Though it has an almost insurmountable three-goal lead to protect, Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino didn’t make it seem like his team is going to bunker when it takes on New York Red Bulls in the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday in Harrison, N.J.
Just 90 minutes of solid defending separates Atlanta United from playing for the MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 8.
Despite a defense-first approach that has carried the Five Stripes to an unbeaten record and seven goals for compared to one against in three playoff games, Martino indicated Tuesday that being proactive with tactics Thursday is more important than being reactive by saying that they can’t let the Red Bulls take control of the game at any point.
“Sometimes a 3-0 lead can be like a trap,” Martino said. “We can’t relax at all. We know this game is going to be just as difficult as the first game. Playing against the best team from the regular season, so we can’t relax.”
No MLS team has overturned a three-goal deficit in the playoffs. The website FiveThirtyEight gives the Red Bulls just a six percent chance of becoming the first.
Still, Atlanta United knows that if it can score just one goal, the series is practically over because the Red Bulls would have to score five. The most goals they have scored this season is four.
“No doubt we don’t want to go out there and open ourselves up and play so free that going for the goal allows them to have opportunities to catch us even numbers, or fast breaks or anything like that,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We want to stay compact defensively.
“That being said we do want to take our chances going forward if we can. we understand that one goal puts them in a real dire place. There’s going to be an effort to get that goal. But we have to do it in a smart, secure way.”
Atlanta United may have learned how to do that in its previous game at Harrison, won comprehensively by Red Bulls 2-0.
That’s the game, not Sunday’s victory in which Red Bulls didn’t press, that Martino said he and his staff will study because they know that the Red Bulls are going to come out just as aggressively Thursday, as they did Sept. 30. New York used its press to push Atlanta United into the corners. The turnovers created short, easier scoring opportunities that they took advantage of with goals from Daniel Royer and Shane Long. Though Brad Guzan made only two saves, his goal was peppered with 11 shots, and 21 crosses flew into the penalty box.
“I think it’s a benefit that we played that game and it went the way it did because we understand exactly the type of place this game will be played at, the intensity they will press us with,” Parkhurst said. “It won’t come as a surprise. We know how good we have to be on the day, what we have to do physically, mentally, tactically in order to have better success than we did last time.”
Breaking that press can be done several ways.
Atlanta United has shown in the playoffs that it no longer is unwilling to play long balls out of the back to Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron as the strikers in a 3-5-2 formation. In that 2-0 loss, it stubbornly kept trying to play short passes out of the back and through the lines, which is what the Red Bulls wanted.
The second way, if it wants to continue to play shorter passes, is to win the 50-50 duels and second balls that are going to occur. It lost the majority of the duels and tackles in the 2-0 loss. Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz said the midfield will be like a dogfight.
“It seems like every game has had a level of intensity that’s somewhat unmatched around the league,” Larentowicz said. It’s what you come to expect. Now we are doing it there in the playoffs, in the second game of a conference final. It’s going to be all those things. It’s going that intensity, it’s going to be the pressure. They are going to bring it, that’s for sure.”
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