Sounder at Heart: So Bruce Arena, huh? Was bringing in someone who wasn’t Brad Friedel really the simple answer New England needed, or has the turnaround been more complex?
The Bent Musket: I feel like there is a simple answer and a complex answer. The simple answer is that, yes, Brad Friedel was not a good coach and his tactical system was handcuffing the Revolution on both offense and defense. Friedel’s high press was too easily broken and left the fullbacks too far up the field to help the centerbacks and the Revs gave up a lot of goals in transition because of it. Any defensive mistake also usually turned into a goal as it seemed like no one knew where to be if/when things broke down. The system was bad and my guess is the locker room was too as everyone could see the first game after he was sacked and Mike Lapper took over on an interim basis.
In all honesty, the Revs are not a bad team. But I also don’t think they’re a great team either...they’re probably right where they should be at the moment, which is 7th place in the East and fighting for a playoff spot. That was the high-water mark of the expectations going into the year — if you believed the Revs were a playoff team, they were only going to barely make it and it probably was going to come down to the final game of the year. Bruce Arena has done what most good coaches do: assess the talent and players he has and figure out a way to make things work and probably should have been the hire a year and a half ago instead of Friedel. I know people will say that the USMNT failure was Arena being too conservative with his roster selection, but it’s pretty clear in just a few short weeks at the helm, he knows what he’s doing.
On the field, the players have largely been the same but with a few interesting wrinkles. Juan Agudelo has spent a lot of time in central midfield, Diego Fagundez got a run out as a holding mid, and the attacking group up front is allowed to roam, find space, cause trouble, etc. Carles Gil looks like a double-double threat for goals and assists and Gustavo Bou might be the top class finisher this team has lacked for the past several years. The Revs are fun to watch again and are being allowed to play creative, free-flowing soccer that it seems they were built to do rather than a pressing system that they were shoehorned into.
SAH: This Gustavo Bou fella seems good at soccer. What’s he bring to the team?
TBM: Well for starters...I’m just going to leave this full volley against Vancouver from his debut a few weeks ago here:
New England has always lacked a dominant striker up front since Taylor Twellman retired and that was nearly a decade ago. Several failed DP signings among Jerry Bengston, Milton Caraglio and Saer Sene just never panned out for various reasons and the bulk of the scoring fell to regular guys like Charlie Davies, Teal Bunbury and Lee Nguyen during his MVP run in 2014. Diego Fagundez has racked up 50 total goals in his MLS career too. Bou clearly is good at soccer, and if he is the finisher he appears to be that’s a good thing for a team that struggles to finish off chances in and around the box. More importantly, and for better or worse, it’s still to be determined — Bou is another versatile attacker that doesn’t seem to have a true position in the Revs’ traditional 4-2-3-1 system. He’s somewhere between a winger and a second striker, but not really a true No. 9 type. If Arena allows Bou to combine and shift positions with Gil and Bunbury on a regular basis and it works, the Revs can flourish. But if guys like Bou and Cristian Penilla are going to be asked to be two-way wide players, that doesn’t play to their strengths.
SAH: The Revs currently find themselves in 7th place in the East, with a chance to gain some ground on those teams around them. What’s the bare minimum expectation for a successful season this year?
TBM: I think a successful season in 2019 is anything that builds towards 2020 and with Bou and Bruce Arena, that has been accomplished. I will always say that merely making the playoffs in MLS does not make you a good team, nor is being a one-and-done playoff team count as a successful season. If the Revs make the playoffs as the 7th seed and get rolled on the road by an Atlanta United or NYCFC in the first round, then they are who we thought they were at the beginning of the year. Despite the massive hole the Revs dug and eventually climbed out of, realistically a meager playoff run in 2019 was the high end of the expectations going into this season.
If 2019 changes those expectations, and perhaps sets up the Revs for a legit playoff run in 2020 where they would be fighting to host a playoff game in the first round as a Top 4 seed, then 2019 was worth it overall. Would a playoff win excite me this year? Of course! But as surprising as the Revs’ 11-game unbeaten run was, it’s more important to figure out how to do that again or more consistently, which has been a struggle for the Revs with the annual “Summer Swoon” that torpedoes them in the standings. With a full offseason training camp and transfer window, Bruce Arena has already inspired confidence again and brought back the belief that the Revs are, at the very least, not bad at soccer. So 2019 is already a success and everything else is the proverbial gravy.