After two years in Major League Soccer, New England Revolution defender Andrew Farrell thought he had a pretty good handle on the league. The Revs had reached the playoffs in 2013, his rookie season, and advanced to MLS Cup the next year. Although they lost to the LA Galaxy, Farrell had every reason to believe more success would follow.
"I thought, 'Oh, this is what it's always going to be like,'" he told ESPN. "But we didn't keep progressing. We kind of fell behind the league, and the league advanced."
New England's regression wasn't outside the norm. One of the league's original 10 clubs, it had come close before -- finishing as MLS Cup runner-up four times between 2002 and 2007 -- but remained without a trophy. Playing before scarce crowds at cavernous Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, the rudderless Revolution missed the playoffs from 2016 to 2018, never finishing better than 14th in the league.
Following manager Jay Heaps' dismissal in September 2017, the downward trajectory continued under his replacement, Brad Friedel, whose 1.04 points per game in 47 matches in charge is the worst all time among Revolution managers. The idea that the bulk of that team Friedel coached could stay intact and quickly develop into an MLS Cup contender wouldn't have been worth considering.
Except that's what happened. And not only that, since hiring coach Bruce Arena in 2019 and adding some key players along the way, the Revolution developed into one of the best teams in league history.
On Oct. 27, they beat Colorado 1-0 to break LAFC's 2-year-old single-season points record of 72 and will raise the Supporters' Shield on Sunday to celebrate what should be remembered as one of the greatest turnarounds American professional sports has seen in decades.
"What a s---show I inherited in May of 2019," Arena told members of the media on Sunday. "To think how far they've come is kind of remarkable. It really is.
"That shows the character of these people -- not only the players, the staff. You come to work every day, and it's a pretty good work environment. I guess they accomplished more than any team in the history of the league."
The road to the summit
Arena, an institution in MLS and American soccer with five MLS Cups to his name, had been out of coaching for about seven months when the opportunity in New England came about. After a nine-year run with the Galaxy in which the club won three MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shields, he left his position with the Galaxy in 2016 to try to salvage the United States men's national team's 2018 World Cup qualification attempt, and would resign shortly after that process ended in failure.
During conversations with the Revolution's ownership group, Arena became convinced the club was ready to invest in the team at a level that would allow it to compete. With New England in last place in the Eastern Conference on May 14, 2019, Arena was named coach and sporting director.
"Like any roster, there was some good, some bad," Arena said to ESPN. "I think it just wasn't pieced together strategically. It was an odd mix of players. There were some very raw young players like DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye and Tajon Buchanan. A raw goalkeeper in Matt Turner. Some veterans in [Teal] Bunbury and [Scott] Caldwell.
"We had Carles Gil -- he was the player on the roster for sure -- and just had to look at the team to decide how to rebuild it or strengthen it."
But before any major roster moves were made, Arena's arrival injected a belief back into the side.
"It was just very simplified; [he] gave us trust and put it on us," Farrell said. "For players, when you have somebody that believes in you and pushes you, and especially from someone like Bruce, who has won it all in this league, it feels good and that galvanized the group."
Arena's first major signing was Argentinian forward Gustavo Bou, who was signed from Tijuana in Liga MX as the club's second Designated Player, alongside Gil. His arrival, and the stability installed by Arena, allowed the Revs to climb into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but it was the addition of Poland youth international forward Adam Buksa after the season, filling the Revs' third DP slot, that completed the foundation for 2021's record-breaking team.
New England's progress wasn't linear. Buksa took some time to adjust to MLS. Gil made just six appearances due to injury. Buchanan hadn't quite yet emerged. But the season ended on a high note with wins against Philadelphia and Orlando to reach the conference final after sneaking into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
"I think that run in the playoffs, it was huge in that it gave us a little springboard because I think historically we've started seasons very slow," Turner told ESPN. "So we knew in the offseason we were bringing back pretty much everyone in that starting 11 in the playoffs."
With the way MLS is structured, it's almost imperative for a team to get top-level production from its Designated Players if it wants to compete for the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup.
