For years, fans of the New England Revolution have tread through a wilderness of mediocrity. Once accustomed to MLS Cup appearances (four in six years between 2002 and 2007), Revs supporters saw their team miss out on the playoffs six times in nine seasons from 2010 to 2018.
Meanwhile, a mix of indifference and incompetence from team ownership compounded the on-field issues. Little progress was made in the search for a site to build a new stadium for the team, leaving the Revs to play their home matches at the cavernous Gillette Stadium. As a result, New England consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in attendance.
The lack of a soccer-specific stadium made it harder for the Revs to attract quality players. However, ownership exacerbated this problem by demonstrating an unwillingness to spend on designated players after the rule was established in 2007. Five years passed before Milton Caraglio became the club’s first designated player, while subsequent DP signings were often brought in for a fraction of the sums spent on other DP’s around the league.
However, ownership signaled their changing attitude towards the designated player market with the capture of Spanish creative midfielder Carles Gil for a club-record fee in January 2019. When 23-year old forward Adam Buksa was brought in twelve months later, New England filled the league-maximum allotment of three designated players for the first time ever.
Buksa and Gil are major reasons for the excitement surrounding the Revs return to action in 2020. Buksa hit the ground running in his first two matches before the Coronavirus suspension, while Gil won MLS Newcomer of the Year in 2019 after contributing 10 goals and 14 assists in the regular season. However, the club’s third designated player, Gustavo Bou, is the biggest symbol of the shift in perception around the Revolution.
The signing of Bou last July was a statement of intent for the nascent Bruce Arena regime. Bou’s $7.1 million fee dwarfed the $1.7 million spent on Gil. Furthermore, New England were buying a player accustomed to tormenting defenses in the Argentine Superliga and Mexico’s Liga MX, two of the best leagues on the continent.
Bou more than justified the hype in his debut campaign. In a team that had the third-worst offense in the league when he joined, Bou registered nine goals and two assists in 14 matches. “La Pantera” was a crucial factor in New England’s first playoff qualification since 2015.
Encouragingly for Revs fans, Bou has the potential to be even better. Bou was at his best for previous club Tijuana during the Clausura 2019, when he was paired up top with burly center-forward Ariel Nahuelpán. Adept at holding the ball up and bringing his teammates into play, Nahuelpán proved the perfect foil for Bou, who recorded eight goals and five assists in just 1,137 minutes.
Buksa provides many of the same qualities that Nahuelpán brought to Tijuana. Standing at 6’3’’, the Polish youth international is strong in the air and with his back to goal. Buksa is also deceptively skillful for his size and linked up well with Bou in their first two matches together.
Arena seems set to deploy Buksa as a traditional number 9, allowing Bou to drift deep or into the channels to pick up possession. Playing Buksa and Bou together also affords Arena important tactical flexibility. Bou is a great striker of the ball with both feet and led MLS last year with five goals from outside the box. As a result, Arena can play a more direct style against certain opponents, with Buksa knocking down long balls for Bou to try his luck from distance.
In the last month of a year that saw the Revs break their transfer record twice and hire the most successful coach in MLS history to lead the team, ownership gave another signal of their newfound commitment. A $35 million training facility was inaugurated in Foxborough, which meant the Revs no longer had to share practice space with the New England Patriots.
Although these moves are promising signs that ownership really is serious about contending for the club’s first MLS Cup, a measure of caution is required. The quest for a new stadium has no end in sight. No matter how well the Revs do, they will always be a side concern for the Kraft family. After more than a decade of apathetic ownership, New England’s long-suffering fan base is entitled to view the club’s newfound ambition through a prism of pessimism. However, that should not stop them from enjoying the performances of Bou, who should confirm his status as one of the league’s best players in the coming months.