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Atlanta United at NYCFC: What to watch for

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The Five Stripes look to bounce back after a disappointing loss

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After spending last Sunday at the bus station, Atlanta United will actually face an opponent this weekend who will play soccer against them. NYCFC is a team that focuses on possession and building their attack out of the back. In their last match they traveled to Columbus and came back on the Crew after going down 2-1 to win 3-2. Given the possession based style of play that the Pigeons implement, the match should look closer to the one against Toronto and be a more back and forth affair compared to the recent games Atlanta has played.

The Columbidae’s Habitat

The Pigeons are urban creatures who live in the only recognized rectangle with four uneven sides which features temporary sod to cover up an infield where such Yankee legends as Brendan Ryan and Dustin Ackley played. Yankee Stadium may be many things, but it is not an ideal soccer venue. The pitch is narrow and that will make it difficult for Atlanta’s speedy players who like to stretch the field and get into wide spaces in transition to create chances. However, the size of the field may play into Atlanta’s strengths in transition.

Michael Parkhurst is one of the few Atlanta United players with experience playing at Yankee Stadium. The Five Stripes captain told reporters after practice on Tuesday that the small field means that “pretty soon after you pass the circle you are in shooting distance.” Atlanta United practiced shooting against DCU last weekend and if they can manage similar chances against New York, the team could play on a pentagon shaped field and could still win the game.

Peachtree Pressing*

In past matches NYCFC has not always fared well against teams that press high and disrupt their build up play. They took a 7-1 drubbing at home against the New York Red Bulls early in 2016 when the visitors pounced on mistakes and exploited the NYCFC weakness at defending known aerial threat Dax McCarty on set pieces. Manager Patrick Vieira turned his team around since then but Atlanta has shown that it will force teams into mistakes and punish them if they turn the ball over in a bad spot.

This is excellent news for Atlanta because pressing must be how the team does everything: they must make their coffee with a French press, eat only pressed panini sandwiches, and could crash the diamond market by turning coal into gems if they felt so inclined. The key will be the work rate of Kenwyne Jones and whoever steps in for Yamil Asad, be it Miguel Almiron moving from center to left midfield or Jacob Peterson, to make New York players uncomfortable with the ball at their feet when they try to build from the back.

Key matchup: The NYCFC front four vs. the Atlanta defense

The Pigeons may start a front four flock that includes Maxi Moralez, the resurgent Rodney Wallace, Jack Harrison, and David Villa. Last week Luciano Acosta scored when he dribbled the ball across the width of the goal box and the Atlanta defenders were so entranced that the entire backline failed to step to him leading to a game altering goal. Maxi Moralez is a similar style of player as the Columbus Crew learned last weekend. Even with David Villa out with an illness and Andrea Pirlo out due to the whim of his manager, Moralez and Jack Harrison were given the keys to the tank and laid waste to central Ohio.

Atlanta will look to avoid the same fate as Columbus this week but will need to regain the defensive form that they displayed in the matches before last week. As the game against DC showed, even teams in MLS that don’t have players with the scoring prowess of David Villa can exploit defensive mistakes. With the firepower that the Pigeons can send out the Five Stripes defense will have to step up to avoid another disappointing result.

It isn’t time to panic after the loss to DC but Atlanta faces a difficult test this week and next. The team came out of the gate with a lot of energy and took MLS by surprise with how cohesive and explosive their play looked for a team that had only been together for a few weeks before the season started. Neither of the upcoming games are must win situations, but getting points from one or both would be a lot better than coming home in two weeks on a three game losing streak.

*Tip of the hat to whoever commented that it should be the Peachtree Press “because everywhere you look there’s another one” - I cannot pass up a pun that good.