FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The wait is almost over.
It’s felt like a long two weeks since the New England Revolution wrapped up the regular season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 6, but it’s been a much longer four years since the Revs took part in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, and they’ll be back on that stage Saturday afternoon.
In a rematch of that Decision Day showdown the No. 7 seed Revs (11-11-12, 45 pts.) will return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for another visit to No. 2 seed Atlanta United FC (18-12-4, 58 pts.). This time, however, the stakes will be higher, as the winner will advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for a meeting with either the Philadelphia Union or New York Red Bulls, and the loser’s season will end.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. with local English coverage on NBC Sports Boston and 98.5 The Sports Hub. The game will also be televised nationally in Spanish on Univision, while Portuguese radio listeners can catch the call on 1260 AM Nossa Radio USA.
Pregame coverage begins at 12:15 p.m. with Revolution Pregame Live, as Elizabeth Pehota and Jeff Lemieux will break down the starting lineups and major storylines from Atlanta. The first-ever playoff installment of the pregame show will stream live on the club’s official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and revolutionsoccer.net.
Revolution Postgame Live will begin immediately after the final whistle on NBC Sports Boston.
Current Form: Revs cap turnaround with playoff berth; Atlanta aims to defend crown
On the list of most remarkable midseason turnarounds in MLS history, the New England Revolution’s 2019 campaign will occupy a spot near the very top. After enduring a 2-8-2 start and massive managerial change in mid-May, the Revs rattled off an 11-game unbeaten run (7-0-4) as part of a 9-3-10 finish to the season, rising from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to the seventh and final playoff spot.
Bruce Arena was the catalyst for that change, while the emergence of Carles Gil – named MLS Newcomer of the Year on Wednesday morning – and the July arrival of Gustavo Bou gave the Revs a pair of game-changing attackers to rival anyone in the league.
While the national media have given the Revs long odds against the defending champs – and intimated that the Revs should simply be happy to be part of the postseason – that’s not the approach the players are taking ahead of Saturday afternoon’s showdown.
“Four months ago we had no chance of making the playoffs, and we did it,” said Teal Bunbury. “It’s okay if we have these people saying we’re underdogs or whatever it be might be. I think we’re a confident group and we have a great opportunity. We all love as athletes to be able to play in these situations, these games, so I think everyone’s going to be up for it.”
The Revs will have to be up for it against an Atlanta side that went 12-2-3 at home this season en route to a pair of trophies in the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup. That is, of course, on top of last year’s MLS Cup title, which the Five Stripes will be trying to defend beginning this weekend.
Atlanta, in their first season under Frank de Boer, had something of an up-and-down campaign as well, but found their form in the late stages as they finished the year 3-1-1 in their final five.
“In these moments, it’s just about who executes, who competes,” said Bunbury. “Obviously tactics are going to play a huge role, but you never know what’s going to happen in these playoff games. It’s not going to be very high scoring, but we’re all going to need to be one unit and working for each other.”
Past Meetings: Decision Day “dress rehearsal” adds interesting wrinkle to playoff matchup
Much of the chatter ahead of Saturday’s playoff showdown has revolved around the fact that New England and Atlanta played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium less than two weeks ago in the regular-season finale, a match that featured several quality chances for both sides but saw the hosts emerge victorious, 3-1.
The film from that contest will have provided both teams with plenty to analyze these past two weeks, and the Revs are confident they’ll use that experience to make the appropriate adjustments on Saturday.
“Atlanta United is a tough game, a tough team,” Gil said through an interpreter. “They have a lot of experience in the playoffs – they’re the current champions. It’s going to be a great atmosphere at their stadium.
“But we played them (recently), and I think we’re trying to use that a little bit as a benchmark for what to expect in this coming game. But we know in the playoffs it’s going to be a completely new game for us, for them, so we’re just going to come out there and give it our best shot to win the game.”
Beyond that matchup two weeks ago there isn’t much history between these two sides, but what little history there’s been has belonged to Atlanta United. This will be just the seventh all-time meeting between the Revs and Five Stripes, and the Revs have yet to win in the series (0-4-2).
Injury Report: Castillo back in full training; Robinson’s status in doubt for Atlanta
When Edgar Castillo learned the severity of his injury back in mid-August – two broken ribs and a punctured lung – it was believed the veteran left back was lost for the season. That might not be the case, however, as Castillo recently returned to full training and maintains an outside chance of being available in Atlanta.
Still, if Castillo is available, it would be in a limited capacity.
“I haven’t made that decision yet,” Arena said on Wednesday morning. “He’s trained a little bit, but if he was available, he’s very limited in what he could offer us.”
There’s also a bit of doubt surrounding Atlanta center back Miles Robinson, one of three finalists for the league’s Defender of the Year award. Robinson suffered a hamstring injury in U.S. National Team camp late last week, and his recovery has been labeled as “week-to-week.”
Final Thoughts: Playoff opener another step on Revs’ quest to “ultimate goal”
“It’s the most important game that we’ll have all year,” said Bunbury. “If you lose and go home, your season is done. There are 10 teams right now that aren’t playing in any games, so we’re fortunate to be one of the 14 teams that have an opportunity to advance and get closer to winning a championship.
“That’s the ultimate goal as players is winning championships, and that’s going to be our mindset.”