FOXBOROUGH — In a sport that requires so much precision, a game that has so many pivotal plays, seeds mean little in the MLS playoffs.
It was evident from the opening minute Tuesday night that the Revolution and New York City Football Club were evenly matched, despite New England holding the No. 1 seed and home-pitch advantage in this Eastern Conference semifinal at Gillette Stadium.
What burned the Revolution were the little things. The lack of execution of scoring chances, allowing a late go-ahead goal from Valentin Castellanos in the 109th minute before tying the game nine minutes later.
Yet, what the Revolution wanted to avoid entirely was having this game come down to chance. And it did. Penalty kicks makes the college football overtime look like Camelot. It’s the worst way to end a 120-minute match, but there was the Revolution, relegated to a one-on-one duel to save their season.
They lost the battle. New York City Football Club scored all five of its penalty kicks to prevail 5-3, sending the Revolution to yet another disappointing finish, but this time what was even more demoralizing is they were the No. 1 seed. And the New York fans who traveled north and withstood the 30-degree temperature celebrated heartily as the NYCFC players hugged in delight.
Victory and defeat was that close. The Revolution had played once in the past 34 days because they won the Supporters’ Shield for having the best regular-season record and that wasn’t necessarily a positive.
Having not played since Nov. 7, the Revolution started slow and lethargic, giving up a NYCFC goal three minutes in. That gave the New Yorkers the confidence needed to contend with their opponents deep into the match. The Revolution tied it six minutes later, but they always seemed to be chasing the entire night.
“We knew that we were going to have a long break; we knew that we were going to need to come out fast,” defender Matthew Polster said. “We knew we were going to need to be aggressive and we didn’t get it done. We should have kept pushing.”
Just seven of the past 25 Supporters’ Shield winners have won the MLS Cup and there’s a reason for that. The Revolution not only had a long layoff but faced a team that had just played nine days ago. All the pressure was on the Revolution. They were at home. They were favored and well rested. But that Santiago Rodriguez goal three minutes into the game was pivotal. New England lost control after that, and then followed with a tight first half before loosening in the second.
“It’s been a good year and it sucks to end this way,” defender Andrew Farrell said. “They had a really good first half. We had some good moments, getting that tying goal and pumping up the crowd and putting the pressure back on them, but we should have scored another one in extra time and not go to PK’s.”
The season being reduced to penalty kicks was not lost on the players. New York scored all five times against Matt Turner while Adam Buksa’s shot in the second round was stopped by NYCFC’s Sean Johnson. That was the difference. New York was perfect in penalty kicks after 120-plus minutes of grueling soccer and New England wasn’t.
It’s an unsatisfying ending.
“That’s the game that we play though,” Farrell said. “You get one chance or two chances in the game and you put them away, I think that’s why everybody loves the sport because you always have a chance. If you miss a couple of chances in PKs, it’s 50-50. It’s devastating because so many guys put in such good efforts throughout the year and we had such a great year. It’s very disappointing.”
New England has been a member of MLS since the league began in 1996 after the momentum generated from the 1994 World Cup and the Revolution have yet to win an MLS Cup. This was perhaps their best chance since 2014, when they lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy in extra time in the final.
Former US national coach Bruce Arena took over in 2019 to push the franchise to the next level. This was by far his most successful regular season but still the walk home with nothing more than the Supporters’ Shield.
Arena turned 70 a few months ago and would not commit to returning for a fourth season. He appeared exhausted after watching his team play a subpar game on the biggest stage. He sought more energy at the beginning and didn’t get it and then watched as his team tied the game just before the proverbial buzzer but was unable to go ahead despite a man advantage.
A few days or maybe weeks from now the Revolution will reflect on what was a surprisingly strong season, one to build on for 2022. But they perhaps wasted a golden opportunity to make history and Arena made it clear the roster needs to be upgraded, regardless if he returns.
“We had a very good year and you could argue that maybe we played maybe a little bit in over our heads,” Arena said. “We don’t have the best roster in the league. Certainly we would have liked to have won the MLS Cup but those things happen when you get into the postseason with single elimination, then you go to penalties. It’s a crapshoot, anyone can win.”
The Revolution put it in the hands of chance Tuesday, and they simply crapped out.