The natural sadness after losing late in the playoffs is not simply for an opportunity lost, though that alone is bad enough. There is an equally sickening fear, the one that says you might never get such an opportunity again because you know, now more than ever, just how much work and effort is needed for every postseason run.
The thought of starting over again can be daunting.
Or it can be exciting.
And though there is surely sadness for the New England Revolution in the wake of Sunday’s 1-0 Eastern Conference final loss to Columbus, there should be absolute excitement for what is to come. With a talented core of players that should remain intact, including a goaltender in Matt Turner who stood on his head all afternoon against the Crew, with a legendary coach in Bruce Arena whose dramatic work in rebuilding the franchise culture has only just begun, and with owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft investing in the team in new and dramatic ways these past few years, the Revolution are here to stay.
In the words of defender Andrew Farrell, “The team is in good hands.”
First, the sadness, felt so deeply in the reality that nothing can ever be recreated as is. No, there aren’t many among us looking for a re-do of 2020, but from the perspective of this New England group, what they did across these last few weeks will stay with them forever. Finding alchemy is sports’ greatest challenge, but also its greatest reward. In winning three playoff games as a No. 8 seed, in escaping Montreal with a dramatic stoppage time goal in a play-in game, in upending nemesis (and top-seeded) Philadelphia with a dominant effort in the first round, in putting it all together so completely against Orlando to book the date with Columbus, these road warriors found it.
“Obviously it’s been a challenging year for everyone but we stuck together,” Turner said. “I’m definitely going to remember the good times. I thought we didn’t put our best foot forward today that’s for sure and that’s disappointing. It’s going to take me some time to reflect. My emotions right now are high. It hurts to lose, especially when you’re so close to winning a championship. I’ll take some time to reflect, but definitely I’ll remember more of the good than the bad.”
The magic dust finally evaporated against a Columbus team that was better from the outset, a team that put New England on its heels immediately, obvious in the flurry of Columbus corner kicks in the game’s initial 10 minutes. It was inevitable the consistent pressure would pay off, and when Artur snuck a laser inside the right post in the 59th minute, Columbus never looked back. And while they advance to the MLS Cup, the Revolution return home thinking about what might have been, yes, but also about what might yet come.
In a midweek interview with the Globe, Jonathan Kraft already was thinking about that future, believing strongly that the foundation under Arena is stronger than recent years such as 2014, when the Revolution made a run to the MLS Cup only to suffer the franchise’s fifth championship loss.
“Unlike our other teams that went to the Cup, we have a nucleus of players on this team, a very good coaching staff, in addition to our three designated players Carles [Gil] and Gustavo [Bou] and Adam [Buksa], we have as good of a goalkeeper as exists, and we are one of the few teams that has been able to draft young kids out of American colleges that have performed on the field,” Kraft said. “This team is under contract for a number of years. Bruce is excited. We’re excited that this is not a flash in the pan.”
Of course nothing is guaranteed. Ask the Bruins after losing Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final what it was like to try and get back in 2020. (Hint: They didn’t.) Ask the Falcons how easy it was to get back to the Super Bowl after losing that infamous 28-3 lead to the Patriots. (Hint: They didn’t.) But there’s a difference between teams taking a last gasp and those taking a first step, and with Arena, who has won five MLS titles with two other franchises, this is no last gasp.
“I think Bruce asked us this the night before the game, that if he’d told us we’d be in the Eastern Conference final, one step away from the MLS final, would you believe me,” Farrell said. “We’ve come a long way. But you know as well as I do that Bruce is not happy without a title. He loves to win. The Krafts love to win, too. This is obviously a great run and we’re happy we made it this far. But Bruce isn’t here to get to Eastern Conference finals. He’s here to win Cups.”
Which is why the coach, while happy “we made progress last year, we made progress this year,” isn’t content. “We’re looking to bring in two or three players to solidify our first 11,” he said. “We got to get a little better there. Technically we’re not as good as we need to be, and we need a few better players to help us in the attacking end of the field. We could use help in other positions, too. We‘ll do our best to make our roster better.”
Of course the fear is always there, that seeing the finish line turns out to be a one-time tease, nothing more than lost opportunity. Windows close fast in sports. But they open, too, and this Arena-led version of the Revolution is positioned to climb through to more success.