Atlanta United will travel to Red Bull Arena, a stadium at the end of a one way dead end street,* to take on the Red Bulls in front of dozens of fans following an emphatic 3-0 win at home to open the series. Apparently, New York having to play the first game in a series away gave them home field advantage, but it should be clear by now that Tata’s decision to set his team up to lose 4-1 to Toronto, knowing that there was no way the Red Bulls would lose to Orlando City on the last day of the season, and open the conference championship in Atlanta should they face New York was a brilliant stroke of tactical genius. There will be people who say this is absurd and that the Supporters’ Shield is more important than getting a real home field advantage, but those people support a team that has never won MLS Cup and just lost 3-0 away in the opening game of the series.
It’s been quite a week already with hackneyed takes masked as analysis sprinkled with predictable 28-3 derivatives, discussions of Kemar Lawrence and his apparent integral importance to his team, the offside rule, grainy odd-angle hand ball screen grabs worthy of cryptozoology that aren’t just blatant grabs at finding talking points after the game, takes that the score was flattering based on nothing more than pure self-loathing and the desire to denigrate a team that scored 69 points in the regular season, and the general bitterness that seems to punctuate life in the happiest place on earth, New York City, has wafted through the soccersphere and made its way down South like so much refuse thrown into the Hudson River.
I mean whatever its clearly not conclusive but pic.twitter.com/SaF4W27P1c— Death to TSM (@hcsvd) November 26, 2018
NO I SAID ENHANCE
Actually it’s pretty obvious from your screen grab, that it was the Red Bull’s player that handled the ball pic.twitter.com/HG5Bgl5PzV— Nick Hinckley (@nickhinckley) November 26, 2018
Bless their hearts.
Meanwhile, in my little corner of the internet I’m left to tell you bad jokes and make vague statements about what might transpire in the game. Previews are exhilarating because of the potential to guess right about something, but also sometimes frustrating because you never know what’s going to happen and that’s why sports are compelling.
New York Wrong Bulls
The Red Bulls finally met their match on Sunday night puzzlingly deciding to sit back and give the home team the ball and hope to counter - or something? This is a team that has beaten Atlanta United straight up three times and absolutely crushed them in September and they played scared and conservative because the two leg format gives the false sense of security that any mistakes in the first game could have been made up by stealing an away goal and coming storming back at home. It was wrong tactically and no doubt something that will hang over the best team in MLS history to ever lose an opening leg of a conference final by a score of 3-0 should they be eliminated.
Was this a case of Atlanta getting lucky with New York so badly getting their tactics wrong? Maybe, but the Five Stripes still had to execute and the three goals they scored on New York represents 8% of the goals that the Red Bulls allowed all season plus the playoffs and they kept a clean sheet against a team that was held scoreless just three times prior to the match. As bad as they were, New York didn’t score three goals on themselves and despite their tepid attempts, did actually try to score on the Atlanta United defense.
In truth, Atlanta United absolutely dominated New York, who had their best chance for a goal on a play that was called back for offside, controlling possession and allowing just one chance on goal to the visitors. New York will no doubt get back to doing what they do well in leg two, but this will be an extremely difficult game for the Red Bulls. Atlanta can, but I think won’t, sit back and bunker for 90 minutes knowing that only four goals will see them out of the playoffs in regulation. All the while, Atlanta is an explosive team on the counter and an away goal puts the deficit New York would have to overcome at five goals - it’s not impossible, but it’s doubtful that even Brian White can save them now.
Just don’t be the Fail Stripes
Atlanta United goes into the match at RBA in an unfamiliar position for an Atlanta team - they can play in a final game of a championship series, lose and still win the series. It is an ideal situation for a team from a city with a less than stellar record in decisive games. Still... anything can happen and we’ve seen Atlanta give up four goals twice this year. Luckily, Tata Martino will have his full roster available to him as none of the players on yellow card watch earned another caution and no suspensions were earned.
Given that New York needs four goals to win going into the game, the real risk for Atlanta United is that the team beats itself. So far, Tata has figured out the MLS playoffs - in the actual city and state of New York in the conference semis, he played a much more pragmatic style and didn’t try to impose his lofty ideas about soccer onto the situation. The result was a first ever win in New York City. This time, and with a pocket full of house money, it will be interesting to see if Tata takes a pragmatic approach or sets up the team to play the kind of beautiful, attacking soccer that he seems to want to be known and remembered for.
*This is a Steven Wright joke and is in every single way true about a stadium that will be shamefully half full for a conference final match.