August 19, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan salutes Josef Martinez after he scores the MLS season tieing record goal number 27 against the Columbus Crew in a MLS soccer match on Sunday, August 19, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United’s keys to defeating Red Bulls

The New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United, the two best teams in MLS, will face off in the Eastern Conference finals. The first game is Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Because the two teams have played twice this season before this pending two-leg series, there’s not a whole lot that will change tactically for either Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino or Red Bulls manager Chris Armas. 

The Red Bulls finished with a league record 71 points with an aggressive press, an opportunistic goal-scorer and a team ethos. Atlanta United finished with 69 points with its own press, a league-record goal-scorer and, at times, moments of individual brilliance.

“I don’t think a whole lot is going to change about what they’re about, what we’re about,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “It should be an exciting two-game series.”

Atlanta United’s keys to defeating the Red Bulls for the first time, which would put them in the MLS Cup, will be matching their intensity, patience and awareness.

Martino said his team must be as aggressive as the Red Bulls, which he said are known for their energy. 

“Over 90 minutes, they are a team that through their intensity, it makes a big difference,” he said. “That’s the key for us, matching that.”

Atlanta United failed to come close to doing that in their recent meeting in Harrison, N.J., when the Red Bulls came out, forced mistake after mistake, and defeated Atlanta United 2-0. 

Atlanta United failed again at Toronto with a flat performance in a loss that cost the Five Stripes the Supporters’ Shield.

But Atlanta United did show a toughness that it hasn’t consistently had in dispatching NYCFC by an aggregate score of 4-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Atlanta United tackled. Players threw themselves in front of shots. They didn’t hesitate to commit professional fouls or to put a shoulder into tackles. 

“I think we haven’t changed,” Atlanta United centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said. “I think we changed the mentality. I think we were more aggressive and more focused on the defensive part against City.

“Against Toronto, maybe it was the worst game in the league this season. We know it can happen again. We try to focus on this part and be aggressive. Maybe we can do that.”

Miguel Almiron said the second key is to be patient. 

Atlanta United was almost too patient in the meeting in Harrison, N.J. Instead of negating the Red Bulls’ swarming pressure by playing long balls over the lines of forwards and midfielders, Atlanta United attempted to play through those lines. The tactic didn’t work. The Red Bulls forced error after error, and Atlanta United was rarely able to get the ball out of its own half.

But, again, Atlanta United seemed to learn from that.

Against NYCFC, which also likes to aggressively press, Atlanta United played long balls that negated that tactic.

“It’s not about beauty,” Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz said. “It’s about getting that result.”

When the Red Bulls have the ball, Guzan said it’s imperative that his teammates close their players down quickly to reduce the time they have to find a pass and the space with which to make it. With Kaku, Daniel Royer and Tyler Adams, New York has numerous players who can split a defense if they are given five feet of space and one second.

That was a big issue in the first meeting at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, won by the Red Bulls 3-1. Bradley Wright-Phillips scored on two headers because Atlanta United gave Kaku and Michael Murillo time and space to hit early crosses. 

On the first goal, assisted by Kaku, Atlanta United’s players casually jogged around the field as the Red Bulls worked themselves into a dangerous position on the right flank.

The second goal, assisted by Murillo, happened after Atlanta United quickly tried to get out of its own half, but turned over the ball. The Red Bulls took advantage of Atlanta United’s disjointed formation – some players were moving forward while others were back – to finish the win.

Martino said reducing those early crosses were among the things that Atlanta United was going to work on during Friday’s training session.

“Can’t just be passive and allow them to have a yard and half of space,” Guzan said. “They will get the ball off, and we know that can cause us problems.”

Again, Atlanta United seemed to have learned a lesson that it applied against NYCFC, which didn’t put a shot on goal in the first leg of the semifinals. 

“We are two games away from being in a final, hosting a final, and three games away from winning it,” Guzan said. “We have to make sure our focus and concentration, and ultimately our output in terms of our performance, is up to that level to warrant a championship for the city.” 

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