Atlanta United is coming off of its second trophy of 2019 and seventh win in a row in all competitions. It’s very impressive and adds to the lore of the team. The match also highlighted an interesting phase of the season for Atlanta United - the opposition is scared. Minnesota United is a good team, they are a strong attacking side with one of the best goal scorers in the league and they got spooked by Atlanta before the game even started. Playing three defensive midfielders and sitting Darwin Quintero sent a strange message from Adrian Heath. Before the match, the talk from Minnesota was about feeling like they should win the game, but the lineup sent a message about not wanting to lose. Perhaps that got into the Loons players heads a bit, but Atlanta dominated the first half, had a few problems when Minnesota opened the game up to start the second, but then locked the result down when Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez got his customary red card.
At this point, teams should have some fear of what Atlanta can do in the attack, but as the Five Stripes have been showing recently, and showed time and again under Tata Martino, teams that play a defensive style and abandon their strengths will more likely be broken down than steal a point or win. That will be very different this week as the Five Stripes travel to Chester, Pennsylvania to take on the Philadelphia Union in a game that may very well determine if Atlanta or NYCFC ends up winning the conference.
The Philadelphia Fading Frauds
MLS has been in a word “weird” in 2019. It seemed like the teams that had more or less hacked (you know, cheated) the league by having innovative roster moves were poised to pull away from the rest of the league that wasn’t following suit after last year. But, rather than Atlanta United, LAFC, NYCFC, and NYRB pulling away from the league, only LAFC has managed to dominate week in and week out. There are reasons for that including Frank de Boer needing to learn the league and deal with schedule congestion, NYCFC still playing in a baseball stadium, and the Red Bulls choking on the stench of a nearby landfill while Chris Armas blows it. The result has been what MLS has always wanted - parity.
This year it seems more like that is coming via attrition rather than an improvement by the rest of the league. It has opened up the table though and made it seem like anyone can be a contender to play LAFC in MLS Cup or the Western Conference Finals. There is only three points separating the 2-7th place teams in the West and until recently the East was very close with the Philadelphia Union, of all teams, filling the void left by Atlanta trying to figure out what it was doing, NYRB being NYRB, and NYCFC having a back loaded schedule. As the table stands now, Atlanta, Philly, and NYCFC are separated by a point and the teams in 4-8th place just stand four points apart.
Until recently, Philly had been solid. There were even thoughts that the team would separate from the rest of the conference going into May. Instead, they’ve looked about like a middle of the road playoff team. Sure, the Union are doing somethings better - the team is pressing more and scoring more, but Philly has let Atlanta and NYCFC reel them back in thanks to inconsistent performances since coming back from the summer international tournament break. In the last 11 games, Philly has lost four games, having only lost two prior to that, with five wins and two draws. It’s not bad, it’s not great, and Philly has had similar outcomes over the past two seasons where they’ve been impressive to begin the year only to fade down the stretch. It seems like that’s the case once again.
All is not lost for the team though, they can still take the conference, perhaps needing some help, but winning at home against Atlanta United will be key for them to do it. However, for that to happen, they’ll have to find a way to replace Alejandro Bedoya’s ability to overcome mediocre defenders and maintain possession and push play in transition as he’s suspended for the match. In addition, the team will rely on the creative spark of Ilsinho, a journeyman left back who came to the league from Russia and upon figuring out that American college graduates will just watch someone do tricks during a match, has amassed a library of tekkers videos that keep the Daniel Lovitzs of the world distracted from how their 401k is doing.
Anyway, aside from him, Philly has a backline that hasn’t come together as well as it has in the past. Perhaps the added emphasis on pressing and attacking means that there is more space when the press is broken, but the team has allowed 41 goals (the third most of any team in the playoff picture in the East) or 1.46 goals a game. It’s a lot of goals. The team has a nightmare of a schedule to finish the year as well with games against Atlanta, LAFC, NYRB, San Jose, and NYCFC over their last six. If they are going to make a push for the top spot in the East, they will need to tighten up the defense, and will need to play their best soccer of the season.
Winning the conference will mean winning on the road
The winner of this match will more than likely determine who carries the Eastern Conference - Atlanta United or NYCFC. Luckily, Atlanta is playing their best soccer of the season. It seems like Frank de Boer has taken the defensive shackles off of the team that he had held down his fleet of Ferraris with and Josef Martinez has dragged what was a clump of discarded bicycles out of the canal and the team is back to its old marauding fun to watch self. The talk of fans having high expectations has been replaced by trophies and Josef scoring at will as he excites the fanbase with declarations of love, as he told ProSoccerUSA after the USOC win: “Every time I drive here, I get goosebumps. For me, playing here is the best thing that’s happened to me. I have to thank the fans. I love the people here.”
What’s more, the team is actually winning on the road finally. After not taking three points away from Atlanta since May, United have won their last two away from home and carrying that form will be key with four of the last seven matches coming after a trip on an airplane. On top of that, a win will finally, once and for all, settle the fraud debate about the Union. Are they actually good? A match with Josef, Barco, and Pity looking to exploit a shaky backline is a good test to answer that question.
I really can’t emphasize how bad of a look it is for MLS that the Philadelphia Union were in first place in the East for so long. They made minor adjustments from last year when they barely made the playoffs and lost their best player in the off-season and they had people believing that they’d somehow become the next version of NYRB and not a kind of low-rent facsimile. Their season has been framed as a success story, but it also shows how the playoff set-up and fixture congestion that wore everyone down really disrupted the league. A win keeps Atlanta in first place, and as we all know, if you ain’t first, you’re last.