By J Hutcherson (Jun 22, 2021) US Soccer Players – Conference disparity is nothing new in Major League Soccer. Pick a season, and part of the story is one conference usually finishing notably better than the other. At one point, that meant a lopsided playoff field when MLS leadership decided to go wildcard-heavy rather than sticking to the conference standings. The almost single-table experiment wasn’t helped when one conference overloaded the other. It also didn’t help when a lousy regular season team got noticeably better when playing through the other conference’s bracket. Times and the number of teams changed, but conference disparity still shows up. Well, except for the last time the league played a normal season.
In 2019, LAFC ran away with the Supporters’ Shield without other Western Conference teams following their lead. Two Eastern Conference clubs slotted in at 2nd and 3rd-place with the West taking 4th and the East in 5th. That’s the kind of overall table the league would likely prefer to see. It shows that there’s balance across the conferences, even in a regular season with a runaway winner.
Two seasons ago, New England wasn’t a threat to anybody early on. Finishing 7th in the East and 14th overall, they grabbed the last playoff spot and promptly lost to Atlanta in the first round. Bruce Arena’s first partial season in charge pointed to more, keeping New England from floundering further down the table. Last season’s advance to the Eastern Conference final happened in a situation that’s tough to fairly judge in any direction across the league.
Make of 2020 what you’d like, but New England entered this season not a clear favorite and not an obvious problem. That tier is normally interesting when the MLS version of parity takes hold. So far, New England is a force in the East. They drew with Chicago on opening day, lost to Nashville on May 8, and followed that up with a draw at Philadelphia on May 12. The rest are wins, pushing the Revs to the top of the Eastern Conference with a five-point lead over 2nd-place Orlando and 3rd-place Philadelphia. Orlando has a game in hand, but otherwise, it’s clear that New England is emerging as the class of the conference.
Beating NYCFC 3-2 on the road in week 8 was a reminder of what we already knew prior to the international break. Arena’s club will find a way to get something, and right now it’s turning one point into three. That took an MLS Player of the Week performance from goalkeeper Matt Turner who saved a penalty, alongside the work we’re seeing every matchday.
“He’s incredible,” midfielder Tommy McNamara said of his club’s goalkeeper. “He proves it game in and game out. In my opinion, he’s the best goalkeeper in the league. We really count on him and we rely on him to come up and make big saves in key moments. That’s a big part of how we’re going to win games this year. We need to rely on all 11 players, everybody on the bench, everybody on the roster and Matt’s a big part of it. He’s an incredible goalie and he kept us in it. We struggled to maybe start the game, we give up the penalty but he makes two big saves in the first half and preserves a 1-0 lead so we can come in at halftime and kind of regroup up 1-0. It’s nice.”
In a season where Seattle is clearly the best team in the Western Conference, New England is putting together a similar season in the East. A point separates them in the Supporters’ Shield race, with the two not meeting during the regular season. Should things stay the same for long enough, that takes away the big West vs East showdown to better serve the regionalized schedule. It’s an opportunity for the Revs, at home for two sets of back-to-back games in August and playing three home games in a row in September. That’s the chance to build the kind of points gap that will only need maintenance with them playing three of their final five games on the road.
Talking about how the season will wind down may seem presumptive with two games left on the schedule in June, but this is what Arena is building. The result going New England’s way at home on Wednesday against the Red Bulls would be additional proof of concept. It would show that this version of the Revolution can handle a solid Eastern Conference opponent. The safe assumption is that they can, beating them 3-1 at home on May 22.
What regionalizing the schedule creates is a set of important three-game series. Win enough of them, and a team should expect to be in contention regardless of what happens with other parts of the schedule. That’s the Red Bulls, NYCFC, Philadelphia, and Columbus with the Revolution already a game up in three of those four. That’s due to playing team soccer, spreading around the goals, and not letting much of anything get in their way.
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Arena responded when asked about finishing chances. “If I did, we would have scored a lot of goals, right? Who knows? As we know, this is a low-scoring sport, and you see games that are somewhat typical to the one we saw tonight. Some days you have it, some days you don’t. I think give their goalkeeper a little bit of credit, but you know, we can take some responsibility for the finishing. We could have been a little bit cleaner for sure.”
For the rest of the league, much less the East, a “cleaner” version of the New England Revolution might be the biggest looming threat. In a season with more than enough examples of struggling clubs, New England is showing how to get results when the shots don’t fall. Imagine what happens when they do.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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