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Atlanta United seems set on set pieces in MLS playoffs

If Atlanta United can execute its set pieces in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as well as it did in the first leg at Yankee Stadium, it seems likely that the Five Stripes will move on to the next round.

Atlanta United scored two goals (one was disallowed) and Franco Escobar admits he missed a great chance to score a third in its 1-0 win.

“You have to take care of your set pieces on both sides,” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “If you are behind in the game and can get a few corners, or get a few balls in the box from fouls, that gets you moving again, keeps you going forward and puts the other team on their heels a bit. 

“I thought, really in the first half, we took advantage of those set pieces.”

The team didn’t spend any more time on set pieces before the first leg than it has any other week, according to midfielder Julian Gressel. During the regular season, Atlanta United scored nine goals on set pieces: four from corners, two from direct free kicks and three from indirect free kicks.

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The difference from the regular season to the first playoff game, according to Larentowicz, was the team’s aggressiveness in attacking the free kicks.

“It was really just a way to turn the tide in the game and put them under pressure,” he said.

The first goal was scored by Miguel Almiron. The team ran a short corner routine, with Almiron playing a pass to Gressel a few yards away. He stopped the ball with his foot. Almiron ran up and crossed it. Greg Garza trapped the ball with his chest and passed it forward to Eric Remedi, who hit a cross back toward Almiron, who slammed a shot into the ground. The ball bounced over Sean Johnson’s head and into the goal to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead. However, the goal was disallowed because Almiron was judged to be offside on his cross to Garza.

The second chance came in the 32nd minute. Atlanta United played a long corner routine, with Gressel starting the sequence with a pass up the field to Garza. He hit a left-footed cross into the penalty box. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez won the first ball, heading it toward the back post where Escobar ran past his defender and hit the ball with his right foot back across the goal, instead of toward the goal, from just a few yards away. The reactions of Atlanta United’s players – Larentowicz put his hands to his mouth, Eric Remedi raised his arms to the sky, Josef Martinez put his hands on the sides of his head and Escobar put his hands on the top of head and lay on the turf -- spoke to the magnitude of the miss.

But Atlanta United made up for it.

The third opportunity was the game’s only goal, scored by Remedi in the 37th minute. It also came on a corner kick, this time by Gressel. His right-footed cross found Martinez unmarked in the center of the penalty box. He hammered a left-footed volley that Johnson palmed into Remedi’s path for the tap-in. It was his first goal with Atlanta United.

The common theme in each piece of success was that at least one Atlanta United player beat their defender one-on-one. Garza and Almiron beat their marks on the first. Gonzalez Pirez and Escobar beat their marks on the second. Martinez and Remedi beat their marks on the third.

“We didn’t defend well, the set pieces especially,” NYCFC manager Domenec Torrent said. “Every single corner, every single free kick, they could finish. We have to improve because in a semifinal or a final, you have to be focused on that, in every single action.”

NYCFC can self-scout and improve on the set pieces Atlanta United ran, but chances are manager Gerardo Martino will come up with new plans for set pieces in Sunday’s games. Players say that he comes up with twists and new ideas each game to keep opponents from getting becoming too comfortable. During the regular season, NYCFC conceded eight goals from set pieces: five from corners and three from indirect free kicks.

“Their corners and set pieces were dangerous, it's the payoffs and they did a good job but nevertheless we shouldn’t have conceded a set piece,” NYCFC midfielder Alexander Ring said.

Executing well on set pieces is important because they can be the equalizers in games featuring two teams of different skill levels, or teams trying to change momentum. 

“That’s playoffs,” Garza said. “It’s a different story. Those chances are created by studying teams and creating plays that can give you those opportunities. Sure Tata (Martino) has a couple more up his sleeve. Hopefully he can pull them out for this next game and hopefully we can capitalize on them like we did last Sunday.”

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