So, it turns that the only difference in the way New York City FC performs on a 5v5 field versus on a full-size field is the amount of whining spouted by Domenec Torrent after the game.
Having been given a golden opportunity to analyze how Atlanta United opted to play them a mere week ago, the Pigeons (and, man, is that a dumb nickname) ultimately chose to change…absolutely nothing. They came out with the exact same lineup, and played the exact same way. Which is to say, outright hackery. Take a look at this:
That’s a comparison of the basic stats for NYCFC from both legs of the series. Guess which is which.*
The major improvement in their performance was that they increased their possession from 56.5% to a whopping 69.1%. From which we can ultimately conclude that in order to match Atlanta’s scoring output they would have needed 106.9% possession. They also improved their passing accuracy in all phases of the game, but one would expect that on a more open field, but ultimately it got them absolutely nothing. In the end, their only score was a free kick given up on a foolish mistake by Franco Escobar that also had a fortunate deflection to Maxime Chanot, who probably should have already been off the pitch with a second yellow.
So what did that mean for Atlanta? Well, they did likewise, changing almost nothing. Other than reducing the average age of the starting XI by a year and 87 days, that is. Tata Martino slotted Miles Robinson in for the injured Jeff Larentowicz but kept everything else the same. Here’s another guessing game:
That’s Atlanta’s average player positions from both legs. Figuring out which one is which for this one’s a bit easier since one number is different.** However, other than Eric Remedi being a little more central in one game and the entire team playing a tad more defensively in the other, there’s not a lot to differentiate the two.
Despite giving NYCFC a massive possession advantage (the biggest deficit Atlanta had incurred since the Minnesota United game on March 31st, in which the home team had 71.2% possession against the 10-man visitors. And yeah, we won that one too), the Five Stripes allowed only 10 total shots, of which only 5 were inside the penalty area, and only 4 on target (although that was an infinite improvement from the prior week).
At the same time, Atlanta also racked up 10 shots, and 4 on target. That’s 1 shot for every 2 minutes and 43 seconds of possession, along with a 40% accuracy rate and 30% conversion rate. If NYCFC had allowed any more possession than they did, it would have been a bloodbath.
Bobby Warshaw described this performance as “being nails defensively”. Which begs the question: who was the hammer? Weird phrasing aside, the analysis is worth a look, and absolutely spot on.
Effectively, what Atlanta did on Sunday was to let the other team think they were controlling the game when really they weren’t. The major difference between the two legs was that the Five Stripes made better use of their scoring opportunities in the second leg. NYCFC came to the Benz knowing they had to chase a result despite having a anemic 4-9-4 road record in the regular season (the four teams they beat on the road were Sporting Kansas City way back in week 1, the San Jose Earthquakes, Orlando City and Toronto FC). On the other hand, Atlanta’s 2 home losses (to the same SKC and the New York Red Bulls) were in part due to huge decisions by Sunday’s referee Mark Geiger, so they may have thought they had a chance.
Instead, Atlanta simply locked them out. Here’s the heatmap:
Although Atlanta’s penetration into the penalty area was weak, NYCFC’s was just as bad, if not worse, and they spent most of the game crammed into the left side of midfield. Pretty hard to score from that range.
About the only thing that went wrong on Sunday was being denied the opportunity to get revenge on the Columbus Crew, who completely capitulated in Harrison, New Jersey. That puts Atlanta in the unique position of having to play four straight playoff games against teams from the same city.
Indeed, Atlanta United-New York Red Bulls is being billed as the Best Playoff Series Evah, or alternatively as the Real MLS Cup. It sure has the potential to live up to the hype. One thing’s for sure: that new playoff attendance record will last precisely 14 days.
With Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar picking up yellow cards, no one is suspended for the first leg. Along with those two, Eric Remedi, Josef Martinez and Tito Villalba all could miss the game in New Jersey with a yellow at the Benz.
