Atlanta United will again have to go through greater New York if it wants to win MLS Cup. After beating a New York team in a baseball stadium, Atlanta will have to get a result against a New York team from New Jersey. Nowhere else in MLS can a soccer league be so adept at capturing its country’s biggest media market. This time, the Five Stripes will have to get a result against the team that it lost the Supporters’ Shield to in the final week of the season. Arguably, the shield was lost well before that. The two losses to the New York Red Bulls in the regular season represented a 12 point swing in the standings that allowed the team to stay within striking distance of Atlanta down the stretch. What’s more, since this is MLS, the series will be between the two best teams in the league and will feature a second leg match on a Thursday night at a stadium that is actually inaccessible by car, foot, public transit, or boat. Before that, Atlanta United and 70,000 fans will pack Mercedes Benz Stadium for the last time before MLS Cup in the first leg against the best team in MLS history.
New York Press Bulls
Somehow, the New York Red Bulls managed to survive the loss of the indomitable Sacha Kljestan. It turns out that even without a player who helped his new team score 28 points in the league this year, Bradley Wright-Phillips managed to have one of his best seasons in MLS. Sure that didn’t earn him a callup to the England National Team, but the striker did manage 20 goals with a career high eight assists. In the last match against NYCFC, Atlanta gave up an awful goal on a set piece where Franco Escobar seemed to give up on playing defense and Maxime Chanot headed home an easy goal. It didn’t end up mattering, but it is the kind of chance that the Red Bulls will exploit and that BWP has made a career out of finishing.
While BWP has the most attention grabbing stats, the most important player to how the Red Bulls season unfolded is Tyler Adams. The teenager stepped up this year and perfected the team’s press. When New York is trying to win the ball back Adams is stepping into passing lanes, making interceptions, and generally being a nuisance to the opposition. In transition, play goes through Adams who then looks to either help set up a scoring chance on his own or look to playmaker Kaku to make something happen. Adams pairs with Sean Davis to form the best central midfield duo in MLS and their ability to control the game will be critical for New York to keep their winning streak against Atlanta going.
At this point, there are no surprises with New York. The team uses the press as both its best offensive and defensive weapon and has perfected it behind Adams this season. That with the excellent goalkeeping of Luis Robles should have the absolute necessity of Atlanta United finishing its chances in attack while being completely focused without possession apparent in the match.
Now or never
Atlanta United has never won against the New York Red Bulls and has had two of its worst performances of the year against the team. However, the final scores don’t quite tell the story. Back in May, Atlanta was taking the game to New York jumping out to what looked like an early 2-0 lead until Chris Penso overturned a goal scored by Josef Martinez in the 31st minute. It was a controversial decision that was part of a number of VAR calls across the league that seemed to show that the league rolled out the technology without properly training officials in its implementation.
That was part of a trend for Atlanta United getting unfavorable VAR decisions and then losing the mental edge in games against tough opponents. With the swing in momentum, New York applied its steady pressure and came back to score three goals.
Obviously, Atlanta will need to watch BWP at all times, but it seems doubtful that Tata Martino will do anything other than try to play New York in a wide open match. That could prove to be a fateful decision as Atlanta has five players on a yellow card heading into the match. Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba, Miles Robinson, Eric Remedi, and Franco Escobar will all miss the second leg of the series if they get another caution in the game. With New York breaking on transition and teams having to resort to last ditch tackles to break up counter attacks, fouls and cards seem inevitable.
Adding to that is the fact that Brad Guzan joined Aaron Long and Tyler Adams in Europe which will add to the challenge of preparing for the game. Meanwhile, Josef Martinez is returning from his friendlies in Japan and Qatar while Tito Villalba and Miguel Almiron re-joined the team after their match in South Africa and the travel and minutes played during the international break could wear on the important Atlanta United players. Gripes about playing time for exciting young national team players from a noted geography analyst aside, at least the league has enough sense to give teams a bye during international breaks during the playoffs.
Fair or not, Tata Martino has gotten the reputation for stubbornness in his game planning. That may have been born out in the team’s late season loss in New York, but at home in May, it seemed like Tata had the Red Bulls figured out. The first 30 minutes of that match saw a full strength Atlanta United, with both Greg Garza and Darlington Nagbe starting, put New York on its heels and create dangerous chances, even taking a 1-0 lead. Before the VAR decision, it seemed like the Five Stripes were on their way to an impressive win. Instead the narrative of the game, and indeed the season for Atlanta, turned into one of a team that had an impressive season, but failed to live up to the potential of being legends. That can start to change on Sunday afternoon if United can do something it has never done before and beat the Red Bulls.