Atlanta United systematically took apart FC Dallas on Sunday. It was a complete performance from the team and their best game of the season. Everything went right for the Five Stripes, even when VAR rescinded a penalty call, United managed to bounce back and put together three stellar team goals.
For their part, the New England Revolution looked at the standings and the calendar a few weeks ago and decided that they should try to make the playoffs. After spending much of the season trying to beat everyone 3-2 and losing matches 2-3, the Revs have seemingly put things together giving themselves a slim chance to make the post-season. In recent games, the team has improved their defense having just allowed three goals in five games while getting things together going forward highlighted by a glorious 4-0 stomping of the Orlando City Soccer Club.
The thing is, all those positives have been at home while the team still struggles to defend or attack on the road. When it comes to playing away games no team in MLS is worse than the New England Revolution. The Revs have no wins, which is fewer away wins than Minnesota United, and just three draws away from Gillette Stadium this season.
Despite their sad showing away from the Boston suburbs, the team sits in 8th place in the standings just four points behind Atlanta United. Needless to say, with two matches against New England in the closing weeks of the season Atlanta needs to take care of business at home and solidify their playoff position by burying a team pushing to make the playoffs.
Anyway, here’s what to watch for...
The return of M.V.Lee
If Lee Nguyen were on a team that could win on the road he would be in the MLS MVP conversation. The attacker has 14 assists and 9 goals on the season and has been revived since moving to the right wing from his usual no. 10 position. On Sunday, FC Dallas started Ryan Hollingshead on the right wing, in a somewhat mystifying decision, and the utility player didn’t threaten the United backline. Nguyen will be a different story creating a difficult assignment for the Atlanta backline and defensive midfielders and closing him down will be key to getting a win.
A lot of forwards and not much else
New England has shown that they can score plenty of goals. The team has a lot to offer in the attack between Kei Kamara, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Krisztian Nemeth, Teal Bunbury, and even Chris Tierney. Unfortunately for the Revs, all that depth in attack means that the team is somewhat off balanced elsewhere on the pitch.
Manager Jay Heaps has tried several formations and player combinations looking for the right answer when it comes to how to play a possession based style while giving the defense enough cover when the Revs lose the ball. He’s played center back Bobby Farrell at right back, put Tierney all over the field, tried Kelyn Rowe in the backline, started every central midfield permutation of Scott Caldwell, Gershon Koffe, and Xavier Kouassi imaginable, and, on the road at least, nothing seems to compensate for the fact that the team can’t cover for the backline when they lose the ball against fast transitioning teams.
The Peachtree Press should be able to keep New England from generating dangerous opportunities for the attack and exploit a cobbled together defense and still developing young goalkeeper throughout this match. In addition, the larger field at Mercedes Benz Stadium opens up so much room for activities that the Five Stripes should fly all over the field in transition. The left side of the attack ought to especially be able to exploit whatever ill-fitting player Jay Heaps sticks in at right back.
Tired bodies and tired minds
All that said, this is still a midweek game with Atlanta United playing on one less day rest than their opponents. The team has not exactly fared well playing midweek. United lost two away games to DC played on Wednesday nights and won a thrilling game against a 10 man San Jose team on the 4th of July. Obviously, those were different circumstances and DC United and San Jose both try to bunker and stay compact defensively. New England hasn’t shown that they want to do that one bit this year.
In the end, the biggest concern for Atlanta comes down to the team’s mentality and concentration. The Five Stripes have shown that in games like this where they’re taking on opponents they are clearly more talented than, they can still lose concentration and give the game away. Staying focused will be especially important defending set pieces. Kei Kamara is an absolute beast in the air and Atlanta showed against Vancouver, for example, that set piece defending can be a liability against a player like him.
United should win this match, but it presents a classic trap game scenario. The team is highly favored and the above detailed facts about the Revolution and their abysmal away record illustrate that United should take care of business against them. Still, the team could get caught thinking about the game Saturday against Orlando City when 70,000 fans will be ravenous for a win during this game. In the end, with all the extra room on the team’s new home field, the five inch space between the player’s ears might be the deciding factor in Atlanta getting in a win Wednesday night.