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With Revolution in conference semifinals, Bruce Arena deserves a lot of credit

Bruce Arena has transformed the Revolution since taking over in May 2019.
Bruce Arena has transformed the Revolution since taking over in May 2019.Stew Milne/Associated Press

After the Revolution hired Bruce Arena as coach last year, Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin said, “He’s a winner. He wins everywhere he goes. This is just the beginning for them. I know he’s going to get them back on top in the Eastern Conference. We just hope it’s not this year.”

Arena has not yet taken the Revolution to the top of the conference, but he has guided them to the final eight of the MLS playoffs after a 2-0 victory over the top-seeded Union Tuesday night. The Revolution will visit Orlando City in the conference semifinals Sunday.

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It has been a remarkable turnaround for a team that had a 2-8-2 record before Arena was named sporting director/head coach in May 2019. Even Arena did not expect things to happen so quickly, but after rallying the Revolution to a playoff berth last season, he stepped things up to make a run this year.

Arena persuaded owner Robert Kraft to splurge on Designated Players, and then went on a scouting mission that produced central defender Henry Kessler, who was performing for Arena’s former team, the University of Virginia.

The Revolution’s progress stalled, though, because of the pandemic and an injury to playmaker Carles Gil. Now, though, the Revolution seem to be clicking.

Much of the credit should go to Arena, though he inherited a roster with solid foundations. Since Arena has been in charge, the Revolution have performed with confidence, and their all-out, uninhibited attacking style has forced foes onto the defensive.

Arena’s tactics encourage everyone to get into the offense. He had no problem converting Tajon Buchanan to right back, unconcerned about Buchanan’s lack of defending experience. The move has paid off, Buchanan helping set up a goal in a 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact in the playoff opener, then scoring against the Union.

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The strategy also places pressure on central defenders Kessler and Andrew Farrell as the last line of defense in front of goalkeeper Matt Turner, requiring them to play a high line, which can be risky.

Against the Union, holding midfielders Scott Caldwell and Matt Polster played key roles, stifling Jose Andres Martinez, Jamiro Monteiro, and MLS Best XI midfielder Brenden Aaronson (scoreless in six games against the Revolution this year). The Revolution also exhibited strong individual defending in shutting down super sub Ilsinho, left back DeJuan Jones stripping him at least twice.

But the Revolution’s success would not be as likely without the setup ability of Gil, along with forwards Gustavo Bou, Adam Buksa, and leading scorer Teal Bunbury. Gil set up the opening goal — drawing a foul, then lofting a free kick for Buksa to head past former UConn goalkeeper Andre Blake in the 26th minute. On the second goal, Bou laid off to Gil, then drew the defense with a run into the penalty area, as Buchanan finished Gil’s feed in the 30th minute.

The game against the Union provided a possible preview of Orlando City, which presents a similar challenge under the coaching of former Revolution midfielder Oscar Pareja.

The Revolution are the lowest-seeded team remaining, meaning no home-field advantage. But Arena has turned the team into road warriors, partly because their possession style, which relies on precision passing, is suited to grass fields.

Before Arena took over, the Revolution had compiled a 3-26-12 road record over a 2½-year span. Since, the Revolution have a 10-6-7 away mark in all competitions.

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“They definitely had the better hand on us,” Buchanan said of the Union, who went into the game with a 4-0-1 record against the Revolution this year. “But at the end of the day, everyone’s here to fight for an MLS championship, and once you hit playoffs, it doesn’t matter what seed you are. These games are do or die.

“Today we won the more important game and we move on. Now we have another opportunity to go and play this weekend and keep fighting for an MLS Cup.”