As odd as it may seem, Atlanta United’s season will come down to getting a result against mysterious New England in Saturday’s single-elimination playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Though it has been a long season in which this will be the 45th game -- more played than any other MLS team -- it seems that in the past two weeks Atlanta United’s players are recharged and recovered from a season that started in mid-January after just five weeks of offseason. The team won the MLS Cup last year on Dec. 8. It started training camp in 2019 on Jan. 15, a day after new manager Frank de Boer held his first news conference.
It hasn’t been smooth with the sale of Miguel Almiron, the uneven production of Pity Martinez and all of the injuries, but the Five Stripes finished second in the Eastern Conference with 58 points and won the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup.
But, it still has its sights on defending its title.
“We are still chasing a championship,” Julian Gressel said. “You always want to win.”
Here are a few things to watch in Saturday’s game:
Atlanta United’s back line. The team will be without the injured Miles Robinson, who recently was voted one of the better defenders in MLS this season. There is no like-for-like replacement on the roster.
There may not be in the league.
What de Boer chooses to do will directly impact the game because it seems likely that New England will attack whoever steps in, whether it’s Michael Parkhurst, Franco Escobar or Jeff Larentowicz. Flo Pogba isn’t an option to start because he missed most of this week’s training sessions while on duty with his national team.
“You look at what Miles has brought to our back line this year in terms of his athleticism, his pace, his strength, and you’ve got now somebody potentially different,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Someone like Parky has potential to come in and offers a different set of attributes in his ability to read the games. We’ve got to look forward and how we are going to advance.”
This takes on added importance because New England’s tactics and formations have changed frequently under manager Bruce Arena. The Revolution could sit back, absorb Atlanta United’s attack, and try to counter. This might be preferred if Parkhurst is in the back because if the Revs sit deep, Atlanta United’s back line will move higher up the field. Parkhurst’s lack of speed compared to Gustavo Bou, Cristian Penilla or Carles Gil could be exposed.
Formation. If Atlanta United doesn’t come out in a 3-4-2-1, or 4-4-1-1, it will be a surprise because those are the formations the team has used most of the season. It used both in the win against New England on Oct. 6.
With Robinson out, it would be easy for de Boer to switch to a four-man backline that would include two centerbacks: Gonzalez Pirez and Escobar. The problem is the team doesn’t have a true left fullback that has done anything significant this season who is healthy enough to play. If de Boer goes with four in the back, it seems likely that either Justin Meram or Mikey Ambrose will get the nod at left fullback. Meram’s defense would be an issue and weak spot that New England could attack. Ambrose’s offense is inconsistent and would unbalance Atlanta United’s attack.
“We’ve worked on different scenarios in the last week, different shapes in the last week, so we want to be prepared as a whole team to compensate for the loss that was Miles,” Gressel said. “But not be as risky as we were before.”
Atlanta United likely will change formations. The situation will dictate the change.
“I think it’s good to be able to switch to different formations,” Darlington Nagbe said. “I think the guys are getting more comfortable. We’ve been really comfortable in the three, so nothing will feel as comfortable as that, but the guys are getting comfortable with the four as well, which we’ve worked on.”
Set pieces. Because this year’s playoffs are one-game, knockout competitions, set pieces may take on added importance.
“It’s win or go home, so that could be the difference,” Guzan said.
Atlanta United has scored six goals on set pieces (non-penalty kicks), and allowed three, the fewest in MLS. New England has scored seven goals and allowed 15, the most in MLS.
Set pieces may be a key because each team has had two weeks to work on different plays for corner kicks, direct kicks or indirect kicks taken in dangerous spots on the field.
Atlanta United worked on set pieces on offense and defense this week, including taking corner kicks during scrimmages, which is something it didn’t often do during the regular season.
One-game success. De Boer called the playoffs “strange” Thursday. He said a team can work hard for the whole season, and it could be over after one more game.
But, Atlanta United has done very well this season in one-game events, especially at home. It defeated Herediano and then Monterrey in the Champions League. It defeated Charleston, St. Louis and Minnesota in the U.S. Open Cup. It defeated Club America in the Campeones Cup, the first of the two trophies it has won this season.
“Seems to be that when we are playing for something, we tend to more times than not figure it out and find a way,” Guzan said.
Of course, Arena has also experienced success in tournaments, with five MLS Cups and a U.S. Open Cup among the many trophies he’s won as a coach.
This is de Boer’s first season in MLS, but he has won numerous trophies as a player and manager at Ajax in Holland.
“He’s an experienced coach, there’s no doubt about it,” de Boer said. “He’s won MLS Cups. That’s an advantage for him. I’m happy that I can have that experience. The experience I have as a player and manager can help me to win this game.”
Winning duels. The stat is simple: when Atlanta United wins more than 50 percent of its duels, it wins with record of 15-6-2.
“We have to understand that if you aren’t winning battles you are going to have a hard afternoon for sure,” de Boer said.
Winning duels can often be about decisions, too. Atlanta United must avoid careless turnovers when it is moving into attack and exposed to counterattacks, especially because New England’s strikers and midfielders are very fast. The Revs can win the ball and have a numerical advantage in attack in a matter of yards.
De Boer has already shown once this season that he has very little patience with players who can’t take care of the ball.
Larentowicz said that winning duels is a matter of mentality. If a team wins at least 7 of the one-on-one battles on the field, that team will typically win.
“It’s going out and beating the guy in front of you,” he said.
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