Somehow Atlanta United managed to do something fairly impressive in the 4-1 loss to NYCFC - the team made it look like Yankee Stadium was a regular soccer field. The game may as well have been played on the Moon because NYCFC had space to play regular looking attacking soccer in the game and not embarrassing looking “ground ball to the shortstop soccer” (get it? MOON... SPACE... I’M NOT SAYING THAT THE MOON LANDING WAS FAKED BUT SOCCER ON A BASEBALL FIELD WITH A TERRIBLE SURFACE IS FAKE SOCCER, NYCFC SHOULD HAVE TO WIN A BASEBALL GAME AGAINST THE SCRANTON PAPER MITES TO ACTUALLY WIN THE CONFERENCE).
Alrighty, that’s out of my system. Certain things can be overlooked this season. Struggling in the CCL with a new manager with a congested schedule tries to learn new players and a new league - fine. That learning curve being so steep that Frank de Boer tries to make the best attacking team in the league into a team plays defensive soccer for some reason - OK? I guess? If you want to do that it has to work and it did (or the team was getting really, really lucky) but it didn’t after the Gold Cup break (because the team was getting really, really lucky). Then there’s the turn around after, and let’s be clear, the team adopted a more attacking style after losing to Seattle. This was a long time coming and it led to the best month of the year for Atlanta and the high point of the season with winning a pair of trophies in thrilling fashion - great, but it was about time?
What’s more puzzling though is how the team has approached the last five games. It’s been something along the lines of - give away the entire midfield, rely on hero defending from 2⁄3 of the center backs since one inevitably has an appalling game, and let Josef Martinez carry the team forward based on nothing more than sheer will and determination. That stretch includes an international break where presumably the team evaluated what had been going on and planned to adjust some things headed into the playoffs. Since the loss to Philly, where the problems with the team were finally exploited (after being pretty obviously Big Problems away to Orlando), Atlanta lost to Columbus because they figured out the midfield was wide open, beat a bunkering FC Cincinnati team, needed a last minute goal to beat 10 man San Jose, and got totally crushed by NYCFC.
It’s typical for teams to have to make adjustments here and there, but usually there’s some kind of basic foundation to what they do. NYRB presses, the Columbus Crew drops points after the 75th minute, LAFC lets defenders make Carlos Vela look like Messi, Philly presses for turnovers and then makes their chances count despite not having a great striker, the LA Galaxy have Zlatan explaining that if he was 30 MLS would be known less as a retirement league and more as one where anonymous college graduates try to mark Zlatan before they get dropped by their teams and start working in finance, NYCFC has great pitching and timely hitting... meanwhile, Atlanta United has had three or four different identities this year.
The one that has worked best isn’t really an identity - it’s letting the best player make up for the overall shortcomings of the game plan and hope that teams are too scared of him to run straight through an enormous void in midfield because Eric Remedi (!) is who is tasked with bringing the ball forward in possession. After the losses to Philly and Columbus, winning the East was going to be a tall order. Without Josef Martinez it all fell apart in 45 minutes. It seems like he and Ezequiel Barco should be back in time for the playoffs, but by the time they come back Atlanta needs to have worked out the problems that their presence on the field cannot solve or the playoffs may last just one half - much as Atlanta’s last hope for winning the East did.
Montreal, the team that has Bojan now
The Montreal Impact are not a good soccer team despite featuring USMNT left back Daniel Lovitz. But they are coming off of the highest point of the season - a shootout victory against Toronto FC in something called the Voyageurs Cup. Somehow, MLS hasn’t seen fit to hold some kind of international tournament between the winners of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and this thing, so this regular season meeting will have to suffice.
That trophy has come amid a stretch of MLS games that have been much less successful. After firing Remi Garde for doing the best he could with Shamit Shome and Rudy Camacho, Montreal turned to a manager with a proven track record of leading teams to underwhelming finishes by hiring Wilmer Cabrera. Over the eight games before the change, Montreal went 1-1-6 and vastly improved that mark to 2-1-6 under Cabrera.
Since we last saw the Impact, they also signed a new player. After failing to become the next Messi with Barcelona and not catching on at Milan, Roma, Ajax, Stoke, Mainz 05, and Alaves, Bojan Krkic has found a home in Canada. In 428 minutes he has a goal, but it will be interesting to see how he progresses in the league and plays alongside Ignacio Piatti.
As far as tactics, Cabrera prefers fast counter attacks over possession and build up. That mostly works if your team can hold on long enough to defend to spark a counter, but that’s been difficult for Montreal. The team has let in 21 goals under Cabrera’s short time as manager adding to a total of 59 goals allowed over the whole season. Atlanta should be able to exploit the defensive problems that Montreal has, but their preference for playing on the counter will also target Atlanta’s biggest weakness.
Atlanta U-nope there’s still not really an identity here
The main thing to know about this game aside from all the other stuff I talked about as far as identity and the midfield (and blah, blah, blah, HOW IS THIS STILL A PROBLEM?) is that Eric Remedi is suspended. That means someone else has to play as the no. 6, presumably that will be Jeff Larentowicz. The Atlanta midfielder has great presence of mind in the center of the pitch on top of being a great, if at times over-enthusiastic, leader. Hopefully what this means is that he plays deeper (you know, in the part of the field that opposing teams have been sprinting through like wild horses with grace and speed across some great wide open plain) to hold off counter attacks while Darlington Nagbe brings the ball forward to set up the attack.
Atlanta again has short rest to sort all that out. Josef may or may not be back, Ezequiel Barco may or may not make the 18... Atlanta should be able to handle a team that has a negative 16 goal differential on the year and can’t win in the league. At this point, there are two games left and rather than playing for a top playoff spot, Atlanta should hope to grab three points here and take the time before the final game of the year to lock down the problems that have been lingering for some time now.