If anyone knows what it’ll take for the New England Revolution to knock off Atlanta United in the first round of the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, it’s Justin Meram. Because he’s done it.
Meram was a key figure for Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew team that came into Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017 and knocked off Atlanta United in penalties after extra time. It’s the only time Atlanta has lost a 90-minute match in the playoffs at its intimidating and expansive home ground, and it’s the only time the Five Stripes have been knocked out of the playoffs, period.
“In 2017, I knew with Columbus coming here was you have to give everything,” said Meram at his new team’s training ground last week. “Everything and more to find a way to get a win in Mercedes-Benz [Stadium]. I’m sure the guys already know, but New England is going to come out and give everything they have to fight, grind and find ways to get a goal.”
He remembers it like it was yesterday. Nearly two years later, Meram’s words nearly echo what his then-manager, Berhalter, said after defeating Tata Martino’s 2017 squad.
“We knew how we could hurt them. We knew there was an opportunity,” Berhalter said afterward, with his players audibly heard celebrating in the adjacent locker rooom. “For us, it was about staying compact, staying organized and taking advantage of them when we had the ball. I think it was pretty good. I think the best part, for me, was the determination by the guys. The will, the will to win, the will to keep going.”
If there’s any manager in MLS that can get his side organized and playing as a unit, it’s Revs manager Bruce Arena. If fans move past the stigma attached to his most recent tenure as head of the U.S. Men’s National Team, they will see he’s the most decorated manager in MLS history for a reason. His five MLS Cups and three Supporters Shield trophies with the LA Galaxy and D.C. United were no accident, and his team showed what threat they can pose Atlanta when the two teams faced off on Decision Day.
“Last week they created some big chances,” admitted Meram. “We need to be wary of that and really take care of business and control the tempo a little bit. We got in a little bit of transition with them. I think we really need to slow it down and make them work hard without the ball and then find our moments.”
Tactically, both teams are keeping cards close to the vest. Meram was asked if, after experimenting with a back four during the match last week, if Atlanta would change its shape to spring a surprise on Arena’s side.
Meram smiled. “I guess we’ll find out.”