FOXBOROUGH — Just six days ago, after defeating the Columbus Crew and clinching a playoff spot, everyone in the New England Revolution organization was all smiles.
On Saturday night at Gillette Stadium though, the result of the Revolution’s first of two playoff games against Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference semifinals will depend on how focused everyone is on the task at hand. The Revolution went unbeaten in their last six regular-season games — the team’s longest streak of the year — but coach Jay Heaps knows what a stiff test the visitors will provide.
“Playing against Sporting KC is obviously a tough task,” said Heaps. “Some would argue that they’re the best team in the league, and I don’t think they’re wrong in that argument, so we know we have a big battle ahead of us.”
The Revolution’s offense has been finding ways to score more often as of late, recording 15 goals in their last six home games (they managed just six goals in their first six home games).
But Kansas City (17-10-7, 58 points) isn’t a slouch defensively. In fact, the visitors boast the best defense in MLS, allowing just 30 goals in the 34-game regular season.
In the Revolution’s two games against Sporting KC this season — a 0-0 tie at home and 3-0 loss on the road — scoring opportunities were few and far between. And goals are exactly what the Revolution (14-11-9, 51 points) need to find on Saturday night.
“We’ve played them a few times and have had a tough time with them. They’re a difficult team — they defend well and they’re the best defensive team in the league,” said Heaps.
“We’re playing a little differently since we last played them. I think we’re finding our stride, chemistry-wise in the attack.”
Revolution veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis knows what it’s like to be on a playoff-caliber team. He was on a Los Angeles Galaxy team that made the playoffs four times in his first five MLS seasons before moving to the Revolution and qualifying for the playoffs in his first seven seasons here.
But from 2010 to 2012, Reis didn’t get to play in the postseason. The 38-year-old is thrilled to be competing for the ultimate prize — the MLS Cup — once again.
“Knowing personally now what it was like being out of the playoffs, and the sinking feeling of having to train here instead of playing meaningful games, I think that for a lot of us, it’s a very big motivating factor,” said Reis. “Knowing how tough it is to get into the playoffs, and now getting to have a chance to win a cup is huge.”
Reis also thinks that having been in a scenario where the Revolution needed to get results at the end of the season to stay in the playoff hunt will benefit the team during the playoffs.
“We’ve been in this survive-and-advance mode for a while, and I think that when you look historically at the teams that have done well in the playoffs, it’s the teams that have had to been playing with a little bit of desperation in the last couple of weeks,” said Reis.
Just eight of the 30 players on the Revolution have participated on a MLS playoff team before, and only three of those players have started over 10 games this year.
In Reis’s mind, the lack of postseason experience isn’t a negative.
“It’s a new group of guys and it’s exciting, because a lot of the guys haven’t had that type of experience in the playoffs,” said Reis.
“You don’t know what to expect, and like we tell these guys, it’s just another game. It’s the same game and it’s against the same opponents that we’ve played all year.”