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Atlanta United at New York Red Bulls: What to watch for

Playoff seeding on the line

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New England Revolution
Will we see more of the Continental look this weekend?
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Two games. That’s all that is left of Atlanta United’s regular season. It seems like only a few days ago that the team was getting ready to take the field for the first time. Yet, here we are, with just 180 minutes left in the season the Five Stripes have a lot to play for. With nothing short of their playoff seed on the line, Atlanta United will take on the team who beat them in heartbreaking fashion in their first game.

However, the match follows a stretch of eight games in three weeks resulting in a 6-1-1 record in a season that Atlanta is guaranteed to finish above New York in the table. Few would have predicted that United would be in this position at the start of the season as the team has surpassed expectations on and off the field all year.

It also follows the wildest game that Atlanta played all year when the lost to a last minute goal against Minnesota United. The loss puts United in third place in the Eastern Conference three points behind the New York City, Queens, and Connecticut Football Club and just one point ahead of the suddenly alive again Chicago Fire.

As for the Red Bulls, they come into the meeting having won just one match in their last 10 league games. Apparently that was good enough to clinch a playoff spot over the likes of Orlando City and the Montreal Impact. Their only win in that time came last week against the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are one of the most baffling teams in MLS along with all of the other baffling teams in the Western Conference. Vancouver made the mistake of playing a back three against the Red Bulls and were ripped apart for a 3-0 loss.

Atlanta still has some missing pieces

It goes without saying that Atlanta United has struggled with injuries as of late. The absence of Alec Kann undoubtedly cost Atlanta at least a draw against Minnesota. Chris McCann, Miguel Almiron, and Greg Garza don’t have an expected return date and will more than likely miss the game Sunday. Luckily the team has had nearly two weeks of rest to recover from their crowded slate of games.

So far this year, the Five Stripes have shown that they have the depth to deal with missing players as the season has gone on. That said, the team had arguably their worst game without against the New England Revolution when the visited Foxboro recently. This game should be a little different. The team has had time to prepare for New York in a way they didn’t with the Revs and the Red Bulls haven’t been as bulletproof at home in the same way New England has been this year.

The Red Bulls are not for real this year

New York is going to the playoffs because the teams below them in the standings couldn’t win games. They were marginally better at barely earning results and so they sit in the 6th spot in the standings. True, they could rise as high as 4th in the standings if certain things fall right for them, but very little has gone right for the Red Bulls this season.

Aside from their recent form, yes one win in 11 games, ONE, the team has struggled without Dax McCarty. In particular, the team hasn’t looked as dangerous in possession as they did with Dax helping to hold possession. Sean Davis, who was slated to be the next big thing in New York, hasn’t stepped up and as a result the Red Bulls took a step back this year. Indeed, trading McCarty may turn out to be a mis-calculation for the team as Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips wind down their careers.

Kljestan has been a bit more effective as the Red Bulls have been playing in a 3-4-1-1 (yes, really) formation as of late. He’s playing that second 1 spot behind BWP and helped breakdown the three man backline the Whitecaps played last weekend.

Press vs. Press

The Peachtree Press has been effective almost all year. There have been very few teams that managed to break it even with the Five Stripes missing players due to injury. The Red Bulls might not be coming into the playoffs in dominant form, but they are a tough team to beat. Similar to Atlanta, they press as a team when they don’t have possession and can be threatening going forward.

Tata Martino will have to prepare his team for this and how well they are able to implement their game plan in the face of the Red Bulls’ press will go a long way in determining the game. We’ve seen in the past, as in the game against Toronto, that Tata can be pragmatic in ceding possession and playing the ball over the top to Tito Villalba. If the match goes down that way, his relationship with Josef Martinez when the team breaks forward will be crucial if Atlanta United is to come away with three points on the road on Sunday.