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Prekrap: Atlanta United vs. NYCFC - time to make a run at first in the East

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Where dreams come true

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s always satisfying to beat Orlando City, but beating them in the only thing they conceivably have to play for or could compete to win during the year is all the sweeter. I mean did you see how hard they were trying? They wanted it so bad and their best shot at Atlanta consisted of badly taken chances with just one shot on goal in the first half and then a flurry of chances before conceding the second goal because Orlando can either defend (badly) or attack (incapably) but not both and going for an equalizer with all of their might ended up being their undoing.

Plus, the match really had everything. Andrew Carleton played, Justin Meram stared down the entire city of Orlando (presumably while singing “When you wish upon a star”) who he then owned on Twitter because he’s an Atlanta hero, and Tito Villalba (I saw this with my own two eyes) actually ran at someone and completed a dribble. Sure, he was so shocked that he pulled it off that he flubbed what would have been a key pass, but it all added up to a happy night at the Most Magical Place on Earth.

OR WAS IT? On one hand, Frank de Boer seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Atlanta was a bit disorganized in midfield and Orlando ran through the center of the pitch, but perhaps Frank understood his opponent so well that he knew no Orlando player was capable of finishing or doing anything remotely good in the final third. Plus, his false nineish thing worked sorta and the “let Eric Remedi be Atlanta Frank Lampard” thing came off splendidly - it was a well deserved goal for Atlanta who did seem to have put the fear into OCSC even without Josef Martinez. If that is the case, then subbing off Ezequiel Barco essentially said, “I disrespect your team so much that I’m going to pull the best player off the pitch with nearly half of the game left to play so he’s ready for a league match this weekend even with just a 1-0 lead on the road - I am that confident that you aren’t going to score - go get em Andrew!” And he was right. On the other, it was a sort of typical messy MLS game and maybe that wasn’t the plan and things just worked out.

I’m inclined to believe it was the first part of that fantastic paragraph you just read since winning on the road usually looks bad but is actually good. We’ll find out if de Boer has turned a corner as NYCFC comes to Atlanta.

Maybe next year they can play the Chicago Fire at the Field of Dreams Field

Meanwhile, if you thought that NYCFC playing in a temporary stadium for five years while nobody who looks at soccer can take a team that plays inside of a matchbox seriously couldn’t get more embarrassing, behold:

New York is the greatest city in the world, so naturally MLS has to be in the market twice like every other major sports league in the USA. If there is one thing that MLS is it is a Major League (it’s right there in the name so you can’t doubt it) so two teams in New York or bust! They do that by having a team play in a baseball stadium, something that neutralizes the part of the game that is tactically interesting - space, and in New Jersey, something that neutralizes the part of the game that creates an atmosphere during games - fans.

Anyway, after the Gold Cup/Copa America break, NYCFC has five wins and three losses in their last eight. The team also has the most important thing that a team can have, no not wins - hope. They have games in hand on the rest of the East - two on Atlanta and one on Philly so they’re playing with house money at this point. It’s hard to know how that impacts a manager’s decision making, but with a bit more room for error compared to the other teams in the East, it might be an incentive to take more risks on the road and go for three points.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen New York, so let’s get reacquainted with the Tarps (they’re not the Pigeons anymore, they’re the Tarps - you don’t get to have an ironic garbage bird identity if YOU PLAY SOCCER IN A BASEBALL STADIUM). To start, David Villa got so tired of Dome Torrent that he decided to pack up and take his talents to Japan this year. Alexandru Mitrițu, who has five goals and two assists, and Herber, with nine goals and three assists, replaced him - in a manner of speaking (that is to say they are not David Villa).

Still, Torrent has the team playing the best soccer of the team’s existence because he’s figured out how to limit the very dumb sandlot goals that get allowed in Yankee Stadium because the field is so compact and the ball just seems to find it’s way to the feet of people who stand near the goal somehow (see Remedi, Eric in the 2018 playoffs), and the team has the fourth least goals allowed in the league. That’s thanks in part to better positional discipline and Torrent’s system taking root after a disappointing end to last season for NYCFC.

Elsewhere, they’re a type of Bizarro Atlanta United. Argentine Maxi Moralez pulls the strings in central midfield, a young promising American who was hyped in Europe but never broke through is a bench player and spot starting difference-maker in Keaton Parks, a young American centerback holds the backline as James Sands has stepped up this season, and they have an American goalkeeper who is kinda good but also kinda not?

In terms of tactics, the team is somewhat agnostic in when it comes to its formation. It seems like New York prefers a 3-5-2 when Sands and the other two centerbacks, Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens, are all healthy, and they’ve even lost to Real Salt Lake. Replace turf for baseball dirt, and they even play on a non-typical soccer surface!

The East is for the taking

All right, I’m sorta ready to believe again, so Atlanta is doomed. The team began its quest for a good second half of the season by having a bad start to the second half of the season. Losses to Toronto, Chicago, and NYRB (look, it was a 3-3 loss) seemed like self-inflicted wounds, while dropping a game to Seattle seems more explicable and nobody is beating 2019 MLS Cup Champions LAFC this year. Somehow, in a turn of events that really is inexplicable, this hasn’t mattered. Atlanta has thrown away a chance to run away with the East and is still basically in the driver’s seat in the conference because the other teams have thrown away their chance to run away with the East too.

NYCFC might be the exception to that statement. They’ve been climbing the table and 15 points out of a possible 24 is a solid haul. I have asked - are Atlanta United frauds? So far it seems like as long as they don’t have to get on an airplane that goes anywhere other than Orlando the answer is no. At home the team has a three game winning streak with victories against a fun but flawed Houston team, a fraudulent DC United squad, and an indifferent (unless Zlatan is telling all of his teammates that they play in a league that is so bad that he can still score a hat trick when he wants against the best team in its history) LA Galaxy side. NYCFC seems like they’re for real though and this might be the kind of game where the mentality of Atlanta determines the outcome.

That said, Atlanta will come into the match better rested and without having to witness what should be an existential crisis inducing moment of watching a baseball tarp pulled over your home soccer pitch. Not only that, but the three center back formation Atlanta is running now seems to have the team playing its best soccer. It very neatly solves the “we have no left back problem” and adds an extra centerback to cover when Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez goes on an adventure. In the attack, Darlington Nagbe, Pity, and Barco can combine to create chances for... Yikes, yeah, Josef is uncertain for the match, but it must feel good that Atlanta just won without him thanks to a goal from noted attacker Eric Remedi and the very solid Emerson Hyndman.

In short, this might work (unless the 3-5-2 goes away, then it’ll be 3-3 probably), but the mentality will need to be reliable and Josef’s scoring threat replaced in order to come away with all three points.

At least all Atlanta has to do is win a huge game with massive playoff implications against a team from New York to make it reasonable that they’d win the East

I expected that

I’m not one for predictions but I’ve known for months that the winner of Atlanta United vs NYCFC would win the East.