On Sunday Atlanta United will try to get an away goal and keep the damage to a minimum against NYCFC as the team embarks on its quest to win the 2018 Audi MLS Cup. The situation for Atlanta is ideal in many ways. Sure NYCFC plays on a field shaped like an isosceles triangle where half the fans in the stadium can’t see one of the goals and the team won’t be able to play into any of its strengths; and then of course, Atlanta United has never won in New York or even looked remotely like it was comfortable in any of the meetings in the Bronx; you may even say - “Atlanta United is yet to actually beat four of the other top six teams in MLS this year, and gave up a late lead to NYCFC earlier this year.”
Luckily, Atlanta doesn’t have to beat the Pigeons, all they have to do is not lose so badly that they can’t overcome an aggregate score at home. Since this is the MLS playoffs and the rules for who advances include a scavenger hunt, tifo contest, beer mile, and turkey burrito eating competition if Atlanta scores a goal in New York that could be critical to determining if they advance or not to the Eastern Conference Finals since away goals are a tiebreaker that actually exists in the post-season. How exactly will they do that?
Are NYCFC for real, or are they fake like the grass covering their infield?
Well, it won’t be easy - NYCFC is getting a very important piece of their roster back exactly when they need him. Yangel Herrera is back. Arguably, the Venezuelan midfielder’s injury kept New York out of the running for the Supporters’ Shield - in his 11 starts before getting injured in May, NYCFC was 7-3-1. That’s a limited selection, but Herrera is a critical part of the roster and the tiny field in New York makes the defensive midfielder’s job that much easier. In addition to Herrera, New York has a fully healthy, trash talking, and scoring David Villa. As much attention Josef Martinez gets for scoring goals at a prolific rate, Villa is no slouch with 77 goals in 117 MLS games. He is the focal point of the New York attack and if Atlanta wants a favorable result, they will need to stop Villa.
All that said, New York struggled down the stretch. In 13 matches since the beginning of August, the team went 4-4-5 and faded away from the top of the table. Two of those wins came at just the right time with New York taking care of business and beating the Philadelphia Union 3-1 in back to back games because that is a situation that can happen in the MLS schedule. This game will go a long way in showing if New York is getting hot at the right time or just benefited from getting to play a team with Alejandro Bedoya on the roster twice in a row.
Well, it’s come to this
Yankee Stadium is a challenging environment for any team to have to overcome. It’s a baseball stadium that MLS has let a team in the biggest media market in the world play in for the last four seasons with seemingly no plans or concern about moving out of. But MLS is a real sports league and can’t just make the team play their games in Central Park or something. Aside from being a horrible embarrassment that the league is ignoring, Yankee Stadium showcases what soccer looks like on a narrow field - two of the best teams in the league will square off on an unregulation sized pitch in what should be a marquee matchup that will have terrible camera angles for TV viewers and a somehow worse pitch.
Worse still, Atlanta will have to hope to get a result without Chris McCann who scored 33% of the goals that the Five Stripes scored against NYCFC this year. Perhaps more impactful though will be how Tata Martino handles the injury to Miguel Almiron. The Atlanta talisman is said to be fully available for the game, but if he’s lacking match fitness or Tata doesn’t want to risk him getting injured on the sandlot NYCFC plays on, he may not start or even be available for the game.
So what is Atlanta United to do? Their options seem to be - stick to what Tata thinks has worked and try to build from the back on a tiny field that is inherently hard to pass the ball on, bunker and keep NYCFC off the scoreboard to bring the deciding game back home, or do something different to try and create space. At the very least, Atlanta could start Kevin Kratz and try to draw fouls in range of his free kicks.
Kratz probably isn’t starting, Atlanta isn’t bunkering, and Tata stuck to his guns even though the situation probably called for something different last week in Toronto - I wonder what is going to be the plan for tomorrow...