ATLANTA — Once the Revolution dropped to the bottom of the standings near the midway point in the season, they seemed like a long shot to recover. Even after Bruce Arena had been hired as sporting director/head coach in May, he only hoped to finish the season strong and prepare for next year.
But the Revolution mounted an improbable rally, advancing to the postseason for the first time since 2015 before concluding the year with a 1-0 loss to defending champion Atlanta United Saturday in the MLS Cup playoffs.
Franco Escobar’s 70th-minute goal broke the deadlock, soon after Atlanta United coach Frank de Boer’s substitutions and switch to a 4-4-2 setup helped change the dynamic before a crowd of 66,114 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Really, it was a good game, the first half went well, and I thought we outplayed them,” Revolution captain Carles Gil said. “But when they went to four defenders I felt we didn’t adjust well to it, and as the minutes went on our legs got tired, because we put out a lot of effort in the first half. It’s disappointing.”
Arena and the Revolution had been winning most of the tactical battles as they recovered from a 3-1 loss to Atlanta United in the regular-season finale two weeks ago.
The Revolution went with a DeJuan Jones-Cristian Penilla left-side pairing, which produced offensive threats and limited the advances of Atlanta winger Julian Gressel. Scott Caldwell, making his second start since Aug. 17, helped settle the Revolution midfield after committing a third-minute turnover that led to Josef Martinez hitting the left side of the net.
“We could’ve been the team walking off the field, 1-0, as well,” Arena said. “Both teams had chances, they converted one, we did not. For the most part we played well.”
Atlanta United went with former Revolution defender Michael Parkhurst in place of Miles Robinson (hamstring), a modification that helped limit Revolution breakaways. The Revolution’s best counterattacking threat came off a two-on-one involving Gustavo Bou and Teal Bunbury, the sequence concluding with a Penilla drive parried at the right post by Brad Guzan in the 37th minute.
“There were some chances, Guzan made a terrific save on Penilla,” Arena said. “All these little plays are the difference in the game. We knew it would be one play. We fully expected to be able to go toe to toe with them for 90 minutes and we did, but we fell short.”
In the opening half, Atlanta threatened as Martinez hit the side net early; a Darlington Nagbe shot (10th minute) was parried by Matt Turner for a corner; Ezequiel Barco’s left-footer went high off a Wilfried Zahibo turnover (12th); and Martinez’s left-footer went high off a corner kick (33rd). Zahibo was cautioned (42nd), then Martinez was yellow-carded for a dive against Turner in the goal area.
For the Revolution, Bou went high with a left-footer (seventh) off a Penilla steal and had a shot grabbed by Guzan (25th). After Penilla’s low drive was knocked away, Bunbury earned a corner off a close-in shot (39th), then Gil took a Brandon Bye pass into the penalty area, but was halted by Parkhurst (41st).
The Revolution started strong in the second half. Bunbury had a close-in header easily grabbed by Guzan (51st), and they appeared to gaining traction as Gil drew cautions from Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (53rd) and Jeff Larentowicz (58th).
But de Boer switched from a 3-5-1-1 alignment, bringing in Florentin Pogba and forward Hector Villalba in the 65th minute. The alteration allowed Pogba and right back Escobar to go forward in an attempt to force the action, and nearly paid off right away as Villalba earned a corner and Barco broke into the penalty area before being halted by Andrew Farrell. Then, Escobar slipped in behind the defense to finish a Nagbe-Barco combination, roofing a shot from the right edge of the goal area.
Arena countered with Juan Fernando Caicedo and Diego Fagundez in the 80th minute, then Juan Agudelo. The Revolution pressured as Agudelo headed high off corners in the 86th and 89th minutes. Referee Kevin Stott signaled for four minutes of injury time, which was extended after Parkhurst departed after a clash with Penilla, and the Revolution nearly capitalized on the numerical advantage as Caicedo headed a Fagundez corner onto the top of the net just before the final whistle.
“Obviously, we’re happy to be in the playoffs but disappointed that we couldn’t make it a little bit further,” Farrell said. “I thought going toe to toe with the defending champs, as well, and one play here and one play there that could have changed the narrative, could have changed the story. But I’m proud of the effort that we put in. We’ve come a long way. We were in a really dark place, and it was tough when we’d come to practice. Now, we finally kind of got ourselves out together and there’s a lot of optimism, and I think there is a lot of exciting stuff for the future.”