It’s that time of year again.  With New England officially eliminated from playoff contention, after losing a pair of results to Philadelphia, it’s finally over.  That means we can finally begin to pull at the threads of the Revs season and, with the everything laid bare, determine New England’s cause of death.

To steal an idea from Matt Doyle’s own (excellent) MLS Post-Mortem series, I’d like to begin this article with a gif.

Things were looking so good.  Right up until the moment that they weren’t. 

The Revs ripped through their early schedule and were juggernauts at home in 2023.  Unfortunately it wasn’t enough.  They managed a new and interesting method of self-destruction this season.  One which involved a weeks long investigation into alleged inappropriate remarks from their head coach, infighting amongst the coaching staff and the loss of 2 critically important players right before the stretch-run.

In this article, we’ll look more in depth at all of those things and their affect on the season.  We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s go!

Contents:

Arc of the season

The MLS season is long. Play began alllll the way back in February and MLS cup will take place in December.  This allows teams to go through multiple cycles of ups-and-downs every year.  For the Revs there are always ebbs and flows, and there’s usually no way to tell which way things will go at any given time.

Outside of beginning with hope and excitement, and ending in abject disappointment, there are no set rules for how a season should go.  Even still, things seemed to veer pretty far adrift of ‘typical’ for the Revoultion in 2023.  In fact, I doubt anyone has had a season quite like the Revs did this year.

Things began on a high note.  New England began their journey, as they seemingly always do, on the road.  This time in Charlotte, where they picked up their first win in a season opener since 2013.  They would go on to put together a tremendous 5-1-1 record through the season’s opening stretch.

You can see that strong start here, in this 5 game rolling PPG average chart.

With the exception of a 4-0 loss at LAFC, New England was cruising and more than keeping pace with (eventual) Supporter’s Shield winners FC Cincinnati.

That battle specifically, as it turns out, came to a head on April 29th when New England hosted FCC at Gillette Stadium.  New England would get the better chances on the day, earning a season high 4.8 (!!) expected goals.  Unfortunately they were unable to capitalize on that success, scoring just once in an eventual 1-1 draw.  Another unfortunate outcome of this match was losing star winger Dylan Borrero to a season ending knee injury.

Borrero was a big part of New England’s early success.

In the month that followed his injury, New England struggled to right the ship.  Outside of a win against (eventual) Wooden Spoon holders, Toronto FC, New England rattled off poor-result-after-poor-result.  They would concede 11 goals over a 4 game stretch, and amass a 1-2-3 (W-L-T) record over their next 6 matches.

If there was a saving grace, at that point, it was that 5 of those 6 games were on the road.

When New England returned home, they got back to work. 

 would play 5 of their next 7 within the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium between June 10th and July 15th.  They won all of those home matches.

They did so, in part, on the back of an explosion in offensive output.

The Revs managed to score multiple goals in all but 1 game over the June-July stretch.  In the chart above, their peak 5-game-average Goals-Scored comes right during that timeframe.

Then, Leagues Cup Came.

And with it, came a now infamous club communications release.

Head coach Bruce Arena was placed on administrative leave on July 30th for alleged inappropriate remarks.  As such, Curt Onalfo took over as Sporting Director and assistant coach Richie Williams would get the nod as interim Head Coach. 

The Bruce Arena saga would drag on through the remainder of the summer, hanging over the team like a dense fog until eventually Arena stepped down from his role as Head Coach/Sporting Director for “insensitive and inappropriate remarks”. 

Some of that ‘fog’ came in the form of an assistant coach (who was among those who had filed complaints about Arena), losing the trust of his locker room, getting into spats with assistant coaches, and being removed from his position. Two assistant coaches would also lose their positions with the club.

In a press conference later in the summer, Curt Onalfo would refer to this calamity (and ensuing media frenzy) as “Baloney”.  Noise, to be ignored.

It couldn’t be ignored.  Also not to be ignored were the losses of Djordje Petrovic to Chelsea and of Brandon Bye to a season ending injury.  Both players were absolutely pivotal to how the Revs wanted to play.  Add together the lack of a natural RB backup, a new coach, and a step down in goalkeeping and the Revs began leaking goals.

The end of the season saw both an increase in expected goals conceded, as well as (y’know) actual goals conceded.  You would expect the former with a weakened defense, and you’d expect the latter with a downgrade in goalkeeper.

In the end, whether it was tactics, depth, injuries, performances (or just plain ole’ baloney) it was clear to everyone that the wheels fell off the wagon over the summer.  They were high in the table but, after Leagues Cup, they never really looked a threat to win.  The Revs limped into the playoffs and were summarily eliminated in 2 games.

