Despite all the hoopla surrounding the final week of the regular season, this game ended up being not much more than a warm-up for the two teams, who will face each other again in the first game of the playoffs at 1pm ET on October 19th. With New York City FC and Toronto FC both winning, any result in this game would have left both teams in exactly the same slots in the standings.
Not that they knew that, of course. And both teams came out clearly meaning business. In the first 10 minutes they combined for 7 shots, including 2 goals, and numerous other chances were created. The final shooting tally was hardly less impressive: 38 shots, with 14 on target, forcing 10 saves.
Full YOLO from the first whistle, then. It was as if the teams thought the playoffs had already started.
Frank de Boer did get a bit experimental, though. First, he left Pity Martinez on the bench, finding himself for once—and at the perfect time in the season—in the enviable position that Tata Martino enjoyed so much of last year, namely, having 2 DP-quality players in reserve. Second, he used a moderately adjusted formation, going with a 3-1-4-2 setup in place of the 3-4-2-1 we have seen almost exclusively in the latter half of the season.
This was a pretty close match to the New England Revolution’s standard 4-4-2, with Jeff Larentowicz at the defensive midfielder position available for back line support if needed. The result was a fairly aggressive style of play combining possession out of the back, stretching the field and attacking speed. With Big Red providing that support for an effective 4-man back line (which morphed to 5 men and later to 6 men with the second half substitutions), Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Franco Escobar were freed up to play much more advanced positions than is typical under FdB. This was especially true of Franco, who combined with Julian Gressel to play havoc on the right wing all game. Here’s the heatmap:
We haven’t seen the 182 Stripes playing that deep very often this season. Oddly, though, only 27% of the game was played in Atlanta’s attacking third. The deep penetration in the heatmap is down to Gressel and Escobar constantly moving upfield combined with Josef Martinez just hanging around the 18 like the goal poacher he is. As a result, with the other 7 field players (and that includes Ezequiel Barco, who was technically a striker but played largely in support of Josef) more withdrawn, Atlanta was able to sucker the Revs into through ball situations.
Look at Julian’s personal passing map:
Lots of crosses as usual, and a ton of them finding their way into the box, but check how many long balls he was also able to play. Blue arrows are assists, by the way. Granted, his passing accuracy was a lowly 68.6%, but that’s not always the passer’s fault anyway, and talk about being a threat. Which makes it entirely mysterious that the Revs did what so many other teams have done with him. That is, leave him alone.
There were a few kinks to iron out, though, and maybe FdB will not use the same lineup on the 19th. The biggest issue was defensive organization, which tended to leave some troubling large gaps. New England recognized that and exploited it to create a few big chances that they frankly blew big time. The one goal they did score was due to a misplayed headed clearance by Franco Escobar rather than the broader problem, but if they are going to try that same formation against other playoff teams they are going to have to do some work.
And thus the third regular season of Atlanta United soccer comes to an end. How good a season was it? Well, it was noted during the broadcast that 58 points would be the most any defending MLS champion has accumulated. While that is true, the broadcast was incorrect in that the previous best was Real Salt Lake in 2010 (56 points). D.C. United also managed 58 points in 1998. Both those teams had a better PPG in their title defense than Atlanta’s 1.71, as the seasons were shorter (the MLS regular season was 32 games from 1996 until 2006, dropped to just 30 games in 2007, then increased to the current 34 games in 2011). D.C. also had a better PPG in 1997. RSL’s 2010 PPG of 1.87 remains the all-time best. D.C’s title defenses were both in the shootout era, so they come with asterisks.
So, all things considered, that’s pretty good. Better yet, Atlanta’s performance to date is historically great. United has racked up 182 points over its first three seasons, the next best total over any 3-year stretch being 177 by NYCFC, also completed this year. The 1.78 PPG is likewise the best over 3 seasons, edging out D.C’s 1.77 from 1997-99.
Here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Great Bloke of the Match is Michael Parkhurst, naturally. Man of the Match is Julian Gressel, who had probably his best game of the year. Special Mentions are awarded to Josef Martinez, for doing what he always does, and to Darlington Nagbe, for doing what he almost never does.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. 3 saves in the game, and 2 of them were huge. Brad was the only player to play every minute of every regular season game.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. Another clean game, and LGP looked to be having fun. 1 tackle, 5 interceptions, 1 clearance, 1 block and 10 recoveries. 1 off-target shot as well.
CB: Miles Robinson – 7. 1 interception, 3 clearances, 2 blocks and 3 recoveries. Also 2 shots, one on goal. Miles was Mr. Reliable this year: he was the only field player to appear in every regular season game, and the only player to appear in every competitive game so far this season.
CB: Franco Escobar – 6. Had a rough first half, including the early error for the New England goal, but improved dramatically in the second half. 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 clearances, 2 blocks and 4 recoveries.
DM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. Solid as ever. 1 tackle, 4 interceptions, 2 clearances, 2 blocks and 6 recoveries. Also 85.2% accuracy on 27 passes.
LW: Justin Meram – 6. Justin was kind of meh in this one. He played 64 minutes and was 75% on 32 passes. He was working the long ball as was Julian on the opposite wing, but with rather less success. 2 shots, 1 on goal.
LM: Emerson Hyndman – 7. Emerson was a fairly solid 81.3% accurate on 48 passes, and had 2 shots off target. Generated some good chances.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. Darlington now has 2 goals on the season. This wasn’t an easy one, but of course he made it look like it was. And a monstrous 95.6% completion rate on 45 passes.
RW: Julian Gressel – 9. A stunner of a goal and 2 assists to go with all that passing above. Will Bruce Arena pay more attention to him next game? Made way for Parky after 79 minutes.
FWD: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Exited after 63 minutes, but was very effective up to that point. 2 shots, both on goal, and connected on 82.8% of his 29 passes. Looking playoff ready. Also, as usual he led all players in fouls suffered with 4.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. A goal, an assist and a secondary assist. Does that constitute the MLS scoring trifecta? 6 shots in the game, 3 on target and in the right place more times than can be counted. And as he has done before, he knows when to honor his teammates.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 7. Played 27 official minutes, and clearly has his speed back. 81.8% accurate on 11 passes, and 2 shots, 1 on frame.
SUB: Florentin Pogba – 6. Wasn’t really tested much, but got himself out of tight spaces a couple of times and was the additional back line strength FdB obviously assigned him to be.
SUB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. Yeah, I’m not giving him the sentimental rating. So sue me. Other than get the tribute appearance he so clearly deserved, Parky really didn’t do much in the game. 4 passes, 2 on target. One of them was very nearly an assist, though.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Overall, a strong game plan. As noted above, there are a couple of things to work on if they are going to do this again, but on the day it was what was needed.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T – 10. That’s what you mean to us, Parky.