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Five thoughts as Atlanta United clinches spot in MLS Cup Final

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One more match to go.

New York’s high press defined them, for worse

The Red Bulls high press was expected. They needed goals and quick ones at that to make things interesting. The press started off on the wrong note on a Tyler Adams mistake, but Josef Martinez took a pass from Darlington Nagbe and almost put one past the Red Bulls in the first 20 seconds. It set a tone for how Atlanta would play in the opening minutes. They were absorbing pressure with ease but pushing when they could.

The only reason the Red Bulls’ press didn’t work well was because of the lack of goals. They kept constant pressure but weren’t getting that many clear chances. Their best chance in the first half came on a Brad Guzan mistake that saw the goalkeeper run far into his box on a cross, collide with a defender, and allow for Tyler Adams to have a somewhat clear chance at goal.

In the second half, New York changed formations and switched how they were attacking. Instead of putting another midfielder farther back, they pushed their formation out wider and the game felt like an all-out attack for the next 45 minutes.

The bottom line is that despite starting off with a high press that did its job, created possession, and switched to a more aggressive high press in the second half, it didn’t matter. Atlanta United absorbed the pressure and the Red Bulls couldn’t create chances.

Atlanta’s in-the-box defense was excellent

Tata Martino set up Atlanta United for success with the style that his team played. But a key part of being able to continue to play somewhat aggressive on the counter-attack with such a lead in the playoffs is a defensive core that’s able to withstand a plethora of crosses. The back line of Franco Escobar, Michael Parkhurst, Greg Garza (although he was helped by Miguel Almiron throughout), and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez locked things down just as well in the second leg as they did in Atlanta.

It wasn’t even as if Atlanta were being pelted with lackluster crosses, although some of them certainly were. The Red Bulls had their flaws attacking, for sure, but their attempts were at least dangerous enough for United to be forced to work.

Atlanta’s composure

Martino’s men displayed an amazing amount of mental toughness last night. From Almiron getting hit in the side of the head with debris from fans, to staying calm amidst overly physical play (*cough* Tim Parker), there was no shred of fear or nervous play from anyone.

When young teams are in situations that lend themselves to stress, they often will start out sloppy and either correct the play or continue to perform in a sloppy manner that costs them the game. Atlanta’s composure showed in the middle of the defense with Parkhurst, Larentowicz, and Nagbe. They set the tone for the rest of the team with consistency and poise.

Gonzalez Pirez played out of his mind

LGP was amazing for the United defense last night. He polished up the few chances that the Red Bulls actually created with precise tackles in dangerous areas. He drew a foul in the second half when escaping from the edge of the penalty box, and overall he helped anchor an Atlanta United defensive effort that was stacking up pressure for what felt like the entire match.

When teams are withstanding pressure for 90 minutes straight, there are moments when mistakes happen. Even when teams play as well as United on defense, there are still moments when someone has to make a solo play to save a goal. Gonzalez Pirez made at least two plays that saved obvious goal-scoring opportunities.

ATLANTA UNITED ARE IN THE FREAKING MLS CUP

The culmination of what Tata Martino, Darren Eales, and the rest of United built starting years ago has come to fruition. Last season the groundwork was laid, and now the final is here.