What went right

Offense Keeps Getting it Done

In spite of the eventual crashing and burning, the Revs managed to put up a respectable 58 goals in 2023.  That’s good for 3rd best in the east, and 4th best overall.

They managed to continue scoring at a decently high rate all season, even when they weren’t creating chances at a ‘3rd-best-in-the-east’ type of way.

In fact, if there was a hallmark of the Revs attack in 2023, it would be out-performing their xG with consistency.

From ~May onward, the Revs 5-game rolling Goals average outpaced the equivalent expected goals value. 

This can tell us a few things.  First, that the Revs struggled to create clear cut chances, especially after Borrero’s injury.  This is perhaps due to poor production from the Revs strikers. More on that later.

The second thing it tells us, is that none of that matters when you have high level finishers like Carles Gil, Tomas Chancalay, and Gustavo Bou.  They took low percentage chances and turned them into a goals, at a better than average rate.

Carles will be back next year but, at time of writing, neither Bou nor Chancalay has a contract for 2024.

Romney Consistently Good

New England came into the 2023 season after a 2022 season that saw inconsistency ant center-back.  Only Andrew Farrell eclipsed 25 appearances at the position in 2022.  Injuries and quality of depth meant that Farrell played next to a combination of Henry Kessler, Jon Bell, and Omar Gonzalez over the course of the season.  That often didn’t go great.

New England needed someone else to get consistent minutes in central defense.  Especially with Andrew Farrell another year older, and with Jon Bell making his way to St. Louis in the expansion draft.

Enter Dave Romney.

Romney came to New England by way of a trade with Nashville in January, and was a rock in the Revs defense all season.  Romney played every minute and lead the team in blocks and clearances.  More importantly, he was a steady and reliable presence in the heart of the Revs defense while also playing with a rotating cast of characters all year.

Chancalay

For all the shortcomings of the (soon to be) previous regime, they certainly deserve praise for the signing of Tomas Chancalay from Racing Club in Argentina.  He was a crucial signing to get right, especially since the Revolution lost another success-story, Dylan Borrero, to a season ending injury this spring.

Chancalay showcased good skill on the ball, as well as a killer shot.

By the summer, New England lflowed through Carles Gil, almost to a fault. (If that’s your biggest flaw, you’re doing ok.) But the Revs strikers hadn’t found a way to connect with the Spaniard to any meaningful degree.  That meant a lot of work needed to be done in the wide areas to create chances.  With Dylan Borrero and Brandon Bye injured for the year, Chancalay needed to hit the ground running.

And he did.

Chancalay, if he is signed permanently, should have a highly successful MLS career.

What went wrong

Behind the Scenes Chaos

If you’ve been following the team this year, then there’s not much more information I can provide that hasn’t already been covered.  On August 1st it was announced that Bruce Arena had been placed on administrative leave following accusations of ‘insensitive and inappropriate remarks.’  I don’t use the quotation marks there to belittle the gravity of that situation. It’s literally the only verbiage we’ve been given to describe what happened.

For weeks, Revs fans were left to speculate what Arena had done, and when he might be back.  The closest thing to an answer anyone got to an answer was Apple TV analyst Kaylyn Kyle casually mentioning, during an interview, that it was a racist remark.  Kyle later retracted that statement as inaccurate and she promptly went missing from AppleTVs airwaves until after Arena’s eventual resignation on September 9th.

Along the way, we’ve gotten precious little information.  Outside of what was leaked to the press.  The fact, for example, that one of the complaints came from assistant coach Richie Williams.  Or the fact that Richie Williams and Bruce Arena had frequent arguments about the control and direction of the team.  Or that there were fights between Williams and other members of the coaching staff.

What had appeared, over the past several years, to be a professional if not jovial locker room environment was plagued with in-fighting and disagreements.  Certainly not uncommon for sports teams, but rarely to a degree that involves a nearly full changeover of staff mid-season.

While I’ve generally distanced myself from the #BilleloOut crowd that is gaining in momentum and volume in certain social media circles, there’s certainly more the club president could have done to get out ahead of the backlash that followed in Baloney-Gate’s wake. 

It seems that those within the Revs front-office were caught off guard by the allegations, but there was almost no unified messaging from the club in the early-going. 

Coaching staff and players were left to fend for themselves in press conferences with little available information to provide. When Bilello did get involved, it was too late to control the narrative.

Petrovic/Vaclik Situation

There are certainly those who think that selling Petrovic was a mistake.  It’s certainly understandable, given just how good Petrovic was in his year in New England.

