It seems more and more that VAR is a Concacaf conspiracy invented just to add an extra spicy layer to soccer. It clearly isn’t being implemented well and is only adding more human error into the already human error laden field of professional soccer refereeing. The call that went for Atlanta United last weekend after Chris McCann impressively charged from his position as a left center back across the center line to wipe out Benny Feilhaber seems to illustrate this. Add to it long delays that break up the game and it seems like the benefit of getting some calls right is at best a wash with still getting some wrong. In any case, last weekend Atlanta dominated LAFC both in attack and in defense and kept their second straight clean sheet of the season while continuing the trend of scoring at least three goals a game at home in 2018.
Anyway, onto the Prekrap...
Undefeated Pigeons fly South
The Pigeons will come into Atlanta after being idle over the weekend but they thrashed Real Salt Lake 4-0 at Yankees Stadium on Wednesday. So far, NYCFC has been as advertised with an improved defense and Jesus Medina fitting in well for the club. Medina has a goal and leads the league in assists with five. In addition to the attacker, the team added Anton Tinnerholm at right back and he’s been effective at getting into the attack. The Swede has a goal and assist to his name already in the season and seems to have a good partnership starting with Medina. Add to it that David Villa came off the bench for 30 minutes after missing time with an injury, and a full strength NYCFC side will be coming into Atlanta looking for revenge after the 3-1 loss at Bobby Dodd Stadium last season.
New York will offer a good test for the Five Stripes. The flying trash rats have yet to lose on the road this young season with two wins and a draw to begin the year. That includes an away win to a difficult to beat at home Sporting Kansas City side and an impressive road draw against the New England Revolution. In the match in Foxborough, New York fought back twice to even the score behind a pair of goals from Ismael Tajouri and earned a draw despite David Villa being unavailable due to injury.
In addition to adding some new pieces and finding a key player to add depth, NYCFC has one of the best central midfield pairings in MLS. Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera have been key for NYCFC at shielding the backline and pushing the attack forward. The duo have also been responsible for the team’s much tidier defense last season.
Without Herrera NYCFC has shifted from its more typical 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1 with backup Ebenezer Ofori holding down central midfield. The team has also allowed four goals across two away matches. An interesting choice that NYCFC will have in the match is if they try to abandon possession and cede the ball to Atlanta United. Last week, the King Peaches let LAFC hold the majority of the time on the ball and relied on a stellar defensive performance from Miles Robinson and Michael Parkhurst, with Chris McCann benefiting from VAR to stay in the match. The result was a clean sheet and three goals scored in an even game state and an additional two for Atlanta once Joao Moutinho was sent off late in the match.
Going for three in a row against winged opponents
Atlanta United will again be taking the field potentially missing a key player yet again this week due to injury. This time Tito Villalba may be out after coming off against LAFC and at times struggling this season. This adds some intrigue to Tata Martino’s lineup decisions, does he start Brandon Vazquez or Andrew Carleton take Tito Villalba’s spot on the right wing? Will something else unexpected happen as Tata has shown a tendency to surprise fans with his lineups at times? This adds to the decision of if Ezequiel Barco will start for Atlanta after resuming training this week, what his role will be in the lineup, and if he is fit to play for a full 90 minutes or will be an early sub.
Aside from the lineup, Atlanta’s success in the midfield will be key to take three points. That will partly be determined by how well the team can move the ball through the midfield with Yangel Herrera back in the center of the pitch for NYCFC. As mentioned above, the Pigeons’ central midfielder has been critical to the team’s success this year. In the three matches he has started, the club has four wins and has allowed only one goal. If NYCFC lets Atlanta hold much of the possession, he will be asked to break up attacks and turn the ball upfield to the playmakers for New York. While Miguel Almiron has been playing further left than he did last season, if New York sits back, the Paraguayan may be asked to play more of a central role and pull the strings for the Five Stripes.
Defensively, Atlanta will have the clear, but not simple, task of handling the front four of Tajouri, Medina, Maxi Moralez, and David Villa. Between the aforementioned ambitious defense from Chris McCann and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez returning from his red card, Atlanta will need to be disciplined in defense, manage fouls and limit opportunities for the opposition. While LAFC certainly brought a lot of fire power to Mercedes Benz Stadium, NYCFC will bring that in addition to a team that has great chemistry and is currently sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference.
While the season is young and Atlanta still has a long way to go in order to win silverware in 2018, winning at home against the conference leaders will show that the team can truly threaten for a run at the Supporters’ Shield. Last week, Atlanta showed that at home, their depth will be an asset when needed. A win this weekend would be an early statement that Atlanta can beat any team that walks into Mercedes Benz Stadium this year.