Sunday night’s matchup between Atlanta United and NYCFC gave us a fleeting taste of just how good MLS can be. The Eastern Conference’s two top teams both performed to the highest of levels technically and tactically, creating a match that was simply irresistible.
The 3-5-2 formation is not the best formation at full strength
The 3-5-2 has undoubtedly been an effective formation for Atlanta United during the recent stretch of injures and suspensions the team has battled. It’s put several players in optimal positions to succeed and best help the team as whole, despite the squad being shorthanded. But the attractiveness and the style of the team in the 3-5-2 is questionable. If it looked nice against D.C. United and a shorthanded Vancouver Whitecaps earlier this season, it had undoubtedly deteriorated to some extent since then against Minnesota and LAFC, where the Five Stripes more-or-less bunkered with a low block and played on the counter.
Sunday against NYCFC was better, no doubt. But I’m still not sure if this is the way Tata Martino wants to play — conceding midfield (and thus, possession) and playing long balls over the top to Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez on the break. Tata Martino’s philosophy is to play with the ball, and to do so in the other team’s half. To do this, Atlanta will eventually need to play with a higher line, which is much easier to do with only two center backs.
NYCFC is MLS elite and it showed why
NYCFC showed Sunday why it was unbeaten entering the game and is definitively the form team in MLS. Patrick Viera’s side pushed aggressively and bravely up the pitch to put Atlanta’s back line under pressure, rarely affording them the luxury of an easy buildup in the attack. It’s one thing to say you want to do this type of thing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s another thing to actually go out and execute that plan. Because in order to execute that type of pressure, a team must be both tactically on point, and technically exceptional. That’s what NYCFC is. It’s defenders don’t easily give up possession, they move the ball quickly and accurately, and they exploit gaps when they appear. You must tip your hat to this team, and if Atlanta is to reach MLS Cup final, this will almost assuredly be the first of several more meetings this season.
A draw was a fair and just result
Despite not taking the full 3 points at home for the first time this season, Atlanta United played arguably its best game of the season against what is currently the best team in the league. This was simply a great game of soccer that neutrals and fans alike could enjoy. Both manager, Tata Martino and Patrick Viera, spoke glowingly of each others teams, and rightfully so.
Things didn’t go perfectly, but Barco looked dangerous on his MLS debut
Looking at this negatively, one could say that the team conceded only minutes after his introduction and Barco himself failed to capitalize on some opportunities to shoot late in the game to possibly score the winner. Realistically though, NYCFC’s equalizer was mostly down to the way Martino re-organized the team shape when Barco was introduced, effectively removing Miguel Almiron from the middle of the park and putting Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe in a precarious position. And Barco did look dangerous on the ball. Sure, maybe he didn’t pull the trigger once or twice when he had an opportunity to shoot, but maybe he’s just a kid playing his first game with his new professional team and wanted to try to facilitate for others rather than going for glory himself. Regardless, things will only improve from here, and once Tito Villalba is added back into the mix… wow. This is gonna be a show.
Atlanta is a legitimate Supporter’s Shield contender
There’s a good chance you’ve already been thinking about this, and I’m just crazy for not realizing it fully until now. I’ve always seen Atlanta as the new kid on the block — one that’s here to disrupt the seasons of other recent MLS powers like Seattle, Portland, LA, Toronto, the New York teams, etc. But to be honest, Atlanta is just flat out better than most of those teams right now. And it’s not that close. Toronto will surely get its league form back on track following the conclusion of its CONCACAF Champions League campaign. But Toronto, along with these two teams that showcased Sunday night, are clearly the three best teams in the league. Any matches played between the three of them will be must-watch television, and this “mini-league” will go a long way in determining who ends up holding the Supporters Shield.