MLS New England Revolution

2020 Revolution Season In Review: A trip to the conference final after another mediocre regular season

With the 2020 Revolution season now done and dusted, here’s a look back at the highlights and lowlights in quickie form:

THE SKINNY

Revolution make Eastern Conference Final: In a season with three separate starts due to the ongoing pandemic — and did so without their talisman for most of the season — New England had its difficulties in some spots, and had an easy go of it in others. In the end, the Revolution put together enough points in an 8-7-8 abbreviated regular season to get into a 10-team Eastern Conference playoff format as the No. 8 seed, the second straight year New England has made the postseason following a three-year absence. After beating Montreal at home on Friday, Nov. 20 with a 2-1 win over L’Impact at Gillette Stadium, a 2-0 win over top-seeded Philadelphia, a team the Revs had only achieved one point in five prior matches this season, preceded a 3-1 win over Orlando City last Sunday, Nov. 29. The season came to a close on Sunday, Dec. 6 with a 1-nil defeat at the hands of the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference Final, a place the club hadn’t been in the last six years. When you add it all up, and including the MLS IS BACK Tournament knockout loss to the Union, the Revolution were 11-9-8 as a whole in 2020. Not bad.

New England on fire on road, tame at home: For most of the last decade, the mantra of the Revolution has been be a force at home; there’s a reason why Gillette Stadium has been dubbed Fortress Foxborough. But in the 2020 season, the Revs flipped the script: they were positively dreadful at home with only two regular season wins in 10 chances (2-3-5), but had six wins away from Gillette, including one in the MLS IS BACK Tournament in Orlando; that matched the best road form in club history. That set the Revs up for an intriguing playoff run, with two of their three wins coming away from Foxborough.

Carles Gil out for most of 2020, returns in time for playoff run: When the Revs opened the 2020 season, there was no sign of Carles Gil, the victim of foot irritation for the season opener on the thin carpet at The Big O and the home opener against Chicago on Mar. 7. When the pandemic shut Major League Soccer and everything else down on March 12, the hope was that Gil would use the shutdown to get healthy. And he did — for a match and a half in the MLS IS BACK Tournament, leaving the DC United match after 52 minutes; he was seen in a walking boot against Toronto FC. He would then undergo surgery to repair bone spurs near his Achilles tendon in August, which generally needs 3-5 months of recovery time. For a normal person, that would mean season-ending surgery. But Carles Gil showed he isn’t normal, as he rehabbed quite quickly and returned to the Revolution in time for the stretch run; he returned to the squad in a 1-1 draw at Nashville on Oct. 23. Also on the shelf: Luis Caicedo missed the entire season, and Cristian Penilla missed the last month and a half with a foot injury. Those were the big knocks on the squad this season.

Turner finishes second in Goalkeeper of the Year voting: 2020 was simply a superb season for New England’s No. 1, Matt Turner. The New Jersey native only missed one match in 2020 — the home opener after tweaking his knee on Montreal’s carpet — and put together some impressive numbers, including a team record 1.09 goals against average (barely over a goal per game) with six clean sheets during the regular season, as well as one in the postseason. He recorded 68 saves during the regular season, enough for fifth in save percentage and total saves in the league. Overall, though, he finished second in the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year voting to Philadelphia’s Andre Blake.

Kessler wins Defender of the Year: After recognizing the club leaked goals in the early portion of 2019, Bruce Arena made a couple of switches out of necessity during the second half of last year to help curb that problem area. And after signing left back Alexander Büttner in November 2019, he went out and drafted University of Virginia standout Henry Kessler with the sixth overall pick in January. The tall youngster from New York City played in all but one match, finishing second in rookie minutes played, and led the club in various statistical categories. He went on to win the club’s Defender of the Year award, voted on by local media (the Bay State Soccer Sentinel voted for Kessler) and was the first rookie to win the award since A.J. Soares did so in 2011.

TURNING POINT OF THE SEASON

Sept. 8 — Revs re-acquire Lee Nguyen

In the two-plus weeks — and if you go further back to the last two and a half Revs matches in the MLS IS Back Tournament — since the second re-start in mid-August, it soon grew quite clear New England missed Carles Gil’s presence in the XI from match to match… and I mean really missed him. Even with players like Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa, the Revs missed that third prong in its attack, and it showed. There was little creativity, no verve — no teeth in attack. Arena tried several players out in the No. 10 role; Penilla in the 10 was an abject failure, and Bou, even though he floats like Gil, he isn’t a distributor. We even begged, in a way, to see if Arena would put in a member of the Old Guard — Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez, two historically attack-minded midfielders transformed into defensive-minded midfielders — in there; we wrote on Sept. 6 that it looked like Arena didn’t rate either of them as a No. 10. Two days later, Arena pried Lee Nguyen loose from Inter Miami, and the Prodigal Son — who left New England after a hold-out ahead of the 2018 season — returned, driving up Interstate 95 to Foxborough. Nguyen held the fort down in the middle until Gil returned the following month, with Fagundez spelling him occasionally.

