COLUMBUS, Ohio – Addressing his New England Revolution players the night before the Eastern Conference Final, head coach Bruce Arena asked a simple question.
If I’d told you this season that we’d be playing in an Eastern Conference Final, just one step away from MLS Cup, would you have believed me?
Sunday afternoon’s 1-0 loss to Columbus Crew SC – which ended the Revolution’s bid for a sixth Eastern Conference title and closed out what was unquestionably the most unusual season in club history – stung just like you’d expect any loss at that stage to sting, but Arena’s question provided important context for a club that in many ways defied expectations in 2020.
Battling through the stop-start regular season largely without star playmaker and club captain Carles Gil the Revs grinded their way into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the East, then took down the Montreal Impact before slaying a pair of top sides in the Philadelphia Union (No. 1) and Orlando City SC (No. 4).
That magical run provided hope for the club’s prospects moving forward, and also offered valuable experience for those who’ll find themselves in a Revolution jersey again next season.
“I think we’re well on our way,” said Matt Turner, who stood out all season en route to finishing second in Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year voting. “If you see the last few games we played, those were good teams that we played against. Beating Philly in Philly, beating Orlando in Orlando, and giving Columbus a really good run for their money here in Columbus all the way down to the final whistle, we were pushing for that equalizer. I think we’re well on our way.”
“We’re disappointed since we didn’t win – didn’t bring hardware to our club – but enjoyed this run with these guys and this coaching staff,” added center back Andrew Farrell. “It’s been a lot of fun. We won three games where not a lot of people had us winning. That, especially, with this year – it’s been a crazy year for everybody, not just us – but being able to still play sports, it’s been a hard year.”
Sunday’s game, as expected, came down to one play, and it was Columbus that made it. Jonathan Mensah’s deft layoff from Lucas Zelarayán’s cross teed up Artur for a pinpoint finish, and although the Revs had their chances – most notably through Adam Buksa, who hit the post in the first half – they couldn’t break down a Crew SC side that has conceded just eight goals in 13 home games this year.
But the fact that the Revs were just a couple plays away from competing in next weekend’s MLS Cup final proves the progress has been steady since Arena arrived last May, taking over a team that had started the 2019 season 2-8-2 before a remarkable turnaround to qualify for the playoffs.
Now, as the Revs head into the offseason, Arena will put on his sporting director hat and figure out where he needs to strengthen his squad to keep building towards 2021.
“We made progress last year. We made progress this year. I think we want to continue that,” Arena said. “In the offseason, we’re looking to bring in two or three players that can solidify our first 11. We’ve got to get a little bit better there. Technically, we’re not as good as we need to be. We need to bring in a few better players to help us in the attacking end of the field. And we can use help in other positions. We’ll do our best to try to make our roster a little bit better.”
A little bit better could be the difference between bowing out in the Eastern Conference Final and winning the first MLS Cup title in club history. That, of course, is the objective, and it’s clear that Arena won’t rest until that objective is complete.
“We’ve come a long way, but I think you know as well as I do that Bruce is not happy with losing – he loves to win,” said Farrell. “You can tell his winning mentality has been contagious within the organization, and the Krafts also love to win. This is obviously a great run and we’re happy we made it this far, but Bruce isn’t here to lose in the Eastern Conference Final. He’s here to win Cups.”
“We’re going to have higher standards next year, from the start,” added Turner. “We’re not going to be able to accept mediocrity. I think people now see the culture and what it takes to be successful in this league, and to win and get that ultimate goal, which is MLS Cup.”