MARIETTA, Ga. — Bruce Arena has seldom considered his team to be an underdog. But that is how the Revolution were being perceived as they prepared to meet defending champion Atlanta United in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs Saturday.
“I think, in theory, we’re definitely underdogs,” said Arena, the Revolution’s sporting director/head coach. “But I don’t think anyone even cares or talks about it. It’s one game and we have to win the game, period.”
The Revolution, under interim coach Mike Lapper and Arena, made an improbable rally from last place in the Eastern Conference in May to a place in the postseason for the first time since 2015. The Revolution compiled a 9-3-10 record after May 8, along the way changing the team’s identity.
“We’ve had a good second half of the season and there’s no reason for us to believe in any given game we can’t come out on top,” Arena said after the Revolution worked out at Atlanta’s training center Friday.
“It’ll be a challenging game for both teams. So often it comes down to who can make some plays that make the difference.”
Both teams count on several attacking threats.
■ Venezuelan forward Josef Martinez leads the way for Atlanta, having scored 81 goals in 89 playoff and regular-season games in three seasons;
■ Former Providence College star Julian Gressel has proven to be among the league’s top wingers, and provided two assists and a goal in Atlanta’s 3-1 win over the Revolution in the final regular-season game two weeks ago;
■ Midfielder Darlington Nagbe has emerged among the league’s best central midfielders since being acquired by Atlanta from Portland last year.
■ Atlanta paid MLS-record transfer fees for Argentinians Ezequiel Barco ($15 million) and Pity Martinez ($16 million), considered among South America’s best prospects.
■ The Revolution counter with Spanish playmaker Carles Gil, named MLS Newcomer of the Year;
■ Argentinian forward Gustavo Bou scored nine goals in 14 games for the Revolution after arriving on a team-record $6.7 million transfer from Club Tijuana in July;
■ Ecuadorian winger Cristian Penilla has totaled 18 goals in two seasons with the Revolution.
Atlanta United will be missing central defender Miles Robinson, a former Arlington High basketball and soccer star who sustained a hamstring injury while training with the US national team. Michael Parkhurst, MLS Defender of the Year in 2007 with the Revolution, is the likely replacement, though coach Frank de Boer had planned to phase him out (Parkhurst plans to retire after the season).
The Revolution have been improvising at left back since Edgar Castillo (ribs) was injured in August, a problem that could be solved next season with the expected arrival of former Manchester United outside back Alex Buttner. All three Atlanta goals were converted from that side of the field in their game two weeks ago and though Castillo will be available, he is not likely to start, leaving the role to Jalil Anibaba or DeJuan Jones.
Supporting casts could play a significant role.
Atlanta counts on former Revolution holding midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, plus newcomers Emerson Hyndman and Justin Meram in attack, and Argentinian defenders Franco Escobar and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
Revolution midfielders Luis Caicedo and Wilfried Zahibo will contend with Nagbe. And former US national team forwards Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury (or Colombian Juan Fernando Caicedo) could complement Bou up front.
“We don’t really look at what we’re being portrayed as,” Bunbury said. “Obviously, we’re playing the defending champion, so any team that’s playing the team that won it the previous year, I guess, would technically be considered the underdogs. But I think we match up really good with them, we match up with any team.
“We’re playing really good right now. We’re a confident group. I would say that’s how I would identify ourselves. I wouldn’t say we’re underdogs, we’re confident, we’re realistic, and we know what we can do. As long as we continue to work hard and give our best against Atlanta, work our tail off, we have a great chance of winning the game.”
Atlanta has been able to capitalize on home-field advantage, winning three successive championships at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — last year’s MLS Cup and this year’s US Open Cup and Campeones Cup. The Five Stripes captured three postseason victories at home last season, all before crowds of 70,000-plus.
But Arena provides the X Factor, having captured a record five MLS Cups and compiling a 32-11-6 playoff record in 14 seasons. Arena is known as a master motivator, but he has also had to optimize his tactical ability in reviving the Revolution.
“We certainly like to believe we put players in positions that are advantageous to their skills and so it’s their stamp on the game, not mine,” Arena said. “They’re not playing like I want them to play – they’re playing like they’re capable of playing.
“This is a players’ game, very unlike almost every sport you see in America. There’s 11 players on the field that need to know how to coach themselves during the game.”