Lastly, we were also treated Sunday to the rain-delayed first leg of the Copa Libertadores final, which was, to put it mildly, lit. The game was a showcase for River Plate’s Pity Martinez, who got a tasty assist (2 assists if you count the own goal off his free kick), and also featured Boca Juniors coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto doing his own little guessing game with his assistant coach and identical twin brother Gustavo. The second leg will be November 24th at 3pm ET. At 2-2, everything is up for grabs, although River have a strong away goals advantage.
In great expectation, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is a bit easier this week. Miguel Almiron once again takes the honors for all-round class performance. Special Mentions to Josef Martinez for icing the game, and to Miles Robinson for performing very well in a pressure situation. Kudos also to the entire back line, who were quite a wall all afternoon.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. Actually had to make 3 saves this week. Overall a strong game, and gets bonus points for facing down Valentin Castellanos, whose fakery fooled absolutely no one.
LB: Greg Garza – 7. On defense Greg notched just 2 clearances. That’s it. Check the heatmap above - NYCFC didn’t even try to challenge him. Offensively, he had just 63.2% passing accuracy. That being said, he was all over the field and had to be accounted for constantly.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 8. 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 clearances and 2 blocks. An ordinary day at the office for LGP.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. 7 clearances and 1 block. That’s a stud performance. But did he get into the pool?
CB: Miles Robinson – 7.5. Gets docked a half-point for the yellow card; otherwise a very good game. 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 clearances. Getting dumped into a massive playoff game for just his 4th start and 11th game overall game could have been cause for nerves, but he didn’t show it at all.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7. Drew the foul for Josef’s PK, but also gave up the free kick that led to NYCFC’s goal. That error was an outlier though: 6 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 clearances. Considering that NYCFC had targeted him and Robinson as the weak link they needed to attack, this was solid indeed. And no, I don’t care if Josef was offside in the lead-up to the PK foul.
LM: Julian Gressel – 7. Another game not really suited to Julian’s strengths. Out of his favored position (yes, he does have one) again, and managed passing accuracy of just 63.3%.
CM: Eric Remedi – 7. Atlanta United didn’t spend much time in the 6-yard box, so no opportunities to smash another banger in from 6 inches out. He did provide the assist on Josef’s late goal though. Otherwise he was back to being a reliably immovable object to NYCFC’s relatively resistible force.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. Nagbe was made for games like this. He utterly controlled the midfield and stubbornly refused to be pushed off the ball as much as the Pigeons tried. Also managed a team-high 92% passing accuracy, which probably surprises precisely zero readers. Left after 89 minutes with what appears to be a hamstring tweak and thankfully has 2 weeks to recover.
FWD: Miguel Almiron – 9. Is it the club’s plan to keep him here by making his guitar collection so big no one could afford to transport it to Europe? Yet again Miggy was, quite simply, the man. And no, I don’t care if he spotted the free kick 5 yards forward from where the foul occurred. It was a golazo, end of story. Exited in the 84th minute.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. Loses 2 points for playing hopscotch when he should be playing soccer. That aside, he was the Josef we all know and love. Stayed brilliantly onside for the final goal. Left to the game’s second standing O after 86 minutes.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Replaced Miggy, and, surprise, was almost immediately fouled. Wasn’t really called on to much else.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 7. Touched the ball 4 times. Basically filled a space.
SUB: Kevin Kratz – 7. Amazingly, after entering the game with 1 minute left in regulation, Kevin had 11 touches on the ball, including 5 passes and 1 block. For 7 minutes total playing time, that’s pretty busy.
COACH: Tata Martino – 7. Basically recycled last week’s game plan. Also remembered that Justin has a job to do.
ANTHEM: Mike Phillips – 10. Nice. Yes, I know he’s played the national anthem for the Falcons before, but saxophones are always classy. A great way to honor our veterans on the centenary of the end of the First World War.
* Home is on the left, away is on the right.