Then there are those that think it was such a bad decision, that (if he hadn’t been placed on administrative leave) Bruce Arena would never have allowed it to happen.

I don’t think that’s the case.  As tough as it is to sell one of your best players in the middle of the season, when you’re offered crazy money sometimes the only option is to take the deal.  And crazy money it was.  Chelsea’s offer for Petrovic came in at ~$17.5M, the highest offer for a goalkeeper any MLS team had ever received.  What’s more, Petrovic himself had expressed strong desire to move to Europe, and had even sat out of matches when previous offers from other clubs were rejected.

You can’t expect to keep the player engaged in the project while also turning away record-breaking money to give them their dream move.  Especially not if you’re trying to pitch yourself to prospective talent as a “selling-club” capable of showcasing their skills to the top-5 leagues.

My issue doesn’t stem from the sale itself.  But, rather in the aftermath.

The remaining group of decision-makers within the club decided a replacement was necessary.  The timing was tough. A replacement goal-keeper would need to be a free-agent (per MLS roster regulations).  From that more limited pool, Vaclik emerged as the best option.

The failure, it would seem, was failing to get sign off from goalkeeping coach Kevin Hitchcock.

In an interview, Vaclik claimed that Hitchcock never wanted to sign him. That they barely speak during training.

 Undeniably awful for Vaclik. But it does beg the question: how did this signing get approved in the first place?

It sort of tracks with the “too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen” vibe that Omar Gonzalez alluded to in an interview after the final playoff game.  Why give Hitchcock the reins to decide who starts at goalkeeper yet also sign a goalkeeper he (seemingly) expressly did not want to sign.

In the end, it’s bad for the Revs … and bad for Kevin Hitchcock … and especially bad for Tomas Vaclik.  His chances to make an impact for New England were dead-on-arrival.

No matter how you slice it, signing a goalkeeper (with champions league experience, mind you) and paying him $400K to never play and make the bench only once — is textbook mis-management.

Depth thin in critical places

The problems with the Revs roster build far predate their post-Petrovic goalkeeper woes.  During his tenure as Revs sporting director, Bruce Arena had a track record of leaving gaping holes behind crucial positions.  This year, the issue came from a lack of depth at outside back.

This wasn’t a late-developing issue.  I wrote in the offseason where the Revs should reinforce their roster and outside back was near the top of the list.

But no outside back depth came.  Bruce was seemingly content to roll the dice with just the two starters (Bye and Jones) and hope they remained healthy and available. 

Eventually, well after the season started, he came to his senses and signed free-agent Ben Sweat as a backup left back.  Three days later he would loan Ryan Spaulding out to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.  That ensured there was only one natural outside back replacement available for 2 potential spots, and balance was restored in Bruce’s mind.

It’s obviously hard to predict if and when injuries will happen.  It’s less difficult to predict when your star US international left back may get called up to the national team. 

With Jones in and out of the lineup with US duty, carrying just one natural backup for 2 positions didn’t make a lot of sense. 

It made less sense, then, when no additional reinforcements came in the summer window.  Arena opted instead to focus on central midfielders bringing in Ian Harkes and trading for Mark-Anthony Kaye.

It of course, makes EVEN LESS SENSE to not sign a replacement (even via free agency) when you lose your starting right back for the year.

In the end, that lack of outside back depth would force some awkward lineup choices, and likely contributed to the Revs downfall to end the year.

Tactics

So let’s dig into those lineup choices.

Given the Revs best personnel to start the season, a 4-2-3-1 seemed to be the best suited to take advantage of the roster’s strengths.  This allows your most important play-maker Carles Gil to have a free-yet central role to build the attack.  It also provides an extra body to central midfield (where there wasn’t one in 2021’s 4-4-2) to help counteract opposition attacks.  In order for it to work, though, a strong central forward presence is required.

We all hoped it would be Vrioni’s year to emerge as that player.  Unfortunately he never quite gained traction with Bruce and was frequently left out of the starting lineup. 

In fact, whether by injury, call-up, or coaching decision players like Petrovic, Kessler, Bye, Buck, Bou, Borrero, and Vrioni would end up missing significant time.  That’s a huge chunk of your first XI.

Those absences often lead to interesting tactical formats, not least of which was the 3 man/4 man back line used against the Chicago Fire on September 23rd.  AKA ‘the Matt Polster Left-Back/Central Midfielder Experiment Game’.

With injuries to Bye, Kessler, Spaulding, and Farrell, Coach Peay was forced to take a creative approach to this lineup. The Revs listed it as a 4-man back line, but MLSSoccer.com actually listed the below lineup for that game. To be honest… they were sort of both true.

