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Five Thoughts: Atlanta United shows its best self in rebound win over NYCFC

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Atlanta United did just what they said they’d do: Bounce back.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Atlanta United FC at New York City FC Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United showed renewed intensity, confidence and resolve

Last weekend, Atlanta United went on the road in a big game and laid a total egg, looking nervous, unsure of itself and mistake-prone.

What a difference a week makes.

Sunday, the team in Five Stripes looked like a different group altogether. While the team welcomed Miguel Almiron and Greg Garza back to the starting XI, it wasn’t the personnel that made the difference so much as it was the mentality of the team. Atlanta United looked strong in the challenge, smart in it’s distribution of the ball (specifically in not taking on unnecessary risk), and made the most of opportunities to attack NYCFC on a tiny pitch in Yankee Stadium.

“That’s the way you have to play every game, regular season or the playoffs, it doesn’t matter. That’s the attitude,” Tata Martino told reporters after the match.

Atlanta crucially matched NYCFC’s physicality

The first half of Sunday’s match was a hot mess, illustrated by the 22 fouls committed by the two teams, the second-most of any MLS match this season. Both teams wanted to come out and be the aggressor, but lo and behold, it was the Atlanta United—the team better known for its flair, skill and speed—that came out winning individual challenges and second balls. It’s even more impressive to see on a pitch as small as the one in Yankee Stadium. Due to the sheer size of the pitch, it’s a more crowded space and when players get stuck in, they are more likely to take significant contact and physical risk. The reason this was Atlanta United’s best performance of the season was because the team showed it has more about it than the cliche adjectives often used to describe it.

Who’s return was more important: Miguel Almiron or Greg Garza

Two of Atlanta’s indisputable best XI players in Miguel Almiron and Greg Garza returned to the starting lineup for Tata Martino after injury spells. Every Atlanta United fan knows Almiron’s importance to the team, and he showed that value in Sunday’s match. He took every possible opportunity to get on the ball, drive the team forward and create chances.

However, I’d argue that Garza’s return may have been more instrumental for the team—at least in this match—for a couple of reasons. Going forward, Greg Garza is much more technical than his deputy in Chris McCann, and Garza’s presence allowed Atlanta to string together some more intricate passing combinations and general attacking movements down the left flank. It’s quite impressive how sharp Garza has looked since returning from his lengthy injury layoff. But where he’s even more valuable is in defense. His quickness, tenacity and precision in the tackle allows him to get tighter than McCann to opposing wingers. Obviously, the advantage of this is that those wingers find it more difficult to operate and find spaces to exploit.

Avoiding costly mistakes

Tata Martino told media this week that the biggest difference between playoff and regular season matches are the impact of mistakes. Soccer, after all, is mostly a game of mistakes anyhow. Only the best of the best teams in the world can control matches for long stretches, and in a league as highly competitive as MLS, so much of matches comes down to which teams are able to limit the impact of their mistakes. With playoff matchups lasting only 180 minutes (or 90 in the first and final rounds) the importance of limiting mistakes is even more important.

Atlanta United looked like a team that had talked about what kinds of risks they were willing to take on in this match and when they needed to be pragmatic and play safe. So often this season, we’ve seen Atlanta United try to play it’s way out of trouble deep in its own half, or try to control a bouncing ball instead of booting it away. Sunday though, we saw a different tact, with the Five Stripes often playing the ball long or out of bounds to ensure they had numbers behind the ball when needed. The encouraging thing this represents is a willingness and confidence from Atlanta to defend. We often think of Atlanta as a team that would rather try to possess the ball than put in hard work in defense. But if Atlanta wants to be a champion, they will need to control games in the manner that they did Sunday.

It’s far from over

We’ve talked a lot about the bad pitch, the small dimensions of the field, and all the other aspects of Sunday’s match that did not play in Atlanta’s favor. But to be honest, these things aren’t very conducive to the way NYCFC wants to play either. Both of these teams will probably be looking forward to the cool, fast conditions of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For Atlanta, the team will obviously be looking forward to playing in front of its home fans for the first time in three weeks. But for NYCFC, it also gives them a better opportunity to score goals. And Atlanta United isn’t great at keeping clean sheets, especially at home. Their last clean sheet at MBS was September 22 against Real Salt Lake, but you’d have to go all the way back to it’s 4-0 win over Orlando City on June 30 to find the next-most recent clean sheet at home. All this is to say, this tie is far from over.