Atlanta United vs. NYRB: Who has the edge?

Atlanta United will play the New York Red Bulls on Sunday in Harrison, N.J. in what may be the biggest game in MLS this season.

Atlanta United leads MLS with 63 points. The Red Bulls are second with 59.

Should Atlanta United win or draw, it has all but locked up the top spot in the East for the playoffs as well as the Supporters’ Shield.

It is a game featuring two of the top three scoring teams, as well as two of the best defenses.

Here is a position group by position group breakdown of the game (using 4-2-3-1 formations):

Goalkeeper

Atlanta United’s Brad Guzan vs. New York’s Luis Robles.

Guzan and Robles are two of the league’s best. The stats back that up:

Robles has 11 shutouts this season (second most in the league) and has saved 78 of the 107 shots he has faced.

Guzan has eight shutouts this season and has saved 74 of the 108 shots he has faced.

Edge: Atlanta United. Guzan has played in many, many important games in his career in the English Premier League and for the U.S. men’s national team. He should feel comfortable in this one, especially with prolific striker Bradley Wright-Phillips watching from the bench.

Centerbacks

Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez vs. New York’s Tim Parker and Aaron Long.

These are probably the two best pairings in the league.

Again, the stats back that up.

New York has given up the fewest goals (32) this season. Atlanta United is tied for third-fewest (36) allowed.

Parker has struggled with positioning in the past few games, while Long is playing very well. Both are very physical and very good in the air.

Parkhurst may be the most cerebral centerback in MLS. He rarely needs to make a tackle and is typically in the right spot at the right time. Gonzalez Pirez is as physical as Parker and Long, and certainly much more offensive-minded. At least once per game, he will be found on Atlanta United’s highest line up the field. Sometimes he has the ball, sometimes he doesn’t.

Edge: Push.

Fullbacks

Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel and Chris McCann vs. New York’s Kemar Lawrence and Michael Murillo.

Here’s where the teams’ different tactics start to show.

Defensively, Lawrence and Murillo are the best tandem in MLS, though they do contribute on offense with three goals and four assists this season. Like their centerbacks, both are very physical. They are also fast and go one-on-one.

Offensively, Gressel (three goals and 14 assists) and McCann (one goal) are likely the best, but do get the job done on defense.

Watching Lawrence vs. Gressel will be worth the price of admission. 

McCann is going to have his hands full with Murillo and Kaku.

Edge: New York on defense, Atlanta United on offense.

Holding midfielders

Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz and Eric Remedi vs. New York’s Tyler Adams and Sean Davis.

The fun continues between groups of players with very different styles.

Larentowicz and Remedi are all about the defense. They have combined for just three assists. They go in hard and usually fair. Remedi is good on the ball. Both are good at reading counter-attacks and breaking up play.

Davis and Adams have combined for 15 assists. They are fast and will get forward. Adams is, of course, one of the jewels of the U.S. men’s national team. They are both good at breaking up attacks.

Davis and Adams can’t venture too far forward or the Red Bulls will risk watching Almiron, Nagbe, Villalba, etc. attack those spaces.

Edge: Atlanta United on defense, New York on offense.

Attacking midfielders

Atlanta United’s Hector Villalba, Darlington Nagbe and Miguel Almiron vs. New York’s Daniel Royer, Kaku and Marc Rzatkowski. 

Almiron and Villalba have combined for 19 goals and 22 assists. Almiron is one of the league’s five best all-around players. He puts as much work into tracking back on defense as he does to bombing forward. After a poor start to the season because of injuries, Villalba has scored in three consecutive games. Recently returned from injury, Nagbe looks better than ever. He has three assists this season, but he’s in the midfield to serve as the outlet from the defenders and then get Atlanta United’s attack going.

New York’s midfielders have combined for 17 goals and 19 assists. Royer is arguably Red Bulls’ second-best player this season. He will work on defense and has eye for getting into spaces. Kaku is an excellent passer and very tidy with the ball.

Really, whichever team can keep its formation in the midfield will likely be the winner.

Edge: Atlanta United.

Strikers

Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez vs. New York’s Derrick Etienne Jr.

Because Bradley Wright-Phillips and his 19 goals are suspended because of yellow card accumulation, I’m guessing that Derrick Etienne Jr. will be the replacement. He Four goals in 26 appearances.

Martinez is the holder of the MLS single-season scoring record with 30 goals, and has added five assists. No need to go into too much more detail.

Edge: Atlanta United.

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