The Revolution face a tall task in the first round of MLS Cup Playoffs when they visit Atlanta United FC on Oct. 19. On paper, it sounds like a daunting matchup for the Revs. Yes, they are facing defending MLS Cup Champions. Yes, they are playing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of 70,000 fans. Yes, they have never beaten Atlanta. They have an all-time 0-4-2 record, including 0-3-0 mark at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Yes, the Revs are underdogs. But throw that all out the window. Here are five factors why the Revolution can win.
New playoff format
MLS has moved away from the two-legged affairs and has adopted the single-elimination format. This format helps the underdog. The better team usually won in the old format. Anything can happen in one single match. It's harder to pull off an upset over the course of two matches. I am curious to see how things play out this postseason. I think you will see more upsets in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
The Revs' road form is much improved under Bruce Arena with a 3-2-5 record. Their 2 losses with Bruce on the touchline need some context. I'm protesting the 2-1 defeat at New York City FC on Sept. 7. The Revs had to play unfairly down a man for 80-plus minutes. Toni Delamea got sent off for a challenge that was initially ruled a yellow card but VAR changed it to a red. Four days later, the league's disciplinary board rescinded the red card completely. Now, what would have happened if the Revs got to play the rest of the match with 11 players? Nobody knows but the Revs were leading most of the match before surrendering two goals late in the game. The match-winning goal came in the last moments of stoppage time. The loss deserves an asterisk.
The other road loss was in the regular-season finale against Atlanta. Neither team had much at stake by the time this one kicked off. The Eastern Conference playoff field was set. All that was left to decide was the seeds and matchups. I don't think either team went all-out in playing this match. I don't put much stock into the 3-1 loss to Atlanta on the final day of the regular season.
As for the Revs' road wins and ties, it should give the players confidence going into the postseason. Here are the teams they've earned points against this season:
LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, FC Cincinnati, DC Untied, Orlando City SC, Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers. Five of them are playoff teams. Three of them play in challenging environments for the opposition. Earning points on the road against LA, Seattle, and Portland is nothing to overlook. The Revs beat Zlatan and company in Bruce's first match as head coach. The club earned hard-fought draws against the Sounders and Timbers. I say the Revs have earned their road stripes. They are a much better team on the road with Bruce running the ship than under previous head coaches. The Bruce bump is a real thing.
So we meet again
As mentioned above, the Atlanta-New England first-round playoff game is a rematch of the regular-season finale. This absolutely benefits New England in so many ways. The Revs got the Mercedez-Benz experience out of the way. It's a challenging place to play for an opposing team. The fans make it a hostile environment for the opposition. It can be an overwhelming experience for a player. But after you do it once, it changes the next time around. The fans don't sound as loud. The atmosphere isn't as rocking. Everything becomes more familiar the second time you do it. You get a better feel for the artificial turf. You get the learning curve out of the way. The Revs will be more comfortable the next time they step inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. I also think it's hard to beat a good team two games in a row. Atlanta won last time out. It'll be harder for them to get two wins in a row. The Revs will be more comfortable this time. The intangibles come into play and that should benefit the Revs.
Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou, and Matt Turner have been pivotal in the team's success this season. Where does that trio rank in MLS? If you take the three best players from every team and hold a draft of which group to take first, I think the Gil-Bou-Turner trio is at or near the top of everyone's list. Maybe the Revs' roster top to bottom isn't as talented as some around the league. But those three stars have been among the best at their respective positions this season. Where they play on the field might be just as important as their production on it. When you have a versatile striker up top, a dynamic playmaker in midfield, and a match-winning goalkeeper in net, it really helps cover up mistakes on the field or shortcomings on the roster. If I were to pick the three most important positions to build around, it would be where Bou, Gil and Turner play on the field. Give me great performances from those three in the same match and I don't like my chances. I love them.
Bruce Arena is known to have a trick or two up his sleeve when it comes to tactics. Atlanta head coach Frank de Boer said as much after Sunday's match. "I've heard that Bruce Arena is a coach that suddenly can make changes and we have to be ready for that and prepared for that, and we have two weeks to do that," said de Boer. Arena has only gone with the same lineup in back-to-back games once this season. The duplicate starting XI only happened after the Revs clinched a playoff spot and were playing Atlanta in the regular-season finale with little at stake. So, was he testing out his possible playoff lineup? Did we see a blueprint for what Arena would do in the next match? Was he just punting on the last game of the season and wanted his players to get some work in before the playoffs start in two weeks? Nobody knows. And that is the point. Watch out. Bruce keeps you on your toes.
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