TRANSFERS IN/OUT/PLAYERS SIGNED SINCE END OF 2019

IN: Alexander Büttner, Damian Rivera (homegrown), Kelyn Rowe, Adam Buksa, Henry Kessler, Matt Polster, Collin Verfurth (from Revs II), Kekuta Manneh, Tommy McNamara, Lee Nguyen

OUT: Wilfried Zahibo

SEASON-LONG HOT

Matt Turner: Enough said. Turner’s season was one of the best ever seen by a Foxborough goalkeeper.

Henry Kessler: Again, enough said. Kessler’s emergence as Arena’s preferred left center back was a boon to the Revolution defending. And yes, we think he’s going to study his ass off over this offseason in order to cut down on Arena shouting his name over and over to tell him where to position himself when the ball is in the attacking half.

Tajon Buchanan: Our Unsung Hero Award winner. He put the season-opening miss against Montreal (late, off the woodwork) behind him and put together a monster of a second half of the season. Two regular season goals for TB17, both against Philadelphia, then had a backflip for the ages against the Union in the postseason. He played in every match, and even moved to right back at the end of the year to help solve certain issues.

SEASON-LONG COLD

Antonio Delamea: I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to Toni, but he clearly fell down the depth chart to the point where he didn’t even make the bench for the last two playoff matches. His last appearance was Oct. 24, and in five appearances, he had two critical defensive errors which led to opposition goals.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Andrew Farrell, Scott Caldwell, Teal Bunbury, Kelyn Rowe, Gustavo Bou

WORTHY OF A POSITIVE MENTION

Brandon Bye, DeJuan Jones, Adam Buksa

SCORING LEADERS

Teal Bunbury — 8 goals, 1 assist
Adam Buksa — 6 goals, 2 assists; 1 goal in the playoffs
Gustavo Bou — 5 goals, 3 assists; 3 goals, 1 assist in the playoffs
Tajon Buchanan — 2 goals, 2 assists; 1 goal in the playoffs

WHAT, AT THE END OF THE SEASON, DOES SWEENS THINK RIGHT NOW?

While we are tipping our hat to the Revolution for what they did in the postseason — and yes, it was a phenomenal run that ended much, much too soon — we cannot, in any way, shape, or form, call this a great season. A fair season, sure. A decent season, OK, I can agree with that. Why? They finished eighth, and it was a step back from where they’ve finished the four seasons behind it:

2016: Seventh
2017: Seventh
2018: Seventh
2019: Seventh
2020: Eighth

We said it at the end of the regular season, and it bears repeating here. That’s just plain out average. Do we celebrate average Red Sox finishes? No, we lament them and hope the front office brings in better players during the offseason. Do we celebrate average Bruins finishes? No. Do we celebrate average Celtics finishes? No. So why on God’s green earth are we celebrating average finishes by an average team? Just because they reached the conference final for the first time in six years?

We will, of course, be fair: the eighth-place finish comes after Gil missed practically 9/10ths of the season. If Gil didn’t miss that period of time, do the Revs finish eighth? Absolutely not. I said it in preseason, and I’ll re-iterate that now: I’ll go to my grave saying this team finishes top three in the East with all three DPs firing on all cylinders. But we don’t judge a season based on hypotheticals. We don’t judge a season on What Ifs. We judge a season on facts, and the facts are simple: the Revolution are an absolute mediocre soccer team without someone of Gil’s quality pulling the strings in the middle. 11-9-8 overall isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not great.

Now… am I excited for the future? You bet I am. We saw what this team is capable of over the course of 28ish matches. We saw glimpses of brilliance. The defending was spot-on and better than it has been in some time. The offense was lackluster at times and should have scored more than it did; with a healthy Carles Gil and better off-the-ball runs, this team can score a lot of goals (again, I’ve said that for six years… maybe they’ll start doing that). This team is still a few pieces away from making a dominant run at MLS Cup, and even challenging for the Supporter’s Shield. Is 2021 the year that ends 26 years of strife in this fan base? We shall see.

If this is truly it, and we should know soon… thank you, Diego Fagundez. Thank you for the unique hairstyle, your movement with the ball, your skill, the way you inspired so many kids to play soccer here in New England… and — I know it was out of your control, but whatevs — for moving to Leominster at a young age. Without you moving to the Plastics City, a certain raven-haired, big-nosed twit would not have written about the Revs from time to time for his — your — local newspaper, would not have been able to go for a job writing about the Revs in February 2018, and would not have started this web site in December 2019. None of this would have been possible without you becoming the Revs’ first Homegrown signing. None of it. The next time you cross the city line, when it’s safe to do so, I owe you a Choffi’s.

ON TAP

With the end of the season, we now look to the end of the season roster decisions, the expansion draft next week (the Revs are exempt this year), 2021SuperDraft… and the start of the 2021 season. We hope — when the vaccines arrive, and maybe after a valve replacement surgery — to see you from Blue Level.