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Five Thoughts: Atlanta United left dazed and confused against New York Red Bulls

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This hangover is gonna be rough.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta’s approach to the match was tactically naive

Atlanta United entered Red Bull Arena Sunday with a chance to grab the Supporter’s Shield with one hand if they could manage a draw, and “a hand and a half,” as Michael Parkhurst put it, if the Five Stripes could take all three points. To do so would require the team to be clever and stray from a style that, while effective against most teams, hasn’t led to a result yet against the New York Red Bulls.

That didn’t happen. Tata Martino brought Chris McCann back into the side at LWB, played Jeff Larentowicz alongside Michael Parkhurst in a back three, and the team proceeded to get railroaded as it labored to move the ball out of it’s own defensive third. The Red Bulls must not have believed their luck. They pressed aggressively with their front four players (as they tend to do), and Atlanta hardheadedly attempted to play right through that pressure. It didn’t work out. What was most disappointing was that this could be seen coming. Red Bull’s pressure and direct attack is one of the hallmark styles of any team in MLS, and Atlanta decided it needn’t adapt to try to best counter that style.

The first half was Atlanta’s worst of the season

Talk about atrocious. This was as bad of a half that I can remember since the first game of the season away to Houston. And honestly, there are more excuses for struggling so much then than there is now. Atlanta struggled to get out of it’s own third, especially off goal kicks, for most of the first half. It didn’t complete a pass in Red Bull’s half of the field until the Tito Villalba completed a pass to Miguel Almiron with 6:46 on the clock. Further, Atlanta only attempted 22 passes in the final third (completing 13) while Red Bulls had a massive 81 (completing 64). Red Bulls completed 3x more passes in the attacking third than we even attempted. It was no contest.

Not a catastrophic loss, but there’s more pressure now

As bad and ugly as the loss was, this is not a doomsday scenario. The team has three winnable games left this season, and if they take care of business by winning, the Supporters’ Shield will be theirs. It still “controls its own destiny™” and shouldn’t be hitting the panic button as far as winning the shield is concerened. That said, the loss ratchets up the pressure in these remaining games. Win Sunday, and you’re likely able to rest any players who need it in the run-up. Now, Tata Martino will be forced to choose his best sides in the remaining games.

The long-term impact that concerns me with the loss is the team’s mentality if/when it faces Red Bulls again in the playoffs. Players and coaches spoke in platitudes after the game about “moving the ball quicker” and “being into the game” and all that jazz. Tata Martino provided no explanation other than to say Red Bulls were better. Hopefully he’s keeping his cards close to his chest and understands the areas where the team/setup needs tweaking. Martino constantly talks about maintaining their style and their philosophy of playing, but it seems clear to me that they have to change some things when they play the Red Bulls. The Red Bulls’ style seems systematically developed to punish stubborn teams who refuse to play any other way than through their center backs. I respect implementing and maintaining a style that you can rely on, but in a knockout competition, pragmatism wins.

Larentowicz or Parkhurst?

For months, Atlanta fans have wondered what its starting XI might look like with all its midfielders healthy, fully rested, and playing in a big match. Many have predicted that Jeff Larentowicz would be the odd man out in this scenario—a tough break for a solid veteran player, but just not quite good enough to get in a talented Atlanta United side. Lo and behold, there he was Sunday, alongside Michael Parkhurst. It was a surprising move, and one that I’m not sure I’m in love with. With Larentowicz and Parkhurst in defense together, the lack of athleticism is apparent as both players are well on the wrong side of 30 (35 and 34 respectively).

Dare I say, though, that Atlanta’s best team doesn’t include Michael Parkhurst, at least right now? Atlanta’s defense looked mighty solid against Real Salt Lake with Larentowicz as a central CB in a three. With a larger physical stature, he’s more effective in aerial duels than Parkhurst. Also, his versatility would allow the team to adjust to a back four on-the-fly if needed. Larentowicz is accustomed to dropping between the center back and distributing the ball when Atlanta is in possession, so it seems a natural fit. But Parkhurst is the captain, and for that reason, it’s hard to see him being replaced in the starting lineup.

To Bello, or not to Bello?

One of the obvious weak links wearing King Peach was Chris McCann in his left wingback role. Aside from the handball that gave Red Bulls a penalty, McCann struggled to cope with the intensity of the game and the aggressive press. It makes you wonder if George Bello would’ve been a better option. Despite his youth, Bello is technically more proficient and quick enough to get in behind his opposing fullback to cause Red Bulls to retreat. In fact, neither McCann nor his fellow wingback Julian Gressel were able to accomplish this. There are obvious risks with playing Bello—a player with about 90 minutes of first team experience—into one of the biggest regular season games in recent MLS history. But you have to wonder if, all things being equal, he is just better suited to the kind of stress Red Bulls put players under than Chris McCann. Tata Martino and teammates have alluded to not being worried about the defensive strength of Darlington Nagbe in central midfield because of the way he retains the ball and relieves pressure with his technique on the ball. I can’t help but wonder if Bello would provide a similar benefit to the team.