Getting on a playoff roll is familiar business in the kingdom ruled by Robert and Jonathan Kraft. The Patriots built their postseason playbook around being at their best when it matters the most, a method that put six Lombardi Trophies inside Gillette Stadium.
That magic formula has eluded the other Kraft tenant in Foxborough, the perennial fifth wheel in Boston sports, the original Major League Soccer franchise still, after all these years, in search of a stadium and the fanbase to fill it, and its first MLS Cup.
But this year the Revolution plan to break their own version of the curse. They find themselves on the right side of the “How to win it all” playbook, one that the team’s coach, Bruce Arena, could claim to have co-authored, along with Bill Belichick.
With three playoff wins and counting — the team’s first three-game winning streak of any kind in this strange, pandemic-altered season — the Revolution are crashing into Sunday’s Eastern Conference final against the Columbus Crew with just the brand of aggressive, sound, and confident soccer their coach has ridden to five previous league titles.
“It’s really exciting, seeing these players play, knocking off the No. 1 seed in our conference, seeing the development of the young players and how hard our staff has worked,” Robert Kraft said in a phone call this past week. “Coach Arena and his staff have really done a great job. Going into this game on Sunday we’re pretty excited and enthused.”
It is a moment of redeeming delight for Kraft, one that has been a long time coming.
The story of the Revolution can be written in trends. There at the start, when the league debuted in 1996, they hit a stride the next decade, reaching the MLS Cup final in 2002, 2005, 2006, and 2007 — the Buffalo Bills of Major League Soccer. In a region where championships in other major sports have grown routine, it has been a struggle for the Revs to be seen and loved.
The struggle makes them something of an outlier in the sport. Across the lifespan of the team, the league itself began to soar. Expansion into soccer-heavy markets, erection of soccer-only urban stadiums, an influx of both homegrown and international talent, rising attendance, and rising television ratings have pushed MLS from niche to mainstream.
As Robert Kraft says, “We have a long-term commitment to this sport because I think 10, 20 years from now ... MLS has a chance to rival the NFL, given that it’s such a global sport.”
Yet Kraft knows his family’s commitment to the Revolution has been questioned, that the franchise has been dubbed the forgotten child, neglected against the demands of the Patriots. Kraft calls those “mistaken opinions,” and two pieces of recent evidence back him up on this.
Start with the $35 million they laid out for the most advanced, modern training center in MLS. Nestled just behind a corner of Gillette Stadium, it represents both progress and frustration.
The progress is obvious, as the facility is the envy of the league. The frustration is in the decades of downtown-stadium dreams that were born, dashed, re-formed, and dashed again. The Krafts haven’t given up on building their own urban soccer mecca, but they did give up waiting to put the training center next to it.
“We want to build the stadium,” Jonathan Kraft said. “We don’t like failing and we clearly failed at doing that. The training center made a statement.”
So has the team’s playoff run.
Getting to this game has been exciting in its own right, revving a bandwagon ready for all comers. From a heart-stopping play-in victory over Montreal on Gustavo Bou’s stoppage-time goal, to that shocking upset of top-seeded nemesis Philadelphia only days later, to the semifinal win over Orlando that saw the Revs play their most complete game of the year, Arena has his team peaking.
The players are proving that a single-elimination tournament can favor the perpetual underdog or the road warrior that just won’t give in.
“This has been awesome,” said Jonathan Kraft. “The drama at the end of the Montreal game, going to Philly, the No. 1 seed, to go from being dominated all the times we played this year to dominating them on their turf, to the best performance of the year in Orlando, we’re excited and hope we keep trending up Sunday in Columbus.”
Trending up, and maybe winning it all, could also go a long way toward solving the team’s stadium puzzle.
“Eventually we’d like to invest the team up in the Boston area in a new stadium,” Robert Kraft said.
“Our current situation in Foxborough is not aligned with the massive growth in the league driven by urban soccer stadiums. What we’ve seen is many of these MLS teams in these cities are now more popular than the traditional big four sports.”
No wonder the Krafts want in. While powers such as Atlanta and Seattle also play in 60,000-plus-capacity stadiums, they ranked first and second in 2019 average attendance, eclipsing 50,000 and 40,000, respectively. The Revs, according to soccerstadiumdigest.com, were 18th of 24 teams at just under 17,000. A more intimate setting could be a game changer, as it has been in places such as Portland, Orlando, Toronto, and New Jersey.
“Not just for the Revs but for the league as a whole,” said Alexi Lalas.
One of the most famous homegrown American soccer stars and now a commentator for Fox, Lalas was a member of the breakthrough 1994 US men’s team in the World Cup. Though he followed that with a professional stint in Italy, he was always bound for MLS. He was one of New England’s first players.
“One of the proudest moments of my life was getting on that plane in Italy, landing in Logan, and getting out to start the adventure that was Major League Soccer,” Lalas recalled. “I specifically wanted to go to Boston and New England to play for the Revolution because of the [World Cup] experience I had had there ... I looked at it as a market that had incredible potential.
“I hope there’s more and bigger things, obviously a stadium in the future. If that happens, it could be the best market in the MLS.”
There is no movement imminent on that front, and given the ongoing pandemic, restarting the conversation with the mayor or the governor, both of whom have been receptive to the idea, could be difficult.
But it sure can’t hurt to have a team making the best kind of noise.
“Winning does a lot of things,” Lalas said. “It’s good for the league for New England to be good. As one of the originals, it amplifies the fact that there is a history and it’s worth celebrating and recognizing ... And winning motivates on and off the field. When you are looking at possibly expanding and enhancing and growing, it’s a lot easier to do when you’re in the consciousness, relevant in markets and winning. There’s an excitement for the brand.
“I can’t wait to see it. That place is ripe.”
Key to it all is Arena, at 69 a fully ripened force in the sport. After winning five NCAA titles at Virginia, he was the first coach for D.C. United, winning the first two MLS Cups. He moved on to the US national team, but would later add three more MLS titles with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
When the Krafts tapped him to take over what was a two-win team back in May 2019, the future of the family’s second great sports holding was instantly more secure. The marriage of the MLS’s most decorated championship coach to one of the nation’s most decorated championship cities has proven a perfect match, and regardless of whether the Revs can win two more games for a title, the union promises more.