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Stars Matter

It was another 6 point week for the Revolution in week 27 action. They won 3-2 on the road against the Chicago Fire on Wednesday, and followed that up with a 2-1 victory at home against Orlando City SC on Saturday.  There are multiple takeaways from those games, but I’ll keep it to this one: stars matter.  Sometimes, simply having the best players on the field makes all the difference.  Never was that more obvious than this week.

New England was getting out-played for much of Wednesday’s match against the Chicago Fire.  They were out-possessed 59.5% to 40.5% and out-shot 26 to 18.  They were not, however, out-scored.  A lot of that has to do with things like this….

Tajon Buchanan trucks 2 defenders in the midfield, and finds Carles Gil who roofs his shot.  From a tight angle.  With his weaker right foot.  You can’t stop that.

It’s a delightful change of pace for Revs fans, who had grown used to, what I call, “Designated Players in name only”.  The Mancienne’s and late stage Goncalves’ of the world.  Players who were making just barely enough to qualify for the designation.  Or, worse still, the half-hearted promises from management of DPs to come.  The “We’re keeping our options open for the summer” type of statements from previous head coaches come to mind.

Beginning with Carles Gil in 2018, the Revs have slowly begun reaching into the wallet and spending real money to acquire top end talent.

It’s paying off.  The New England Revolution are the best team in the league in 2021.  But…

The Revs aren’t Blowing the Competition Away

Among the growing list of team accolades and records for New England this year is one that surely has contributed to a lot of game-day stress for Revs fans.  The Revolution have set (and continue to add to) the record for most games won by a single goal.  In fact, 16 of their 19 wins this season, have come by a single goal margin.  That’s against good teams and bad teams alike.  Home and away.  New England isn’t burying their opponents in a way that their 19-4-5 record indicates that maybe they should be.

Their only multi-goal victories this season have come against Cincinnati, Inter Miami, and a 10-man NY Red Bull side back in May.  All three of those teams are below the playoff line, at time of writing.  You can only play the teams on the schedule, so it’s not necessarily bad that they’ve only blown out bad teams.  One should, however, be conscious of the fact that the playoffs will present tighter margins against better competition.  As someone remarked on twitter earlier in the week:

This week showed more of the same.  Two matches, two single goal victories.  Saturday’s victory required a stonewall PK stop from Matt Turner to preserve the lead in the second half.  On Wednesday, New England beat Chicago in spite of losing the expected goal battle 3.3 to 1.9.

I don’t think it necessarily all boils down to luck, and 1 goal wins count the same as 5 goal wins, but it’s hard not to worry.  Against playoff competition, perhaps only a few things need go differently to turn a 1 goal win into a loss.  You’d hate to see regression turn up for the playoffs.

Should the Revs put all their eggs in the Supporter’s Shield basket?

While there are those who are ready to crown the Revs as regular season champs, there’s still some work to be done.

New England has a staggering 14 point lead over Seattle in the league table.  Their next closest competitor in the Eastern Conference, Nashville SC, is an even larger 17 points behind. Those two teams, however, are among 7 teams still capable of overtaking the Revs in the Shield race.  Seattle presents the highest risk with a maximum possible points total looming at 75.

New England seems highly focused on MLS Cup

With a lead as large as they have, you’d expect it to start to sink in with the players that regular season glory could be a few short games away.  For their part, the players have remained laser-focused on the task at hand.

“It’s kind of weird, actually” said Revolution forward Teal Bunbury in the post-match press conference, “we still have a lot of games left, you know, and our ultimate goal is finish in first in the East, to have home field advantage [throughout the playoffs]”

That sentiment is echoed by Dejuan Jones who also stated “Our biggest goal right now is just to finish top of the East”.

Bruce Arena, throughout his managerial career has emphasized playoff success and MLS cups over winning in the regular season.  He even went so far as to say, in an interview for The Call Up, that the Supporters Shield this season should come with an asterisk.

Needless to say, I think if the Revolution ended up winning the Supporter Shield* this year, Bruce (and the whole team) will be quite happy.  But that’s not the goal.  The goal is: win enough games to make the playoffs, lock up home-field advantage, and earn a first round bye.  If you drop points in the regular season, you drop points.  If you lock up the division early, you rest the team.

We got a glimpse of that on Wednesday.

During a stretch of the season where games are coming hard and fast, Arena opted to make 9 (!!) changes to his starting lineup for the road match against the Chicago Fire.  Only Matt Turner and Henry Kessler would be considered obvious, first choice, players in that lineup.  That doesn’t particularly reflect well upon Chicago, who had scored only once in their prior 5 matches. It also shows that New England didn’t plan to go into Chicago to dominate, grab 3 points, and pad their stats.

It’s all about playoffs, but…maybe it shouldn’t be?

Playoffs are a different beast

Oftentimes in MLS, playoff games aren’t won by the team with the higher seed but, rather, the team that is on a bit of a hot-streak.  Having an up-and-down regular season, but getting all the pieces working together at the right time is a battle-tested strategy for winning MLS cup.

Revolution fans should be acutely aware of this fact, since they entered the post-season as the 8th seed last year before a hot streak saw them toss aside Montreal, Philadelphia and Orlando in the playoffs.  Philadelphia was the #1 seeded team in the east.  New England beat them 2-0 on the road.  Orlando was the 4th seed, and New England dispatched them 3-1 in Orlando.

Over the last five seasons, the MLS cup participant’s AVERAGE seeding position was 2.8.  Over that same span, the only #1 seed to make the Cup was the 2017 Toronto FC team.

I’m not making this point to say “don’t lock up the #1 seed”, but rather “playoffs are weird”. You can be the best team in the league and get knocked out in your first playoff game.  The post season is single elimination, and if your opponent has the momentum it only takes a few mistakes to fall out of the competition.

There is a scenario where New England locks up the first seed early and rests their starters the remainder of the way.  This could cause them to miss out on Suppoter’s Shield as a result.  If that happens they had better hope they don’t find themselves at the wrong end of a ‘Revolution-esque’ run of form from a playoff opponent, because this team (and these fans) deserve a trophy in 2021. Even if that trophy comes with an asterisk.

 

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