Bruce Arena came as close as possible to summarizing the discrepancy in the 2020 season of Revolution when he admitted that months into the year, New England was “still feeling” its identity.
“I don’t think we’ve had a rhythm before,” Arena admitted. “It looks like we have three seasons and all sorts of other things. It’s difficult to form an identity. There are some teams in the league that have managed to do that. We are not one of them at this point.”
The quote was also notable because it was not up to date. It was said in September, in the aftermath of a match against the struggling Chicago Fire team, New England squads narrowly scored 2-1 despite their outcropping, and their long-running outcry.
Months later – on the post-season threshold – it was just as viable as it was then, as Arena recently admitted.
“I think we will find that out in the qualifiers,” he said when asked earlier this week if the team is closer to identifying them.
Ostensibly, it’s remarkable that New England is heading to a Friday Night (6:30 PM) Eastern Conference Tour match-day with the Montreal Impact without a clear sense of itself. But like almost everything in 2020, the New England season has veered significantly from what anyone would have thought.
Looking back on January’s pre-season – when the team gathered at the recently unveiled Foxborough training facility – it was as optimistic time as the club has known it for the past few years.
After a string of seasons without a playoff match, 2019 ended in blossom. Arena, who was appointed head coach and sports director mid-year, has led the revolution from the bottom up to the club’s first post-season berth since 2015.
With the royalty’s blessing, Arena brought in many “designated players” (whose salaries are allowed to circumvent MLS restrictions, allowing teams to sign off on high-profile talent). For the first time in the team’s history, the revolution filled the maximum number of designated player list points (three), and it seemed ready to build on the potential hinted at in 2019.
However, New England (8-8-7 regular season 2020) finds itself as just the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and in the post-season play tour. Simply by that measure, Arena’s squad failed to live up to their pre-season expectations.
However, the story of Season of Revolution cannot be described in the traditional narrative of players who simply failed to develop chemistry.
This year has been unnatural in every possible way. Anything that could reasonably be called normal ended abruptly in March when the COVID-19 lockdown began.
And the ongoing fallout from the pandemic – a positive result was revealed by a player of the revolution earlier this week – not only permeates sport, but essentially every aspect of society.
Arena’s reference to what looked like “three seasons” was an indication of the stop-and-go nature of the MLS tentative schedule (which included a summer tournament in the Disney World Bubble).
New England problems have also accumulated in a more familiar category: injuries. Team captain and newcomer of 2019, Carles Gill, missed most of the season due to an Achilles tendon injury that eventually required surgery.
Gustavo Poe, who scored nine goals in just 14 games after arriving in the middle of last year, missed more than a third of the team’s matches due to injury.
Two of the three appointed team players missing large portions of the season alone would have sufficed to spoil any team. Jill is the creative focal point of New England, and Boo is its most dynamic attacker.
It is counted for the revolution that they fought and achieved results even in the absence of their stars. In a reversal of pre-season speculation, defense was a force at times as goalkeeper Matt Turner – recently voted Best Player of the Revolution Team – was endorsed for a place in the US national team.
Arena and New England front office also proved adept at handling crises, making numerous mid-season deals, including the repossession of Revolution All-Time Team member Lee Nguyen to help fill the void left by Jill’s absence.
But just as the revolution seemed to form an identity – a 4-2-3-1 attack incorporating a high defensive line – Gill and Bou are back in the fold.
In theory, adding two of the team’s best players to the starting lineup would be the final piece of the puzzle, at playoff time.
Reality proved elusive, as Arena discovered at the end of the regular season a 2–0 loss to the Philadelphia Union when Bo, Jill and striker Adam Boxa (the third named player for the team) started together for only the second time. this chapter.
Although it was clear that Bou and Gil had not returned to full-match fitness, the squad issues ran deeper. The team’s form was ditched when Arena tried to integrate the best New England strikers into the same squad.
2020 revolution top scorer Tiel Bunbury and 21-year-old budding winger Tajon Buchanan was included alongside outspoken forwards Buxa and Boo, often dumping midfielder Scott Caldwell as he tried to keep tabs on several Philadelphia opponents.
In the end, despite the squad with so many individually talented players, New England could only muster one shot on goal in the closing loss.
Arena’s recent assessment that the “days of reform are kind of over” was understated. In MLS, playoff games are a single elimination. There is no longer any margin for error.
Even so, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, the injuries inflicted on the major players, and the lack of cohesion caused by those conditions, the potential remains to live up to the full level of hype before the season.
New England have defeated Montreal soundly on multiple occasions since the start of the fall of the League, and Impact will be without midfield star Victor Wanyama due to COVID-19 travel restrictions in the wake of the recent international hiatus.
So, if the revolution manages to score on Friday, it could be more than just a win in the first match since 2014 (which, in and of itself, would be an achievement for the club). It would be a step towards finally establishing an identity.
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