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Know Thy Enemy: Coach of the Year Special Edition with Burgundy Wave

Just over two years ago, the Revs and Rapids were bad at soccer and sacking their head coaches. Now Bruce Arena and Robin Fraser have their teams at the top of their respective conferences.

MLS: D.C. United at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids both accomplished something this year that was quite special. Both teams secured their respective conference titles completing rather quick turnarounds from a decrepit 2018-early 2019 stretch where both teams fired their previous head coaches and eventually hired their current ones.

Bruce Arena and Robin Fraser are both deserving finalists for MLS’ Coach of the Year award along with Seattle’s Brian Schmetzer. The Sounders have long been a staple of consistency which the Revs and Rapids can’t say for the better part of the last decade which is what makes these two teams rising to the top of the standings, while being near the bottom in payroll, all the more impressive and really a two-coach race for this award though we acknowledge Seattle’s solid season without key players like Jordan Morris out for the year.

So without a game to cover this weekend because of the bye week, Abbie Mood of the Burgundy Wave and I decided to something a little different and present our respective cases for Arena and Fraser to win the league award. As always, check out their site for all things Rapids and I’m sure some good info on the Western Conference playoffs as well.

The three reasons why Abbie thinks Robin Fraser hands-down deserves COTY

Ok, so Jake makes some good points and in all seriousness I appreciate his contribution to this discussion but you wanna talk about a shitshow? Let’s take a walk down memory lane to the Anthony Hudson years.

Talk about a rebuild

I really think Fraser has the edge over Arena when it comes to pulling a team out of the depths of the basement and into a competitive position. After making the playoffs in 2016, the club tanked under Pablo Mastroeni before he was fired in 2017. Fans thought 10/11 in the Western Conference and 33 points was bad. But oh we were in for a treat in 2018. Anthony Hudson came in and ended up finishing 11/12 in the Western Conference with 31 points and just eight wins. Which, fine, at least we weren’t San Jose. But then 2019 started out with two draws and seven losses before Hudson was ultimately fired after his notorious comments in Atlanta. Conor Casey took over, got the clubs’ first win of the season a few games later and began turning things around until Fraser was hired in August. Colorado finished 9th in 2019 with 42 points. In 2020, the club made it to the playoffs and got eliminated by Minnesota United FC in the first round. And then in 2021, finished first in the West (a club first) with 61 points (also a club single-season record).

We don’t need DPs anyway

So technically the Rapids have a DP on the roster, but Younes Namli played just 532 minutes (due to injury) with one goal and one assist — hardly a difference-maker. Since the Rapids Way was published in 2017, Padraig Smith has been working towards a younger roster with more depth, and he’s gotten there this year. There isn’t a single Rapids fan or critic out there who hasn’t said the club needs a #10. Or a #9. And sure, that would be cool and great and have an impact, but Smith has been saying for years that a DP isn’t a magic ticket, and maybe he’s right. I mean, the proof is in the pudding as they say. The team is cohesive and support each other and have depth and this year, it clicked.

Fraser didn’t get the Supporters’ Shield, but it was still a historic season for the club

Yes, a trophy is a trophy and congrats to Arena and all that, but Fraser set some records himself. Since August 2019, Fraser has 30 wins, earned 104 points, and 98 goals scored. He leads Rapids’ head coaches in those categories during their first 50 games. He also gave up the fewest goals (61) and tallied the most clean sheets (17) in his first 50 games of any previous head coach. This year was the first time the Rapids have finished first in the West ever and 61 points is a single-season points record for the club.

Truth be told, the vote should be close. Both Arena and Fraser are talented coaches who have made history for their clubs. May the best man (Fraser) win.

The three reasons why Jake thinks Bruce Arena should win COTY

The Rebuild

In his own words, Bruce Arena inherited a shitshow two and a half years ago. The sacking of Brad Friedel early in the 2019 season had the New England Revolution floundering towards the bottom of the East and the road to recovery began by sneaking into the playoffs as the seventh and final seed and a 1-0 loss to Atlanta.

Between his hiring and now, Bruce Arena did what he always does in Major League Soccer — get good. With DC United in the 90s and the LA Galaxy in the 2010s (at the beginning of the three-DP era or MLS 3.0 or whatever we call it), wherever Bruce has gone, success has been sure to follow. It might take a couple of years but even the rise of the Revs this year was highly unexpected.

It’s not just how Bruce built up the Revs so quickly, but at how many levels. Yes, the signing of two 10-goal international DP’s in Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa to pair with likely MVP Carles Gil is naturally helpful. For a franchise that has long struggled with big-name international signings, specifically strikers, Bruce knows that in MLS your best players need to be your best players. But the Revs roster is deeper than just their DPs and Bruce was able to harness and develop talent already in New England. The foundation for success was already in place, it just needed someone proper to build around it.

The Season

Every team goes through a year with injuries and international call-ups and the like. What separated Arena and the Revs this year is how they managed those absences and were able to rotate the squad so successfully during these stretches.

Henry Kessler and Tajon Buchanan missed time early due to Olympic qualifying with the USA and Canada U23 squads, Jon Bell stepped up and contributed well at centerback coming up from the USL level the year prior. The Revs moved from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 diamond to get both Buksa and Bou up top to account for the lack of Tajon out wide and still use that formation primarily.

Matt Turner and Buchanan missed time at the Gold Cup, along with a late Henry Kessler call up in the knockouts, and Brad Knighton filled in admirably notching 5 wins and 3 shutouts in 6 starts.

Carles Gil went down for a month with a hernia injury and the Revs platooned a number of players in the attacking midfield spot. Arnor Traustason, Buchanan, and Tommy McNamara all tried their hand at playmaking and the Revs still piled on results.

Every squad rotation and lineup decision seemed to work as Bruce managed the Revs starting lineup from week to week if he were a world-class symphony conductor, calling upon different groups on his roster to lead or bringing his DP strikers off the bench to win games late. Every button Arena pushed this year worked and while it wasn’t always easy, it led to several historic achievements on the year.

The History

The first coach to claim an MLS league trophy for the New England Revolution absolutely should be Coach of the Year by default. For 25 years prior, the Revs have been close on numerous occasions to both the Shield and MLS Cup but had just one Open Cup and SuperLiga trophy as their major honors.

But that is no longer, and not only did Arena claim the team’s first Shield and league honor but he did so in historic fashion, breaking LAFC’s league record for points at 73 with a week to spare and tying the NY Red Bulls record for single-season wins in the post shootout era. Arena is also now tied with Sigi Schmid with 240 all-time regular-season wins and it seems fitting to award him the coach of the year in honor of tying the legend the award is named after.

I think in any other year, Robin Fraser winning the West with the lowest payroll in the league would win this award going away. An honorable mention to Nashville’s Gary Smith for his team’s campaign and Montreal’s Wilfried Nancy for *gestures at everything* that he had to deal with following Thierry Henry’s resignation and COVID-19 travel restrictions and changes.

But in 2021 there is only one choice for Coach of the Year following such a historic and tremendous season by, I know, I can’t believe I’m typing this either, it’s still weird - the New England Revolution. That is the mastermind and shitshow-fixer extraordinaire, Bruce Arena.