going, and keep shoring stuff up in the back and working on what we can do to get better.”