For all the trouble that Atlanta United had playing against teams who played trash coward soccer and then ended up finishing 5th in the 2nd or second in the West, the team showed that it’s a handy tactic when the time calls for it. In doing so Atlanta United showed why it was the best team in the Eastern Conference, Supporters’ Shield or not.
This season was obviously not perfect for the Five Stripes. The team struggled to beat the best teams in the league, let go of late leads, and had a trophy in it’s grasp on the last day of the regular season only to lose to 9th place Toronto FC. Add to it that the team missed key players for large chunks of the regular season with Darlington Nagbe and Greg Garza injured and it was a challenging season. The team also had its first miss in a big name transfer with Ezequel Barco due to both injury and then failing to live up to his multi-million dollar transfer fee. While these challenges may have cost the team at times this year, they ultimately helped the team finally vanquish the Red Bulls.
Throughout the season Atlanta United had to adapt to different situations due to injury and other factors. At times, the Peachtree Press put teams on their heels and pushed opponents to make mistakes that the Five Stripes turned into goals. Others, Atlanta came out with a focus on possession and worked the ball around their opponents’ defensive thirds to set up Josef Martinez to finish chances. Then there were the times that Tata Martino’s team had to breakdown bunkering visitors. All of these situations helped United build to the victory at home against New York and ultimately the series victory that has them with a chance to win the MLS Cup.
The Red Bulls, despite what MLS analysts might say or tweet, were largely exposed by losing in the conference final. Chris Armas’ decision to abandon the press in leg one was largely criticized as New York losing its identity. But perhaps it was inevitable that New York would have to play differently, there’s no doubt that Atlanta changed tactics with Greg Garza out and Chris McCann starting in his place. A good team and an adept manager should be able to adapt to situations, in truth it was more of a case that Armas couldn’t successfully get his team to play any tactic other than a press and that the more talented Atlanta side finally beat New York when the Red Bulls were forced to play soccer and not just press.
Meanwhile, Atlanta United was ruthless in exploiting New York in a straight up soccer match. In leg one the Red Bulls could only manage one shot on target and Tata Martino didn’t let up late in the match. Rather than settle for a two goal advantage heading to leg two, his late substitutions of Tito Villalba and Barco killed off any chance for New York to come back in the second leg. It was not only a resounding victory for Atlanta, but a demoralizing one for New York.
In leg number two, the Red Bulls’ tactical limitation was on further display. When faced with having to breakdown a team that was sure to bunker, New York settled for 26 crosses and couldn’t crack the Five Stripes. The only goal scored happened with no time for a comeback once Atlanta’s captain and defensive organizer Michael Parkhurst had been substituted. Rather than a beautiful passing sequence capped off by a Bradley Wright-Phillips finish, it came in the form of a cluster of New York players crowded in front of goal with Tim Parker reaching a foot out to punch the ball past Brad Guzan.
In the end the Red Bulls finished above Atlanta in the table, but when it really counted the more talented Five Stripes won and showed they were the better team. Of course, only by winning the MLS Cup on Saturday can the team be the best team in the whole league, but the trophy it lifted on Thursday night showed where it belonged this season.