Bruce Arena’s early-season goal for the Revolution, to “get a better start to the season than recent years,” seems modest enough, especially for a coach who has won a record five MLS Cups. But getting out of the gates has seldom been easy for the Revolution, who have not won a season opener since 2013.
“If I’m not mistaken, we have all 11 starters from the playoffs,” said Arena, preparing for the opening of training camp on Monday. “That’s a plus. And we’ve brought in some good players to complement the roster. We have never had a full season together with this group but we know each other better now and we want to start the season much better.”
Though Arena has transformed the Revolution, guiding them to successive playoff berths following a three-year drought, he could not get them started on the right foot last year. The Revolution sustained a 2-1 loss at Montreal and played to a 1-1 tie with the Chicago Fire before pandemic protocols shut things down. The Revolution ended up in eighth place (8-7-8, 32 points), then won three successive playoff games before falling to the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final.
Among the Revolution’s off-season additions was A.J. DeLaGarza, who played for Arena with the Los Angeles Galaxy, joining a back line of central defenders Andrew Farrell and Henry Kessler, outside backs Tajon Buchanan, Brandon Bye, and DeJuan Jones, plus newcomer Christian Mafla.
“A.J. should be a perfect fit across the back line,” Arena said. “We should be more consistent and better [defensively] in the early part of the season, I hope.”
Arena won three MLS Cup titles with the Galaxy, building the defense around University of Maryland teammates DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez. In 2009, Arena’s first full season with the Galaxy, a 21-year-old DeLaGarza and 20-year-old Gonzalez were starters as the team compiled an early 10-game unbeaten streak on the way to reaching the MLS Cup final.
“I think this team has everything to be a championship-caliber team, that’s the reason I chose to come here,” DeLaGarza, 33, said. “All the pieces are in place, we just have to put it together. You see the run they went on last year, and you can see how far this team can go.
“I definitely think we can get there [MLS Cup] and win it. The biggest thing in MLS is turnover year to year, how consistent you can be. Every year, add a couple pieces to an already strong core — this team has been together and is familiar with each other. With the Galaxy, a couple guys would come and go, but for the most part we had six or seven returning starters every year.”
The Galaxy last won the MLS Cup in 2014, a 2-1 extra time victory over the Revolution. DeLaGarza played a key part, making a spectacular recovery to halt a Charlie Davies breakaway midway through the first half. Three Revolution starters — Teal Bunbury, Scott Caldwell, and Farrell — remain with the team.
“[Farrell] brought it up the other day, and I only remembered a couple plays,” DeLaGarza said. “The slide tackle on Charlie Davies was a very big moment in the game. If New England scores that you just don’t know. And Teal, I remember a shot — he put it up in the air, and I’m like, ‘man that’s going in.’ I had my hands on my hips and it’s fairly late in the game [85th minute] and it hits the crossbar.”
Three months before the final, DeLaGarza lost his one-week old son, Luca, to a congenital heart defect – hypoplastic left heart condition – and DeLaGarza and his wife established the Luca Knows Heart Foundation.
“We started it to keep his name and memory alive, and help others along the way,” DeLaGarza said. “Fans from all over MLS were gracious and they helped contribute.
“2014 was my best season, honestly. With everything off the field, I had time to escape for an hour or two and just play the game I love and forget everything outside those lines. I was really focused and tuned in and had my best year. With everything that team had been through, with Luca, and with [Landon] Donovan getting cut from the national team right before the World Cup, and to be able to finish it the way we did was memorable.”
DeLaGarza is expected to compete for a starting outside back slot and provide depth at center back.
“He can play anywhere, that’s why he’s here,” Arena said. “He’s a smart, experienced player, his positioning is good, he communicates on the field, he understands the difference between risk and safety and generally makes good decisions. The reason I drafted him, I saw those qualities in him when he was at Maryland. I thought he was a good, smart player then and he showed that to me.”
Arena and DeLaGarza quickly developed a bond.
“He’s the same jokester, nothing has changed but our age,” DeLaGarza said of Arena.
“I owe a lot to Bruce, giving me an opportunity coming out of college and really helping me off and on the field, giving me a chance and believing in me. He surprised me how calm he was most of the time. I come from Maryland and [coach] Sasho [Cirovski] is feisty and gets in your face, and I had a club coach who would do the same. It was little different with Bruce.”
After Arena left the Galaxy to coach the US national team in 2016, DeLaGarza won the 2018 US Open Cup with the Houston Dynamo and last year played six games for Inter Miami.
“Six games and I played four different positions,” DeLaGarza said. “Where do I see myself playing? We’ll have to see how it goes. Honestly, I’ll be prepared to play all four back positions, wherever I’m needed. I just want to win at this point in my career.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.