It has all come down to this - the playoffs. Atlanta United has taken a long and winding road to get here with highs and lows that have been endured throughout the season. Still, the third installment of Atlanta United has had its own historic elements to it as the team won the US Open Cup, a grueling tournament that tested the team’s depth and tactical flexibility. Once again, Atlanta will enter a tournament as the playoffs get underway with a tricky test ahead against the Revolution and a possible meeting against Philly or NYRB to follow if they advance. The team has shown that it can step up in a tournament setting already this year, against MLS teams at least, and once again Atlanta United will have a chance to possibly exceed expectations and repeat as MLS Champions in 2019.
A familiar foe
The last time these teams met Atlanta United won 3-1 and the Revs defensive problems cost them a chance at an upset. However, Bruce Arena will probably have been pleased that his team managed to cut through the Atlanta midfield time and again and create 18 shots in the match. Carles Gil, Gustavo Bao, and Cristian Penilla are all dangerous players and Gil and Bao are creating a partnership that will test the Atlanta backline. That said, the back four for New England is fairly shaky as it allowed 11 goals in six games down the stretch.
Perhaps the best thing that New England has going for it is that Bruce Arena can be fairly unpredictable as a manager. He is tactically uncommitted and at times appears either to use that to his advantage and get things fantastically correct or make it seem like he has absolutely no idea what he is doing as a soccer manager and get things embarrassingly wrong. The most recent tournament style appearance for Arena with the USMNT in the Hex included all of the highs and lows of blowing out some bad teams, getting bailed out by a wonder-strike in Mexico while he had his team bunker, and a lucky last minute goal in Honduras. Truly, some combination of luck, skill, and being in the right place at the right time has characterized his career and once again Arena will bring those abilities to another MLS post-season.
It will be something
Since there have been so many iterations of Atlanta United this season, it’s difficult to say what version of the team, personnel and even tactics will emerge this weekend. Typically in tournaments, teams take a more cautious approach and that might be needed as Atlanta goes into the post-season. The more attacking focus of the team has cost the defense and midfield in recent games. Without that solidity, Atlanta has lacked a balanced gameplan and while the results have come, the questions about if the team can keep its strategy working going into the playoffs have persisted.
This may very well mean that the team goes back to the four in the back set up that Frank de Boer seems to prefer. Having four actual defenders playing defense and not relying on wingers playing as false-wingbacks should address some of the problems that team has had with opponents rushing through open space when Atlanta is dispossessed. However, a question will remain as to what that looks like. FdB will have a big decision to make as far as replacing Miles Robinson in the lineup. Michael Parkhurst may not be able to go a full 90 (or 90 plus) minutes and Florentin Pogba got back from international duty late in the week. Another option may be Jeff Larentowicz starting, but that would leave defensive midfield open to Eric Remedi and Jeff hasn’t been stellar at centerback in recent games there. The other question with a back four would be the eternal one for every team in the world at all times - what to do about left back. It’s a good question because Atlanta kinda doesn’t have one.
The final question, at least here, will be what Atlanta decides to do about Pity Martinez. The no. 10 was on the bench for the last match of the season and hasn’t been a great fit it seems like under FdB this year. With Emerson Hyndman not as exciting, but on the other hand a bit more careful with the ball, the young American may get the start yet again against New England.
Yep, I’m here to tell you writing previews is silly again
Between what Frank de Boer wants, what the players prefer, and what the situation calls for Atlanta United has either been great, OK, unwatchable, or awful in 2019. It’s difficult to say which of these will apply in the playoffs and the times when Atlanta was great this year happened when a golden attack shined though a gilded midfield rotted underneath all of that sparkle. Even with Robinson out, Atlanta should be talented enough to beat the lowest seeded team in the East. With Bruce Arena equal measure miracle worker and disaster artist, the Five Stripes will be tested in the first round, but it should be a challenge the team can overcome to reach the next round.