There are several reasons for Atlanta United’s recent run of less than stellar results: key absences (Josef Martinez especially, of course, Yamil Asad and Jacob Peterson), long road trips and adverse refereeing decisions. But one in particular came into sharp focus this past weekend against NYCFC – namely, field size.
The soccer field at Yankee Stadium has come under heavy criticism since the team entered the league in 2015, not least from opposing head coaches for the fact that the cramped playing area significantly alters the way the game is played. Teams have taken various steps to counter this huge home field advantage for NYCFC, most notably redrawing the lines on their practice fields during the week ahead of a trip to the Big Apple to match the shortened dimensions. Whatever the Five Stripes did, it clearly was not enough, as the team looked desperately uncomfortable all game.
In short, they were entirely unable to find space. ATLUTD’s attacking strategy is based on the high press, pushing the outside backs as far forward as possible to put defenses under heavy pressure. But the attacking style, at least our favored attacking style, seems to be to distribute the ball up the middle, especially though Almiron. Going Route 1 has been very successful for us to date.
That style depends in part on creating space. If you can draw the defense wide with your fullbacks up high, you leave the center backs exposed in the middle, hopefully with meaningful gaps to exploit. When those gaps have been there, ATLUTD has jumped into them with brutal efficiency. But if you don’t create that space in the middle, the central attacking midfielder and striker find themselves in a traffic jam.
Obviously, on a narrow field, that game plan is much harder to execute. Which led me to consider: has this affected our play elsewhere? Most importantly, has it affected our game at Bobby Dodd Stadium? After all, we have lost two of three home games so far.
The answer? Almost certainly yes.
Unlike football fields, soccer fields do not have fixed dimensions. Instead, there is a range of acceptable widths and lengths. The ranges allowed under the laws of the Game are very broad, but MLS standards require a size of no less than 110 yards long by 70 yards wide. The optimum size per FIFA is 115x74 (actually, 105m x 68m). United have played at seven stadiums to date. Let’s look at each one of them, and see how things turned out.
- TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis. We all know how this one turned out. A 6-1 thumping in the snow. The field is 120x70. It’s narrow, but offsetting that is its extreme length. Consequently, we were able to draw the defense high and get behind them with ease. What’s more, Minnesota had Vadim Demidov in central defense, who was a one-man gap in his own right.
- CenturyLink Field, Seattle. A 0-0 draw against the MLS champions, but a great game despite the score. Opportunities were created but not converted. ATLUTD had a total of 13 shots on the day, none of which were taken from wider than about 13 yards outside the goalposts, which is to say, from up the middle. The field size: 114x74.
- BMO Field, Toronto. The field is officially 115x74, the FIFA optimum. The second game of the four-game road trip ended in a 2-2 draw against the MLS Cup runner-up, and a fairly dominant performance for the away team, with Toronto having to do most of the chasing.
- Stade Saputo, Montreal. Saputo is long and wide at 120x77. The good guys lost the game 2-1, but this was due to the red card issued to Gonzalez Pirez late in the first half, which was later rescinded. United had dominated the game to that point, and absent the ejection likely would have continued to do so. Even so, the winning goal was a late heartbreaker against a side who were probably very tired from covering such a large field.
- Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake. Well, Sandy, Utah, to be precise. Anyway, a solid 3-1 victory on a field that is again large at 120x75. A full 11-man squad used the space mercilessly.
- Yankee Stadium, New York. Officially (more on that later), the field is 110x70. The loss is fresh on everyone’s mind and the effects of the field’s tight dimensions were obvious.
- Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta. I have not been able to find official dimensions for the field anywhere, but looking carefully at game tape, I am guesstimating the size at 111x73. On the small side, in other words. Three games, two losses. And consider that the win against Chicago was for most of the game against ten men, automatically creating space somewhere on the field, the first goal was an own goal, and the second didn’t come until the 60th minute.
With all that in mind, it seems fair to conclude that Bobby Dodd is not really built for the team’s preferred style. ATLUTD has a home stadium advantage (i.e., us the fans) but a home field handicap. And that handicap won’t go away until we move into the Benz, where the field size will be a healthy and relatively spacious 115x75.
Back to Yankee Stadium. Sporting KC’s head coach Peter Vermes is on record as claiming that the true field size is 106x68, below MLS minimum standards. And I think he has a point. Take a careful look at this shot from Sunday’s game:
There is an optional marking on soccer fields intended to assist referees on corner kicks. It is also useful for making quick estimates of field width. The marking is a small hash mark outside the actual playing area. In the shot above, Greg Garza (#4) is helpfully pointing at it with his right hand. The mark is ten yards from the corner arc, thus making it easier to judge whether defenders are the required ten yards from the kick. So that mark is 11 yards from the actual corner. The penalty area is 44 yards wide (the 8 yards of the goal plus 18 yards on each side). That leaves at least an additional 13 yards on each side to reach the required 70 yards. Which means that the hash mark must be at least 2 yards outside the penalty area. The mark in the shot looks far closer to the penalty area than that. I would be very surprised if Yankee Stadium is truly up to MLS standards, and it is in reality even more cramped than it ought to be.