So far the MLS playoffs have been magical. There have been leads given up, complete meltdowns, and the re-establishment of home field advantage in the post-season. For a league that has had to endure low ranking teams making the MLS Cup Final after getting a win at home and then bunkering on the road it seems like the system is restoring competitive equity and actually rewarding the teams that are closer to the top of the table. That said, did you know that Real Salt Lake are in the playoffs? The Western Conference Final between RSL and the LA Galaxy will truly be a sight to behold.
As for Atlanta United, the team did not exactly crush the worst playoff team in the East. In a fairly uneventful game, Franco Escobar once again pulled off some playoff magic and put an end to any plans New England had for an extra-time miracle or shootout shenanigans. After the match, Frank de Boer indicated that the choice in midfield to play Emerson Hyndman is to create balance and that has made the decision about if Pity Martinez starts based on if he or Ezequiel Barco are a better fit in the XI. It may not have been impressive, but it seems like he made the right choice on Saturday as Barco had a terrific game and the defense held the Revs at bay.
Finally, the determining game in the great fraud rivalry of 2019
We’re back with our old friends the Philadelphia Union. In the last meeting between the sides Atlanta United was coming off of an incredible month of soccer. Two trophies, seven wins, and a chance to control their destiny all the way to the first seed in the Eastern Conference. That wasn’t in the cards though. The packed August schedule was capped off with an away game in Chester and after a solid hour of back and forth soccer, Atlanta’s tired legs opened the door for a Union comeback and Philly took their rightful place as team that would helplessly watch NYCFC finish atop the East.
That would be the highpoint for the Union in 2019 as the team, once again, floundered down the stretch. Philly finished the year going 1-1-3 in the last five matches and not only watched NYCFC pass them in the standings, but saw Atlanta climb to second in the East. It seemed like perhaps a playoff upset may be on hand as NYRB traveled to Pennsylvania and hung three first half goals on the Union. However, in the epic battle of Unstoppable Frauds vs. Immovable Chris Armas Blowing It, the curse of an extremely dangerous 3-1 lead once again carried the day. Not even Brian White and some dudes named Josh Sims (not related to Phil Simms) and Rece Buckmaster (Rece Buckmaster!) could save
the Duke Blue Devils NYRB from Chris Armas and a 120 minute three goal comeback win has brought the Union and Atlanta United back together in 2019.
Despite essentially everyone except for people from King of Prussia, or any of the other suburbs dotting the landscape around the most forgotten city on the Eastern seaboard, saying, “the Union are in first in the East? That can’t be right” all year, Philly is a talented team and did have Atlanta’s number this year. Especially Brenden Aaronson who is generally a piece of fancy footwork or one beautiful pass away from pulling off something great in every game, but never does unless it’s against Brad Guzan.
Philly is a known quantity at this point. They generally press and try to create problems in transition for opposing defenses. Philly also features something that has been lacking in recent years, a solid goal scorer. This year Kacper Przybylko has emerged as the talisman for the team with 15 goals and four assists. At 6’ 4” he will also cause problems for Atlanta’s somewhat undersized defenders in the air. Przybylko was out for the season finale against NYCFC and was set to be available against NYRB, but did not make the 18. That didn’t end up factoring in the win as Philly staged a comeback with goals from four different players, but his ability to play on Thursday will be important if the Union can pull off another playoff win.
Are there enough centerbacks?
If the most important position on Atlanta United in 2017 was third string goalkeeper, the most important role in 2019 is fourth string centerback. Miles Robinson is out thanks to picking up a late night injury ahead of the USMNT debacle against Canada and the best all-time MLS centerback Michael Parkhurst dislocated his shoulder in the win against the Revs. That leaves Jeff Larentowicz, Florentin Pogba, and Franco Escobar as the options available for the position Thursday. Larentowicz has once again proven impervious to things like age and has been a marked improvement at defensive midfield over Eric Remedi, so moving him might not be an option. It seems like the best bet will be for Pogba to start in place of Parkhurst, but that doesn’t resolve what the formation and tactics that Frank de Boer will use against Philly.
It’s been said before, but teams that sit back and absorb pressure against Atlanta aren’t as successful as teams that press and attack against the Five Stripes. Philly won’t sit back two prior matchups between the teams have been a struggle for Atlanta to bring the game to the Union as opposed to reacting to them. The change that FdB made to turn the tide against the Revs gave Atlanta both a strong defensive base and more attacking options. With Pogba probably needed at centerback and Larentowicz a better fit at defensive midfield, that bold move may not be available to start the game against Philly. Of course, last year a surprise defensive performance by Miles Robinson against NYCFC was a key part of Atlanta winning MLS Cup so perhaps Mikey Ambrose has a surprise in store for everyone on Thursday, though that may be a stretch.
Philly is a solid opponent and matches up well against the Five Stripes. So far, Frank de Boer hasn’t figured out how to out-coach Jim Curtin and Atlanta will need to get the questions around depth answered ahead of the second round. The Union are coming off of a hard fought, energy sapping 120 minute, emotional rollercoaster and will have had one day less rest than United. That may help even things up as far as reaching down the depth chart and possibly changing tactics headed into the match, but the two teams seem set to play another back and forth affair in the second round.