ATLANTA – Call it a dress rehearsal.
Sunday afternoon’s Decision Day showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium saw the New England Revolution suffer a 3-1 loss to defending champion Atlanta United FC, but the real prize won’t be on the line until Saturday, October 19, when the Revs will return to the Peach State for a rematch – same opponent, same venue – in Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
In the league’s new postseason format, every round is single elimination. The winner on October 19 will advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The loser’s season will come to an end.
“I think in two weeks, it’s going to be a very different game,” said Revolution central midfielder Wilfried Zahibo. “Playoffs means win or go home. I think we are a very good team, and we’re going to prove that in two weeks.”
At times the Revs proved that on Sunday. They went blow-for-blow with Atlanta throughout a hectic first half, conceding the opening goal inside three minutes but equalizing just five minutes later through Cristian Penilla, who went clean through on goal twice in the early stages.
But a slow start to the second half, when the Revs conceded twice within 15 minutes of the restart, proved too much of a hill to climb against an Atlanta side that went 12-2-3 at home this season.
“It was okay. It’s a decent game,” head coach Bruce Arena said of the performance. “We obviously had to play a little bit better on the day, but give (Atlanta) credit – they played well. I thought we had our moments, as well, but obviously over 90 minutes, we weren’t good enough.”
“When you concede two goals in the second half, very early, it’s tough to come back,” added Zahibo. “They are a very good team. But we just have to fix some things, have two weeks of good training, come back, and be better.
“I think it’s a lesson today. When you learn the lesson, you come back and you are better.”
That was the overriding sentiment in the Revolution locker room on Sunday, as the loss to Atlanta helped the Revs hone in on the strengths and weakness of both sides – areas they need to improve themselves, but also potential areas they can exploit against the Five Stripes.
For instance, several times New England found joy using their speed to get in behind Atlanta’s high line, but the hosts did precisely the same through Josef Martinez, scorer of the game-winning goal.
“We know how they’re going to play,” said center back Andrew Farrell. “Obviously they might change the lineup a little bit, and we’ll probably change the lineup a little bit, but we know where we can exploit some things and where we can get better, and where they want to make their mark and get in behind us with Josef. Once we watch the tape and see that, we can improve that.
“But the guys fought hard and put in a good effort. That’s what we wanted to do, and it’s kind of a dress rehearsal for the real thing coming up.”
Before the Revs return to Atlanta they’ll spend the next two weeks training in Foxborough, preparing for their first playoff match since 2015. For players like Farrell – who appeared in the postseason each of his first three pro campaigns before a three-year drought – the game can’t come soon enough.
“I’m excited,” Farrell said. “The wind and the weather’s a little bit cooler so you kind of get that crispiness, and it feels like it’s playoff time. I know the guys are all excited, and we’re ready to turn the page into this playoff chapter.”