Team warmups (2021 preseason)
Kurtis Burke

Targeting loftier ambitions, Revs emphasizing strong start in 2021

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Expectations are high for the New England Revolution in 2021 on the back of last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Final, and their quest for silverware begins in earnest on Saturday evening when they’ll visit Chicago Fire FC in the season opener (8:30 p.m. ET, WBZ, myRITV).

But the Revolution’s path through last year’s playoffs was a treacherous one, as they survived a Play-In Round matchup with CF Montréal (then the Montréal Impact) before successful road trips to visit the Supporters’ Shield winners Philadelphia Union and on-the-rise Orlando City SC. They then fell to eventual champions Columbus Crew SC, once again away from home. It was the path of a No. 8 seed, and it’s something the Revs are hoping to avoid in 2021 with a better regular-season finish in the East.

“We want to compete to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and MLS consistently,” Matt Turner said near the start of preseason in March. “We don’t want to hover around that seven, eight spot flirting with the playoff line. We want to be securely in the playoffs fighting for the Supporters’ Shield, or fighting for trophies all season and in all competitions. I think that that’s a very reasonable expectation for this group.”

In finishing 8th last year, New England pointed to a slow start – both before and after the pandemic-induced pause in play – that put them in a hole heading into the second half of the schedule. They won just three of their first 12 games (3-3-6) and come October found themselves fighting for playoff seeding rather than a Supporters’ Shield title.

That’s exactly what they’re aiming to avoid this year.

“We’ll look to make sure that we start the season off better,” said Turner. “I think we should’ve had like four points after the first two games last year and we only had one, so it’s just little things like that that have been adding up for us over the years, and we’ll look to right that at the beginning of 2021.”

The Revs open the season with Saturday’s visit to Chicago, followed by back-to-back home games against D.C. United and Atlanta United as fans return to Gillette Stadium in a limited capacity. Those three games will not only set the tone for the season, but also determine qualification for this year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which will feature the top eight U.S.-based MLS teams based on points-per-game through three weeks.

All told 32 of the Revolution’s 34 regular season games will be against Eastern Conference opposition – only rare meetings with FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids break the mold – meaning that beginning Saturday, almost every match is a six-pointer.

“Every conference game is very important, and like (head coach Bruce Arena) said, we didn’t get off to the greatest start last year,” said Brandon Bye. “Obviously every game you’re trying to get three points, but just trying to win every game you step on the field. I think we think that about every opponent in the Eastern Conference and in the league, to be honest.”

Arena has placed special emphasis on being ready from day one this season, and that much was clear in the Revolution’s pair of preseason meetings with Los Angeles FC, which featured a much higher level of intensity than is typically seen in preseason competitions. The hope is that those meetings with LAFC will have the Revs as prepared as possible for Saturday’s opener at Soldier Field.

“You could tell in the last two preseason games against LAFC, you could tell the intensity was much higher and the expectations to go into games, even though it was preseason, was to win,” said Matt Polster, who joined the Revs midway through last season. “Coming away with draws and not finishing the game off the right way, we’re looking to go into Chicago with that same intensity and to be a little bit cleaner. The expectation is to win and to start really strong like Bruce has said.”