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Atlanta United vs. NYCFC: What to watch for

Atlanta is preparing for a Pigeon migration

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Well the last time these two squads met, Atlanta United showed that they wouldn’t make a very good baseball team. The tiny field in New York limited Atlanta’s ability to find space and compounded the fact that the team just didn’t play well. Since then Tata Martino has gone back to the more possession based style that United was trying out before the Toronto game. That along with replacing Kenwyne Jones for Tito Villalba has the team coming into the rematch with the Pigeons on four points off of their last two matches.

For their part it doesn’t seem like New York cares if they play on a U-8 sized pitch or a regulation one. They are coming into Atlanta after demolishing a very stout defensive side beating Orlando 3-0 in Mickey Mouse town. Though Atlanta dominated the game against Houston, who started several backups and have a goalkeeper who impressively peppered the stands at Bobby Dodd with errant long balls, this will be a big test for the Five Stripes.

Here’s what to watch for...

What a difference three weeks makes

Since coach Tata Martino dropped Kenwyne Jones to the bench the team has played better and with more of an identity. Tito Villalba as a striker brings energy and stamina to the Atlanta press that Jones lacks. The move also opened the right wing up for Julian Gressel to slot into a more forward role where he has shinned and put in two goals. Moving Gressel wide also allowed Tata to start Miguel Almiron centrally and we’ve seen how effective he has been in that role. A final change was pushing Jeff Larentowicz back to central defense using Carlos Carmona as a holding midfielder to shield the back three.

These changes transformed Atlanta from a team that was toying with playing more direct in the matches between the games in Toronto and the Bronx to a side that wants possession and never wants to let it go. The results speak for themselves, a 1-1 draw away to Portland and a 4-1 thrashing of the Houston Dynamo. Last week Houston put out a ‘B’ team after a midweek game in Philly and never settled into the game.

New York should be more of a test for Atlanta with a full compliment of starters including David Villa who has the third most goals scored in the league with 8. New York has also been incredibly stout defensively allowing 13 goals in 12 games while putting 22 in the net themselves. For Atlanta to win the match, they will have to make the most of their chances and not let the defensive lapses that allowed New York to score three goals reemerge.

The pigeons build a nest

In addition to being disease carrying sky rats, Pigeons are nest building creatures who build their homes out of bits of discarded garbage, and NYCFC is no different. The team likes to build from the back and last week the Orlando City Soccer Club was happy to let them do it. The Pigeons blew through the Florida diamond like it was worthless black opal. OCSC is still working on implementing Jason Kries’ tactics, partly explaining their struggles, but the team is also old with five players 30 or older starting in defense and midfield. Playing two matches in one week seemed to have a greater effect on their fitness and quite simply they weren’t able to keep up with New York.

The result was the Pigeons finding plenty of space between the midfield and defense, and even without the majority of possession in the game, their chances were much more effective. Kries was forced to make a tactical switch near the hour mark when he brought out Kaka and fan favorite Antonio Nocerino for Giles Barnes and Matias Garcia Perez, swapping the midfield diamond for a flat midfield pancake.

This week things will be different but New York will still be a challenge. While Atlanta has its share of veterans on the team, without possession the Five Stripes have relentlessly pressed their opponents and the adjustments Martino has made should cause problems for New York if they try to build out of the back the way they did last week in Orlando or three weeks ago in the Bronx.

A suitable substitute for Tata

Last week Joe Willis violently slammed a ball toward the Atlanta United bench with the best pass that he made all night and Tata Martino defended himself by nudging it back into the field of play. He may not have known his strength and the ball traveled back onto the field like and errant goal kick. Referee Allen Chapman took great offense to this obvious assault on his authority as a referee and had an epic snowflake moment sending Tata off the pitch to watch from the stands and that’s where MLS has determined the United manager will watch the game this week as well. Aside from that call Chapman had a stellar game and only missed a few hard tackles by Houston players that should have resulted in cards and had a tiny lapse in judgement when he awarded a penalty on an unwarranted handball he called on Jeff Larentowicz, but that’s none of my business.

With Tata missing, the responsibility for managing the team will fall on the shoulders of assistant Jorge Theiler. Last week Atlanta didn’t make a substitution until the 80th minute well after Houston brought in several subs and began to look more competent in their attack.

Against Portland the team made three like for like subs beginning in the 73rd minute rather than going to a more defensive lineup to try to ensure the draw. In that match Julian Gressel came out in the 86th minute despite looking gassed for several minutes before being substituted. The result was a madcap end to the game where Portland nearly found a late winner. If Atlanta is holding a late lead, it will be interesting to see if Theiler pushes for another goal to seal the game or brings in more defensive players to ensure a result.