The New England Revolution lost their 2019 regular season finale 3-1 to Atlanta United Sunday evening. New England finished the regular season seventh in the Eastern Conference with an 11-11-12 record and will meet Atlanta, which holds the second seed, in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
Here are three takeaways from New England’s point of view:
This was a dress rehearsal
Revolution head coach-sporting director Bruce Arena likened Sunday’s match at Atlanta as a preview for the opening match of the postseason, as he rightly predicted his side would return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium Oct. 19 in the first round of the playoffs.
As such, Arena deployed his full-strength starting XI and told his players to push hard for a result. Arena could tinker with his lineup once the playoffs begin, as players such as Jalil Anibaba, Juan Agudelo, Cristian Penilla, and Teal Bunbury have all floated in and out of starting roles in recent weeks, but Sunday night’s performance more or less featured the best team New England can field.
Though Atlanta won handily, its coaching staff and players would be smart to not underestimate the Revolution in the playoffs. New England battled Atlanta for almost half the possession Sunday and was narrowly defeated on shots by a 19-18 edge. Penilla netted New England’s equalizer moments after Darlington Nagbe gave Atlanta its first lead, while Juan Fernando Caicedo hit the bar in second-half stoppage time and the Revs let a few other chances go begging.
The 3-1 final score indicated Atlanta’s superiority at finishing chances and New England’s tendency to leave opposing players time and space.
“It was OK,” Arena said of New England’s performance. “It was a decent game. We obviously had to play a little bit better on the day, but give them credit. They played well. I thought we had our moments as well, but obviously, over 90 minutes, we weren’t good enough.”
Will the Revolution back line improve on Sunday’s performance?
Nagbe, Julian Gressel and Josef Martínez all scored for Atlanta Sunday, with each goal showcasing how deadly the Five Stripes can be at finishing chances and maximizing open space in the attacking third.
New England goalkeeper Matt Turner made six saves and likely will be called upon again on Oct. 19, but he alone won’t be enough to get the Revolution a result at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Revolution showed some of the vulnerabilities that have caused them to concede goals and drop points throughout the regular season. Central defender Andrew Farrell was particularly critical of the team’s defensive performance in the second half Sunday.
“Second half, kind of laid down on a couple plays,” Farrell said. “A couple mistakes that it is good to concede now because we are going to play them in a couple weeks. But guys are confident that when we play well and mistake-free soccer, we can compete with this team.”
Farrell, Antonio Delamea and Brandon Bye should be locks to start, though questions remain about who will play left back. Anibaba started Sunday, but rookie DeJuan Jones, who isn’t as experienced as a defender but has better pace and recovery speed, is an option as well.
After Sunday’s game, reporters asked Arena if he intended to exploit Atlanta on the wings. Arena didn’t give away much, but if that is the game plan on Oct. 19, Jones will be a better option.
Is there upset potential in the playoffs?
New England needs to play mistake-free soccer on Oct. 19 if it hopes to make it out of Round 1.
Defending has not been the Revolution’s strong suit this season, though. Consider that they’ve recorded just six clean sheets, and only two of those came on the road.
Atlanta won’t be easy to stop with its wealth of attacking weapons, from midfielders Ezequiel Barco, Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez and Gressel, to Josef Martínez, who lead United with 27 goals in the regular season.
The Revolution are clearly underdogs, though their chances of advancing are far from nonexistent.
While Pity Martínez did not start Sunday, Atlanta United fielded a competitive team, and the Revolution managed to enjoy spells of possession and create chances.
Sunday’s result was only the Revolution’s third loss since Arena’s hiring in May, and it snapped a seven-game road unbeaten run. Since Arena was hired, the Revolution have managed to secure results in traditionally difficult MLS environments, including Los Angeles, Colorado, and Portland.
The stakes will be higher than any of those games on Oct. 19, but the Revolution will have the benefit of some short-term memory.
“I think it will be good to look at the tape,” Farrell said. “Obviously, we still have 13 days until we see them again. We know how they are going to play. They might change the lineup a little bit, we will probably change the lineup a little bit. But we know where we can exploit some things and where we can get better. They know where they want to make their mark and get in behind us with Josef [Martínez].
“Once we watch the tape and see that, we can improve that. The guys fought hard and put in a good effort, and that is what we kind of wanted to do. It is kind of a dress rehearsal for the real thing coming up.”