Polster started the game as a quasi/hybrid-left-back-central-midfielder.  He would float into the midfield in possession and back out to the left in defense.

It…. did not work.

Chicago found space to attack from the wide areas of the pitch early and often, preferring to attack the Revs from their defensive left.  You can see this preference in Chicago’s shot map from that evening.

 

While there’s certainly something to be said of the creativity in approach from Peay, the formation was eventually scrapped as players returned to health.  Some people were plenty happy to see Polster return to the midfield.

<h1id=”best-moves”>Best roster moves

Trading for Dave Romney

As mentioned above Romney was an absolute stud for the Revolution in 2023. He played every minute this season and was a consistent force, removing danger from the Revs penalty area.  His 162 clearances were easily the most of anyone on the team.  Andrew Farrell had the second most clearances at….67.

Also he’s a goal (singular) and assist (singular) machine!!

Using the Buy-Out on Altidore

I had high hopes for Jozy Altidore in a Revolution uniform.  It never quite worked.  He scored just twice in about a season and a half. His lone goal this season was A) crucial, B) kind of an accident, and C) a great lesson in voicing your frustrations in your head and not on twitter.

That rate of production on a near DP salary was never going to cut it and it just made sense to free up some cap space to make summer signings.

Acquiring Chancalay

 I’ve already sung Chancalay’s praises so instead of more talk, just bask in the glory of this highlight. He starts this play with a slick dribble and finishes it with a rocket through traffic.

He’s absolutely legit and New England would be foolish not to exercise his option for next year.

Acquiring Ian Harkes

Harkes may have fallen out of mind, as he spent much of the end of the season recovering from a fractured Adam’s Apple. As a result he only played 606 MLS minutes.

In that limited time he proved to be a good connecting piece in the Revs midfield and seemed to pair well with both Polster and Kaye.

It also doesn’t hurt that he has the awareness to score in moments like that.

Worst roster move

Not Bringing in RB depth

I’ve already covered this in “what went wrong” and in “tactics”, above, but I cannot stress enough just how poorly built this roster was to handle an injury to either outside back.  Particularly to Brandon Bye. (What little depth there was at outside back, ie Ben Sweat and Ryan Spaulding, had both spent most of their time on the left).

This meant that right back was often filled by someone playing out of their natural position. Sometimes it was Dejuan Jones switching sides, sometimes it was center-back Andrew Farrell, and sometimes it was midfielder Matt Polster.

It probably should have been a right back.

Vaclik

 See “what went wrong”.

I want to clarify that this is nothing to do with the player himself. His pedigree speaks for itself. But his signing, and subsequent lack of appearances, is emblematic of the deeper structural issues that saw this club sink like a stone after Leagues Cup

Blessing

 This was a signing I really wanted to work out. Blessing was a fan favorite for a very good team in LAFC, and brought a skillset that I thought fit the Revs very well.

 And at first, it all seemed to be falling into place. Initial returns on the field looked good, and he was able to secure VISAs so his family could finally move to the US to live with him.

But for whatever reason, it just didn’t last. For a stretch, Blessing seemed to be reading the game just a bit too slow. Where he might have gone in for a 50:50 challenge earlier in the year, now he was going in on 40:60, sometimes 30:70 challenges.  It just wasn’t the right fit.

On July 14th the Revs sent Blessing to Toronto FC in exchange for Mark-Anthony Kaye. Blessing’s last action as a member of the Revolution was being sent off for a dangerous challenge.

Best game

It says something about the Revs season that their most dominant statistical performance came in a disappointing home draw.

If you look at just expected goals differential (ie the difference in quality between your chances, and those of your opponent) their 1-1 draw vs eventual Supporter’s Shield winners FC Cincinnati takes the cake.  The Revs created nearly 5 xG (4.8) on the day and an xGD of +2.6.  That’s a game you’d expect to win under normal circumstances.

Their next best statistical outputs, at least from an attacking standpoint, were:

1. Barely eking out a 2-1 win against bottom of the table Sporting Kansas City and…

2. A 3-3 draw against the Chicago Fire.  Yes the same Chicago Fire that have made MLS playoffs just once in the past decade.

Instead I’ll focus on a game that was more score-line dominant.

This 4-0 drubbing of (then still in the playoff hunt) DC United marked Ian Harkes’ coming out party.  Winning 4-0 feels good.  Beating DC United, well that’s just the icing on top of the cake.

