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Bruce Arena’s intense ‘mini-games’ in practice are paying off for Revolution

Bruce Arena's team has been on an international break — they last played May 29 — but they get back in action Saturday.
Bruce Arena's team has been on an international break — they last played May 29 — but they get back in action Saturday.John Tlumacki

FOXBOROUGH — Revolution practices often end on a high note. The team splits up for small-sided, reduced-field games, the winners commemorating their “championship” in full gloat mode, posing together while a teammate flashes a simulated camera. It’s all good fun, except for the losing groups, who walk off the field vowing revenge.

The aim of the drill is to sharpen ball movement and finishing while replicating game intensity. Everyone seems to know not to take things too far, and nobody is going in two-footed, studs-up at captain Carles Gil, as some Revolution opponents have. Not yet, anyway.

“If we go a couple more weeks without a game, there’s going to be a couple red cards,” defender Andrew Farrell said this week. “Guys want to get back out there playing games.”

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After a three-week international break, the Revolution (5-1-2, 17 points) return to regular-season action against New York City FC Saturday. The Eastern Conference leaders hope to retain momentum after getting off to their best start since 2007.

The Revolution’s last match, a 1-0 win at Cincinnati May 29, played out much like their training exercises — quick passing, rapid transition from defense to offense, lots of shots.

Since he took over the Revolution in May 2019, Bruce Arena’s emphasis on attacking has helped transform the team, which two years ago had a 2-5-1 mark after eight games. Part of the reason for the change is the Revolution’s approach to training.

“If you can’t pass the ball, you can’t do anything in the game,” Arena said. “Most of the things we do in practice are about passing the ball.”

Bruce Arena (center, with A.J. DeLaGarza at left and Andrew Farrell at right) has the Revolution in first place.
Bruce Arena (center, with A.J. DeLaGarza at left and Andrew Farrell at right) has the Revolution in first place.John Tlumacki

Arena’s drills probably are not unique and, he said, short-sided games have concluded his teams’ workouts for 40 years. The key is putting lessons into practice during games.

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“When we do passing drills, it’s more mental at times,” defender A.J. DeLaGarza said. “It seems so easy but you have to be focused, 100 percent. It seems simple. But can you do it under pressure and keep possession in tough spots on field? At the same time, are you doing anything with the ball?”

Practice, and repetition, might make perfect, but Arena believes in incorporating game conditions, including referees, into drills. Short-sided games are marked by a competitive edge, and calls by referees (usually assistant coaches) are sometimes disputed.

“When coaches referee, we take some heat, which is fine,” assistant coach Richie Williams said. “If you’re not taking heat as a referee, you know they’re not competing.

“Obviously, there is a line you can’t cross. You don’t want them to make bad tackles or bad fouls, but you don’t want them to stop going into tackles.

“When it is six-on-six, everyone has to attack and even attackers have to defend. You can really get found out if you are only playing one side of the ball. You have to make sure everyone is tuned in when you attack and when you get back. You’re holding each other accountable in those games, and if we keep score, there are bragging rights.

“Your decision-making and execution happens quickly any time you’re playing in tight spaces. You have to be good technically and also good with decision-making and quick with decision-making.”

The Revolution have been emphasizing finishing in recent sessions. Against Cincinnati, they fired 21 shots in the first half but did not score until Adam Buksa’s 70th-minute goal.

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Williams said his squads worked on the same type of things when he played for the University of Virginia, D.C. United, and the US national team under Arena. Williams and assistant Dave van den Bergh, a former MLS player and Dutch national team member, also get into the action in six-on-six games.

“I guess the coaches are competitive, and when they were players, they were competitive,” Williams said. “That adds to it.

“First of all, we identify players that are competitive, guys that want to show up and train and perform every day. Anything we do, even if it’s a passing exercise, you’re competing almost against yourself. When you warm up, take pride in what you’re doing.

“We don’t want to just be out there for a long period of time and giving 50 percent, going through the motions. Better to go out there for less time and be efficient and execute properly — you get more out of it. And there is always that competitive element. I assume most successful teams do a lot of that.”

Revolution training sessions have been highly competitive since the team started in 1996. Clashes between players during practice led to fisticuffs, sometimes resulting in fines and suspensions, though players claimed the conflicts led to team bonding.

Under Arena, Revolution players push the envelope but usually retain their composure.

“We have a competitive group; everyone hates losing,” Farrell said. “We can be overly competitive, which is good, because everyone wants to win.”

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Arena delegates responsibility to team leaders such as Farrell, who has played for five coaches since joining the Revolution in 2013.

“He does a good job giving us that freedom,” Farrell said. “He gives us responsibility, trusts us to make decisions, and that makes us feel good. He gives us time to have dinner with friends and family, as opposed to team meals all the time. We’re professionals, but we have a life outside training every day.”

DeLaGarza played for three MLS Cup championship teams with the Los Angeles Galaxy under Arena, but is now in a reserve role.

“He’s the best in the business building a team where all players are capable of stepping on the field and the level not dropping too much,” DeLaGarza said. “Bruce keeps guys engaged in competing every day and it’s a little bit easier when your team is winning.

“I’ve played 45 minutes this year but it is still a joy to be out here and be on this team. When you see how good we are and how competitive, and if I can be out here with these guys, I know I’ll be ready to do it against any team in MLS.”