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Prekrap MLS Playoffs: Atlanta United vs. Toronto FC - kings must be crowned before becoming legends

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I’m mostly happy I didn’t have to write half of this article about playing soccer in a baseball stadium

Minnesota United FC v Atlanta United FC: Final - 2019 U.S. Open Cup Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

It turned out after all of the discussion for the last few months of the Atlanta United season that the team’s home field playoff destiny was in the hands of Toronto FC. This being MLS and playing a stadium either suitable for soccer or available for home teams on a reliable basis being a minor point that qualifies a franchise for joining, NYCFC hosted the Canadian side in a baseball stadium. But not their baseball stadium, in a fate worse than playing for Anthony Precourt the team began and ended its post-season run in Queens at Citi Field where the New York Metropolitans play. Thanks to a nightmarish defensive error and an even more embarrassing penalty, New York lost 2-1 and Atlanta will be hosting the Eastern Conference Final for a second straight year.

Hoping for number three with a smile

TFC comes into the conference final with a pair of wins against DC United and NYCFC in which each of their opponents utterly melted down. The defensive lapses by NYCFC saw them out of the post-season while DCU totally fell apart in extra-time in the first round. If Atlanta has found a new type of balance in the playoffs, TFC has figured out how to make do without a true striker. With Jozy Altidore injured (perpetually) and the Terrence Boyd signing not working out, the Reds have shifted to a 4-3-3 setup with a Alejandro Pozuelo featuring as a false 9 flanked by Tsubasa Endoh and Nicolas Benezet.

The overall goal is to create chaos for defenders with three solid scoring threats leading the line and Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado, and Justin Morrow pushing forward to create problems of their own. Meanwhile, Michael Bradley provides cover and breaks up attacking plays while Laurent Ciman has a similar high risk/high reward game to Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and occasionally gets involved in the attack.

It’s possible that if he’s healthy, Jozy Altidore could start, but his fitness may be an issue and the seven goals the false 9 system have produced could leave him on the bench for the conference final. Not only that, but Pozuelo has succeeded against Atlanta in the past as his two goal performance in the teams’ meeting in Toronto this past June illustrates. TFC also had its ups and downs this year, but things are falling into place at the right moment for them. The win in New York may have come after some terrible errors by NYCFC, but a playoff win on the road against the best team in the conference and past success against Atlanta will have the team confident ahead of visiting MBS.

Atlanta is getting it right

The Five Stripes enter the match not only playing well, but getting things right. Defensively, the team is the only one to have kept a clean sheet in the post-season, and has done so in both of its matches. Atlanta has accomplished this despite having to rotate the backline and give a start to a player who hadn’t been in an XI since early July. Meanwhile, after falling in and out of favor with Frank de Boer all year, Pity Martinez had his best performance in an Atlanta jersey at the best possible moment. If nothing else, the match against Philly showed that THE UNION WERE MASSIVE FRAUDS ALL ALONG AND WE WERE ALL RIGHT TO DOUBT THEM the balance that was lacking for much of the year is now a true strength for the team.

While Atlanta beat the Union, there were some troubling signs in the match. Brad Guzan had an unsung performance and made some key stops to keep the visitors off of the board. Not only that, but the choice to start Mikey Ambrose worked pretty well, until Ilsinho checked into the game. That shifted the Union attack more to the right and tested the left back in a way that he wasn’t before the crafty Brazilian opened his bag of tricks. Atlanta found a second goal before Philly could do much with the space that Ilsinho was finding and the team shifted to a five man backline once Ambrose was subbed out. That move worked, but it also looked fairly disorganized at times with the game winding down.

Luckily, that balance may be even stronger against Toronto. Michael Parkhurst is back in training which gives FdB the option of possibly starting Florentin Pogba or Ambrose at left back and actually having a defender on the bench for the match. The remaining decisions will be what the right combination of players starting between Pity, Ezequiel Barco, and Emerson Hyndman is and if there is any reason to go back to a three man backline for the match. With Pity coming off of a great performance and Barco exhibiting an exceptionally high workrate throughout the match, it seems like a similar attacking setup will be used again versus TFC, but de Boer is nothing if not willing to come up with surprising changes.

I for one am happy that he’s stepping up at the right moment since things were a little strained in the past for him

It seems like one of the big benefits of the change to a more 4-2-3-1 type attack is that the roles on the field are more defined. For Pity, that meant getting the ball more centrally in the attacking third where he could create for his teammates and when there was a turnover the back four and Jeff Larentowicz were in a better defensive shape to win the ball back. With Pity pulling the strings in the no. 10 role and Franco Escobar and Julian Gressel frequently swapping roles on the right, the Union had a difficult time containing the Atlanta attack. Toronto is a solid team, but Atlanta is more talented and a similar performance should carry the day once again.

History beckons or awaits or LAFC is going to crush whoever makes the final

At this point in the season, the questions about Atlanta have risen and fallen much as the team’s fortunes over these many months. The team has found a more harmonious approach to matches following a year in which the identity of the Five Stripes was in constant flux. As far as where the team is now, Atlanta has accomplished much in 2019. Winning the US Open Cup and Campeones Cup are great achievements and things that will make the year a successful one regardless of what happens Wednesday night. Still, at home, in the playoffs against the 8th best team in the league, Atlanta United should expect to be playing in its second straight MLS Cup Final. It’s just a matter of the things that have been going right to continue and limiting the damage when something doesn’t.