It was also the Revolution’s last regular season match before the League’s Cup Break and it was a huge confidence boost.  Between this match and their 5-1 takedown of San Luis a few weeks later, there was real optimism surrounding the Revs.

Players were returning from injury and new acquisitions were contributing. It seemed like the Revs had weathered (or at least were weathering) the storm caused by losing Dylan Borrero in May.

True Revs fans know, however, that there are always darker clouds lurking just over the horizon.  This time those clouds were “league investigation”-shaped.

Worst game

If their best game was a confidence-booster just before leagues cup, then it’s fitting that their worst was a confidence destroyer shortly after leagues cup.

Those dark clouds we talked about earlier crested the hills of Foxboro and took with them Head Coach Bruce Arena, Interim Head Coach Richie Williams, Assistant Coach Dave Van Den Bergh, Assistant Coach Shalrie Joseph, star Goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic, and starting Right Back Brandon Bye.

Each left under slightly different circumstances, ranging from misconduct to distrust to injury to transfer.  And after each left, New England grew weaker.

At the end of it all, after surveying the wreckage of a disastrous summer, the organization elevated Revs II Coach Clint Peay to the head coaching role.  Peay, while I think generally held in high esteem, had no top-flight coaching experience.  Fortunately for him, his first game in charge was against as toothless an opponent as one could hope for.

The Colorado Rapids had won three games all season, to that point.  Three games in TWENTY-SIX attempts.  In addition to their poor on-field performance Rapids fans planned a protest in response to the club’s poor recruitment history, low spending, and crumbling stadium infrastructure.  This was a rough year to be a Colorado Rapids fan.

I’m sure you can see where this is headed.

The Rapids averaged a goal once every ~117.7 minutes in 2023.  However, it only took 47 for them to score their first against New England.  Their second goal came just 14 minutes later.

Even an Omar Gonzalez goal in stoppage time couldn’t salvage the Revs trip.  They would lose to the (eventual) worst team in the West, 2-1.  And that’s in spite of winning the possession battle, mind you.

 

Best stat

The Revs really hit their stride at home in 2023.  Even with a disappointing end to the year, they still finished with the 2nd best home record of any club in the league.

They earned 4o of their 55 total season points from the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium, racking up 12 wins, 4 draws and just 1 loss in the regular season.  They outscored opponents by 21 goals at home.

There’s a lot that could have been better for the Revs in 2023, but if you were a fan in the Foxboro stands, you left the game feeling happy more often than not.

Worst stat

The worst stat is perhaps both the most damning, and also the least useful.

Their expected goal differential. That is, the difference in quality between your chances and those of tour opponent.

Shortly following Dylan Borrero’s exit, the Revs expected goal differential values took a hit. And then they stayed that way. That could be due to a number of factors, including changes to coaching staff, personnel, tactics etc.

Below is another 5-game rolling average, this time of xGD.  Values above 0 (green) are good.  Values below 0 mean that the other team had better chances.

The Revs had generally sub-0 xGD values from June onward. That extends from the Bruce era through the end of the year.

New England, of course, was stacked with players that consistently beat their expected numbers.  This allowed them to continue to pick up points… until it didn’t.

Djordje Petrovic was one of the best in MLS history at preventing expected goals from becoming *actual* goals.

Players like Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou were also excellent at taking lower percentage chances and converting them to goals.

The Revs, for a large chunk of the middle of the season, were doing better *in real life* than the stats said they should be.

The problem is that it’s not sustainable over the long term.  Low percentage shots are low percentage for a reason.  Petrovic’s departure hurt, but so did Brandon Bye’s.  Their expected goals against rose steadily over the last month of the season, as a result.

Bonus: Best Storyline

We all left Omar Gonzalez for dead last season.  Coming off an uninspiring stint with Toronto FC, he signed with the Revs and very soon developed a reputation for giving away goals for free.

As a result, there was a pretty consistently negative sentiment amongst the Revs faithful surrounding the former US international.

With the addition of Dave Romney, it seemed unlikely that he would see much of the field.  And he might not have, if Henry Kessler hadn’t gotten injured early in the year.

By the end of the season, he would make 15 appearances amassing 864 minutes and… honestly looked pretty good.

More than just playing well, he also served as a welcome voice of Revs fans frustrations.  After the season, he spoke with the media and provided detailed, candid answers regarding some of the chaos that had surrounded the club since the summer.

While things didn’t go the way any of us hoped, his candor and honesty were such a welcome change of pace from the confusion and “no comments”, it’s become hard not to root for him. He’s currently out of contract, but I would be happy to see him return in 2024. 

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