"We didn't create that concept," said Arena, who can also break the late Sigi Schmid's MLS coach regular-season wins record (240) on Sunday. "That's pretty obvious."
With Gil -- the overwhelming favorite for league MVP -- Buksa and Bou, the Revolution hit a perfect trifecta. Their 66 combined goals and assists is double that of the league's next-closest DP trios (Atlanta and Nashville), and only two clubs (Cincinnati and Columbus) have received more combined minutes. Both Buksa (16) and Bou (15) rank in the top six in goals, while Gil leads the league in assists (18).
When factoring in Buchanan (8 goals, 8 assists), a Canada international and one of the most exciting young attackers in CONCACAF, and the veteran Bunbury (3 goals), New England's attacking depth is the envy of the league. In August, the club agreed to transfer Buchanan, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 SuperDraft out of Syracuse, to Club Brugge in Belgium -- a regular participant in the UEFA Champions League -- after the season ends.
"I think we are all cognizant of the fact that we have many difference-makers and important players up top," Gil said to ESPN through a translator. "At any moment, in any situation, we can score, and at the end this is the whole team -- every player, you know some of the guys who haven't played as many minutes, have also stepped in and support this in big situations."
Yet no one is more emblematic of New England's rise than Turner, who went undrafted out of Fairfield University in 2015 and has climbed to the top of the USMNT depth chart. He was quick to point out that aside from Bou, Buksa and Gil, the rest of the team's first-choice starting 11 played college soccer.
"I think it's a great little piece. To do it with so many American players that went the -- I'll call it 'the old traditional route' -- it's really something," Turner said. "I think it says that the college route can still pay dividends and players that go play in college aren't necessarily lost causes to have success in MLS and elsewhere in the world."
When the Revolution called Turner to come in for a tryout in 2016, he wasn't sure what to make of the opportunity. The club was looking for a third goalkeeper and was already in preseason when the call came. He impressed enough in a 10-day period to get invited back for another 10 days, then another 10 days and eventually signed a contract that led to 27 appearances with the Richmond Kickers in the United Soccer League over the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
He started playing regularly for the Revolution in 2018, but it wasn't until 2019 when things really started to click.
"It's been amazing to see the progression from when he got in to where he is now," said Farrell, the club's all-time leader in appearances and minutes, of his goalkeeper. "And I think the scary thing is he's still not at his peak. I think he's still improving on a lot of things and getting better."
Turner was capped by USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter for the first time in January and was in goal throughout the entirety of the team's Gold Cup-winning run over the summer, allowing just one goal (on a penalty) in five matches. He started the team's first five World Cup qualifying matches (allowing three goals), before Zack Steffen started the most recent match, a 2-1 win against Costa Rica.
The added responsibility of international duty has been a challenge, Turner said, but it's an opportunity he had been concisely working toward.
"It's what I've been craving," Turner said. "It was definitely part of my list of goals for the year to have this sort of, we'll call it, 'a problem,' even though it's not a problem -- to have this sort of balancing act where you're doing a bit of both."
Buksa and Buchanan have also developed into fixtures on their national teams in the past year, which is important context for the Revolution's points record as they had to account for their absences at inopportune intervals. That issue isn't done factoring in, either.
After the regular-season finale, another international break for World Cup qualifying will take place before the MLS Cup playoffs begin on Nov. 20. With a first-round bye, New England will have gone at least 16 days from its finale on Sunday until its first playoff game.
"It's such an awkward year when you get into September, October, November with the international calendar. It's so awkward," Arena said. "It throws everyone out of rhythm and then you have these breaks. The whole league is out of rhythm. We've gotten loaded up with these games at the end. It's difficult to see if anyone is pleased with anybody because it's hard to have a coordinated team with all the little obstacles that get in the way.
"I'm still trying to figure out how we're going to get our team better with the layoff and the distance between our last regular-season game and our first playoff game."
After more than two decades without a trophy, this year's New England team will always have a special place in history, but while Arena can celebrate and appreciate that, he's also quick to shift gears back to provide a necessary reminder.
"The way you're remembered in this league is what you do at the end," he said.
From that standpoint, the season is only just about to begin.