Ahead of tonight’s MLS Eastern Conference semi-final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium between Atlanta United and the Philadelphia Union, here are three things to watch for that will be important determining factors.
It can’t be overstated how big of an advantage this should be for Atlanta United tonight. Just think about these two teams’ schedules over the last five days. Atlanta United played early Saturday in a game that wasn’t very up-and-down and probably wasn’t as punishing as some games can be in a 1-0 win over the New England Revolution. The team then had their feet up on Sunday, had a very light regen/video session Monday, followed by two full training sessions Tuesday and Wednesday.
Now think about the Union, Atlanta’s players sipped on mate under weighted blankets while watching the Union play 120 minutes in an open game that they were almost constantly chasing in a high-scoring affair. Players, especially those on the wrong side of 30 like key players Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya, clearly stuggled physically to close out the match. That group of players had to turn around and squeeze in at least a video session the following day (Monday), followed by a regen session and more video (Tuesday), then had to train and fly to Atlanta on Wednesday.
That’s a big difference, and the longer tonight’s game goes, the more likely we are to see the ill-effects of Philly’s punishing schedule. Also consider the nature of their win over the weekend — an emotional come-from-behind and historic win for the club — the type that is so easy to follow with a lackluster performance.
Frank de Boer has flexed his tactical nous over the last two games with changes in formation against the Revolution on Decision Day and in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Don’t expect him to all-of-a-sudden stop, particularly with Atlanta United’s squad decimated by injuries at the back. Florentin Pogba is expected to start for Atlanta in the same shape they’ve started in since July with a back three, but with players like Pogba, Franco Escobar and Jeff Larentowicz, who can all play multiple positions along the backline and in midfield, it gives de Boer options.
If De Boer changes the shape during the game to a 4-2-3-1, I would again anticipate Tito Villalba entering the game and Atlanta utilizing his pace on the wings. Read what Frank de Boer said about his insertion into the game on Saturday:
“If you want to bring in Tito (Villalba) then you have to have somebody behind him,” said De Boer. “He isn’t like Justin (Meram) who does a lot of defensive work. He does do defensive work, but he doesn’t do it as disciplined because he is a totally different type of player. So that’s why I swapped to the 4-3-3 formation.”
There’s been much handwringing over the selection (or lackthereof) of Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez. But for as talented as those players are, Villalba brings adds a dimension to Atlanta’s attack that no other player does with his raw pace and threat to get in behind Philadelphia’s defense.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Jeff Larentowicz and Josef Martinez all picked up yellow cards in the first round, which means that if any of those players get booked tonight, they will be suspended for the Eastern Conference Final to be played at home against Toronto FC if Atlanta United advances (if they lose, the yellow cards will obviously not matter). If those three players escape tonight without a booking, all accumulated yellows get wiped out so that no player is suspended for MLS Cup final.
Considering Atlanta’s injury issues at center back, it’s imperative that LGP stays out of the book. It’s a big ask, considering he’s already amassed three suspensions due to card accumulation this season. But similarly, Jeff Larentowicz has become a bedrock piece for this team down the stretch of the season, and it doesn’t need to be said what Josef Martinez means for this team. A yellow card for any of these players against the Union will make the playoff push a steep uphill climb.
What are y’all watching for tonight?