Coming off of a hard loss two weeks ago at home down a man, Atlanta United went on the road in a tough environment in Orlando and came away with a point. The team will have to do it again as they go to suburban Boston to take on the New England Revolution. It seem like this would be another situation where Atlanta could expect to get a good result away from home again, but the Revs will be a difficult opponent for the Five Stripes and there are some issues with suspensions and injuries that will be working against the team this week.
How New England can win
The Revs currently sit in 6th place in the Eastern Conference on 18 points with a 5-4-3 record. That doesn’t sound all that intimidating until looking deeper at their results. While the team has only amassed five wins, they are 4-2-1 at home, which is the exact same record that Atlanta United has in matches at Mercedes Benz Stadium. What’s more, this is far from the team that got embarrassed 7-0, they aren’t even the team the Five Stripes got a scoreless draw against after that match in exurban Boston last season. Aside from whatever the Revolution will throw at them, Gillette Stadium is a counter-intuitively challenging place to play as described in the MLS player survey: “I always think New England is tough because the crowds are pretty small, and the field’s not great, and it’s just a weird vibe going into that game.” Luckily, Atlanta plays on turf at MBS, so that might somewhat mitigate the disadvantage the Five Stripes will be at on the road.
While New England has largely rebuilt their roster, the team has also come together and seems to have bought into manager Brad Friedel’s ideas. After going full prison rules and picking a fight with the most important player on the team last year and putting Lee Nguyen out to train on his own for most of the spring, Friedel’s team is better on both the attacking and defensive ends. In addition to some new pieces, like Ecuadorian forward Cristian Penilla on loan from Pachuca and French newcomer Wilfried Zahibo in midfield, the team now has an identity. The Revolution have become a high pressing, high energy team - they don’t quite have the creativity of the best clubs in MLS, but do have the tireless work rate.
Atlanta United has shown that it can be successful against pressing teams, but hasn’t put together that ability to get a win against them. New England will look to close down space, force turnovers, and then strike on the counter against the Five Stripes. If they can limit Atlanta’s opportunities and take advantage of a backline that will be missing two key starters, the Revs could come away with a win midweek.
How Atlanta United will win
Well, the Five Stripes didn’t do themselves any favors against the New York Red Bulls in their last match. As a result of a red card to Greg Garza and another yellow to Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez, the team will be without two key defensive starters. LGP will be an especially difficult player to replace on the backline as his passing is a real asset to break through against teams that press. Tata Martino will probably again be forced to go with Miles Robinson in the backline, and while the youngster has improved every game this year, he has also made some costly mistakes and if the Five Stripes are going to get another away win this season, he will need to limit them against a difficult team in a tough environment.
For all that was said above about the New England press, they are not the Red Bulls or Sporting Kansas City. Atlanta even dealt pretty well with those teams’ efforts to exert pressure when they had the ball. If New England presses but doesn’t fully commit to challenging Atlanta, like the Chicago Fire did, the team should be able to have enough time on the ball to find passing space and create opportunities though possession. If not, it will be interesting to see if Atlanta tries to go more direct at New England by giving Tito Villalba a start to give Atlanta some speed down the wings and more of an ability to play wide.
The real opponent
While Atlanta United has had some games that were changed on calls by referees, the team will also need to react differently when calls go against them. After the last two games the team lost, the focus of some players and the manager has been on what the referees did wrong in the match rather than what Atlanta United needed to do to win. That seems to be something that the team is realizing as Jeff Larentowicz discussed with Doug Roberson of the AJC last week saying, “I don’t foresee an MLS release that says VAR has been eliminated. It’s something we are just going to have to get used to. I think we have been. It seems like in games it has been such momentous decisions that really shift the way the game goes. That’s something that never in your life of soccer have you had to prepare for. Now it’s something we have to become better at.”
Additionally, as American Soccer Analysis noted, while some VAR calls have gone against Atlanta United in recent games, four of the eight times that it has been used Atlanta has been given a favorable call while three times they haven’t. The remaining call was either a push or favorable for the team. So while MLS referees are not good and VAR has been poorly implemented, at worst it has had a neutral impact on Atlanta United and at best has been a net positive for the team. If the system again results in a call going against Atlanta United, the team will need to look to its leaders, and manager, to set the tone for sticking to the gameplan and executing it.