So, the closely guarded secret of how big the Yankee Stadium pitch is has been revealed, at least in part. We can now say definitively that the field is less than five men wide.
That ridiculous field is made for three things. First, it allows for wide crossing attacks, since balls coming in travel less distance and therefore have greater accuracy than on most fields. Second, the short field provides considerable opportunities for fast counter-attacking. Third, because the players are bunched up as if they were a crowd of 3rd graders chasing a ball, it produces a very physical style of play.
Atlanta United are extremely good on the counter, and you would think that New York City FC would be too, although they did not show it Sunday evening. United produced fast breaks everywhere, especially in the first half while Miguel Almiron was playing. Having Franco Escobar and Greg Garza at the fullback positions also contributed. Score one for Atlanta.
There is also no doubt that this was an extremely physical game, which seems to fit NYCFC’s modus operandi. There were 39 fouls called in the game and 5 yellow cards issued. It could have been worse. Frankly, I think Alexander Ring (stomp on Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’ foot), Ronald Matarrita (shoulder to Jeff Larentowicz’ chin) and David Villa (studs in Greg Garza’s back) all could have been shown red cards, but all got away with it. However, Atlanta gave as good as they got. They had no intention of being intimidated, and actually outfouled NYCFC by 3 and ended up with 1 more yellow. Score two for Atlanta.
As for the crossing play, the 5-man back line dealt with that. This was easily the most effective defensive performance we have seen from the Five Stripes all season. Cramming that extra man into the central defense, as well as getting stand-out performances from both LGP and Michael Parkhurst meant that at no point did they really look vulnerable. In fact, NYCFC did not have a single shot on target all game, and only 8 shots total. Score three for Atlanta.
The field had an additional impact on the game this week. Apparently it had just been resodded for an upcoming bowl game. If you really want to know, that would be the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on December 27th. Yes, that’s right, they named a football game after a baseball uniform. And Northerners think Southerners are dumb. One would think that the ground staff at one of the most storied baseball stadiums in the country would know how and when to lay sod, but they did a horrendous job of it. The surface was absurdly loose and contributed to the messy play in a potentially dangerous way. It made an ugly game even uglier.
Tactically, Atlanta completely dominated the first half of the game, and could have been 3 goals up if not for a miss by Franco Escobar and Miggy’s goal being (correctly) called offside. They controlled 52.5% of the possession and generally outplayed the Pigeons all over the field.
After the break, things changed. With Miggy’s presumably planned exit, control of the game shifted and Atlanta spent most of the second half absorbing pressure. Indeed, they had a mere 33.7% possession to average 43.1% for the entire game. Of the total 28 clearances, 18 were in the second half.
To demonstrate how starkly different the halves were, take a look at the first half defensive plays:
(Green are tackles, red tackles lost, yellow defensive blocks, blue interceptions, purple clearances and brown recoveries)
And compare that to the second half:
As you can see, the play was much more on the back foot in the second 45.
It’s not entirely clear if this was the game plan all along. But the entry of Tito Villalba, who clearly was not truly game-ready, completely changed the flow of Atlanta’s play. Granted, they still generated 5 shots in the second half, but the general idea seemed to be to absorb the pressure and get out hopefully with the win and for sure with the critical away goal. If so, then mission accomplished.
Another factor in the game was Atlanta’s very low passing accuracy of just 61%. That compares with the team’s average of 82.9% for the regular season. NYCFC was hardy spectacular either at 77%. That too is a result of the size of the field; it is very hard to find a player in space. Largely because there isn’t any.
In the end, the Five Stripes return home to the friendly confines (hey, if New York can use pointless baseball allusions, so can we) after a successful road trip, and possibly the last to New York this season. Atlanta yesterday were the only higher seed to get the W in Sunday’s conference semi-finals, with the New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders both losing, and Sporting Kansas City getting a tie. Consequently, Atlanta is in the strongest position of any team going into the second leg. To advance, Atlanta needs only a tie. A 1-0 loss forces extra time, leaving NYCFC in the position of needing a win and at least 2 goals to guarantee advancement. 538’s MLS predictor now has Atlanta with an 84% probability to advance and the best chance (35%) of winning MLS Cup.
In a very buoyant mood, then, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match was a very difficult decision. This was very much a team effort with just about everyone contributing meaningfully. Ultimately, I opted to give the honors to Eric Remedi. Even with a yellow card, getting your first professional goal in a clutch situation deserves recognition. Special Mentions are awarded to Miguel Almiron and Greg Garza for their impressive performances coming off injuries.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. It’s not too hard to keep a clean sheet when the opponents have zero shots on target. However, he bossed his area and kept the barbarians away from the gate.
LB: Greg Garza – 8. His first start in a long time and possibly a surprise pone at that, but he showed none of the rust that was so apparent last week. He has the speed that Chris McCann doesn’t and the experience that George Bello doesn’t. He was also fouled 3 times (tied for most on the team), and defensively contributed 2 interceptions and 3 clearances.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 8. A very solid game from LGP. 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 clearances and 1 block. He also participated in the attack.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 8. A very different Parky this week. But then he was blessed with the lack of necessity of having to move very fast. In any event, 3 tackles, 1 interceptions, 3 clearances and 4 blocks.
CB: Jeff Larentowicz – 8. Jeff got knocked around pretty hard in this game, and did not look at all happy about it. Kind of a dumb attempt to get to the big guy though. 4 tackles, 1 interception, 5 clearances on the night.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7. Nearly scored his second MLS goal, and would have a higher rating if he hadn’t gone full Wondolowski on the chance. Defensively strong yet again: 3 tackles, 1 interceptions, 4 clearances.
LM: Julian Gressel – 6. Ordering the midfield left to right Gressel-Remedi-Nagbe was interesting tinkering, as the more obvious choice would have been Remedi-Nagbe-Gressel. It worked great for Remedi and Nagbe, not so well for Gressel, who was way off his beloved right touchline. He looked less than fully comfortable and managed a passing accuracy of only 57.6% and a miserable Audi Index of -159.
CM: Eric Remedi – 8.5. Gets a ding for the yellow card, which means he now has to go both the next two games to avoid a suspension (playoff yellow card accumulation is wiped for the MLS Cup game only). However, he got the goal, and was very solid otherwise in the middle of the field. Game high Audi Index , but that’s not actually saying much as it was only 478.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. This game was made for Darlington. As a player who is a master of controlling the ball in the central third, he was entirely dominant. 81% passing accuracy (best on the team among those who played all 90 minutes), and didn’t let much past him defensively either.
FWD: Miguel Almiron – 8. A pity he was offside on the corner play, because that would have been the goofiest goal ever, slamming the ball into the ground just in front of him to bounce perfectly over Sean Johnson. Other than that, in his 45 minutes he was clearly the best player in the game.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 7.5. Got a rare yellow card (only his sixth in MLS and his second this year). Didn’t score again, but wa a dangerous presence all game, and his side-volleyed banger led to Remedi’s goal. About the only thing he did wrong was not leading Tito enough on a golden scoring opportunity.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 5.5. Hampered by a clearly not entirely rehabbed injury and then further by a stupid yellow less than three minutes after entering the game, Tito had a forgettable afternoon.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – 7. A very rare sub of a sub, Barco played just 9 minutes but drew a foul almost immediately and proceeded to take a very well-executed free kick, followed again by an equally well-executed long corner (although at Yankee Stadium there is no such thing as a long corner).
COACH: Tata Martino – 8. This one was managed to perfection. Yet another new formation, but the right one for the conditions.
THE LITTLE APPLE: – -∞. I really, really, really, REALLY hate that damn stadium.