Sunday will determine once and for all if Atlanta United is going to be playing in the knockout playoff round midweek. The team may partake in some scoreboard watching with NYCFC and Columbus squaring off, Chicago traveling to Houston, and the Red Bulls helping DC United say goodbye to RFK Stadium once and for all. The results of these matches will have giant implications for the final overall standings as Atlanta angles for a playoff bye, or at least a home game.
Last time out, the Five Stripes played an exciting but fruitless game Sunday against the New York Red Bulls. The 0-0 result cost Atlanta the third spot in the Eastern Conference standings with Chicago winning. The Fire now sit one point ahead of United with the Crew within striking distance of noth . As for the Pigeons, their loss to New England, in the eighth straight game in which they’ve scored one goal or less, puts them still two points ahead of Atlanta, one ahead of Chicago, and three above Columbus. It’s dizzying and there are a lot of results that will affect where United lands in the standings, but winning against Toronto FC would help things a lot.
As for TFC, they’re winding down their season and had been getting some impressive results with three and four goal performances. In their last four games though, they lost to Montreal and New England but did beat the Red Bulls in dominant fashion 4-2. The Reds also got revenge on the Montreal Impact 1-0 last weekend but hyperbole machine Kurt Larson is not impressed:
Indeed, there is probably never a good time to play Toronto, but this game might be it.
Anyway, here’s what to watch for...
How will the team react without Leandro Gonzalez Pirez?
It seems like if there is one hole in LGP’s game, it is drawing a lot of yellow cards. So far, Atlanta United has only had to play about one and a half games without him and it hasn’t been pretty. They have a loss and a draw in those matches, including letting Orlando look like Manchester City. Luckily, Orlando City let Atlanta United look like Atlanta United and the game ended with a 3-3 draw.
Tata has a few options for replacing him. Against Orlando he played a three center back formation with Anton Walkes, Michael Parkhurst, and Jeff Larentowicz in front of Guzan. It really didn’t work with defensive errors accounting for two OCSC goals. TFC doesn’t have the same kind of threat in the air as Orlando, but Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Victor Vazquez will exploit mistakes from a backline that can’t play cohesively. Perhaps this game calls for the debut of Bobby Boswell so that Larentowicz can stay in midfield and help keep possession against the Reds.
Michael and Jozy back on U.S. soil, maybe
Yanks Soft Tattooed Millionaires team leaders will be making their first appearance in a match on U.S. soil since they decided only a draw would be needed in Trinidad so why bother trying to do anything other than that if your name isn’t Christian Pulisic? Greg Vanney will have a lot of decisions to make: does he full on rest his best player to make sure they’re healthy in the playoffs? Should he give them a trot out against a potential playoff opponent so they have a preview should they faceoff in the post season? Is playing his first team and going to break the record for most points in an MLS season that important compared to keeping his players rested and healthy for redemption in a run to the MLS Cup?
These decisions will reveal whether or not Atlanta United will have the chance to console the U.S. Men’s National Team’s captain and starting striker after their heartbreaking loss to the Soca Warriors. Surely, 70,000 people won’t have two weeks worth of resentment to express at them with Toronto visiting Atlanta for the first time.
However Vanney decides to line up, he’s got a good team. His first team squad has failson Michael Bradley anchoring the midfield, Victor Vazquez pulling the strings, Jozy Altidore, who was so bothered by missing the World Cup that he had an assist last weekend, opening space for Sebastian Giovinco, and the mighty Italian creating chances from near and far. In the back, the Reds’ defense has been one of the best in MLS all year. Center back Drew Moor is having a career year, Alex Bono in goal has allowed just 30 goals in 28 games with 10 clean sheets, and Justin Morrow’s role in the attack overshadows his excellent play in the back this season.
Off the bench, or starting as the case may be, Armando Cooper showed what would perhaps be in store for the U.S. in Trinidad as the Panamanian created several good chances against the MNT in Orlando, Tosaint Rickets can play all over the field and is having a low-key good year with seven goals, and Raheem Edwards can cause problems for defenses as well.
Pressed into oblivion again?
The last time these two teams met, Atlanta had trouble getting anything going in attack to start off the match. To his credit, Tata Martino changed up his tactics, ceded possession and played the long-ball. It worked and Tito Villalba scored a pair of goals to earn Atlanta a surprising early season draw in their long road trip back in April. That game was a little different for the Five Stripes than this one will be. Josef Martinez was unavailable, but Miguel Almiron started the match.
Who knows if Miggy will be able to play on Sunday, but the team struggled to break the Red Bulls press last weekend without him. Regardless of if the Paraguayan plays, Atlanta will have to find a way to keep the attack moving forward or a repeat of last week’s frustrated attack. In that match, Atlanta pressed and pushed forward relentlessly but failed to score. The result was that the team was exhausted by the 70th minute and had to hold on for dear life for a 0-0 draw. Toronto won’t be as wasteful as the Red Bulls and if Atlanta can’t capitalize on its chances again and is worn out with 20 minutes left on the clock, the result could go against the Five Stripes.