Atlanta United practically secures spot in MLS playoffs

Five Stripes fight Red Bulls to 0-0 draw
Atlanta United defender Brooks Lennon #11 dribbles the ball during the match against New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey on Wednesday November 3, 2021. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Atlanta United defender Brooks Lennon #11 dribbles the ball during the match against New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey on Wednesday November 3, 2021. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Atlanta United practically secured a spot in the MLS playoffs by earning a 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday despite statistically playing one of the worst offensive games in franchise history.

A win on Wednesday would have secured a playoff spot for the fourth time in five seasons. But if Atlanta United can defeat Cincinnati on Sunday in its regular season finale, it has a chance to secure a home playoff game as the fourth seed if Philadelphia defeats NYCFC.

Atlanta United can only miss out on the playoffs if it loses at Cincinnati by at least seven goals and Montreal defeats Orlando, and the Red Bulls defeat or draw Nashville.

“We’re happy because we can see that it’s close probably,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “But we need to respect Cincinnati and also we need to still need (to try) getting ahead of some teams in the standings.”

Atlanta United took a season-low two shots while the Red Bulls, who could have secured a playoff spot with a win, took 15. But the defense, led by Brad Guzan, posted its 10th shutout to earn the extremely important point and to show that, unlike in two of three of its past games, it can handle pressure for 90 minutes.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty,” Guzan said. “They play a unique style. Of course, we knew that was always going to be hard with them fighting for their (playoff) lives and, yeah, we’re gonna have to weather the storm a little bit we did that.”

With the draw, Atlanta United’s record against the Red Bulls in regular season games improved to 0-6-4. It has yet to score a goal against the Red Bulls on the road.

“I was pleased with the character, the determination of the team, winning many duels and especially securing that second ball at times, and I thought that my players were disciplined in some of their defensive actions,” Pineda said.

Pineda elected to use the “dual false nine” formation that excluded leading goal-scorer Josef Martinez, who was held out to manage his minutes. Ezequiel Barco and Luiz Araujo played as the two wingers/strikers, with Marcelino Moreno as the attacking midfielder. Matheus Rossetto and Franco Ibarra were the holding midfielders, Brooks Lennon and George Bello the wingbacks, Miles Robinson, Alan Franco and Anton Walkes the centerback, and Guzan started in goal.

Pineda said the idea was that Barco and Araujo could run in behind Red Bulls’ defenders. But New York’s pressure, combined with their fouls (17) of Atlanta United’s players when they did get a few seconds on the ball and had time to look up, prevented that from happening as often as he hoped.

Araujo was given a yellow card in the 11th minute because he kicked away the ball after pushing down the Red Bulls’ John Tolkin. It may have been symbolic of the team’s frustration because through the first 10 minutes it wasn’t able to connect passes together against the Red Bulls’ ferocious press.

Atlanta United had a chance in the 31st minute when it had a numerical advantage in attack but Araujo lost the ball while trying to dribble at a defender instead of passing the ball to Moreno, who was open on his right.

Atlanta United didn’t solve the Red Bulls in the first half. The Five Stripes created zero chances. Therefore, it was held without a shot. The Red Bulls took seven shots, putting two on goal. New York took eight corners to Atlanta United’s none.

Atlanta United was fortunate in the 48th minute when a shot by Patryk Klimala from close range hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced away from goal. The play started with Franco winning a duel but then giving away the ball with a poor pass.

Guzan stopped Klimala cold in the 52nd minute with his right foot in a one-on-situation that started with a breakaway in midfield.

A Red Bulls goal scored by Caden Clark was called back for offside in the 54th minute as the pressure on Atlanta United continued to mount.

Pineda subbed on fresh legs with Martinez and Ronald Hernandez in the 67th minute for Araujo and Moreno. With those moves, Lennon moved into the midfield as a right winger and Hernandez slotted in behind him.

The Red Bulls continued to create scoring opportunities but were constantly denied by Atlanta United’s defenders.

“At times we bent but never broke,” Guzan said.

While the defense played proudly, the offense was practically non-existent:

  • 1 shot on goal tied for its lowest mark (seventh time its happened);
  • 1 chance created was its fewest amount in an MLS match;
  • 2 total shots were its fewest in an MLS match.

“We absorbed a lot of pressure today and don’t allow a goal,” Pineda said. “I think it’s a big positive for the mentality of the team of how you have to fight to get results. Obviously the football needs to improve.”

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Atlanta United’s 2021 MLS schedule

April 17 Atlanta United 0, Orlando 0

April 24 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 1

May 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

May 9 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 1

May 15 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

May 23 Atlanta United 1, Seattle 1

May 29 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

June 20 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

June 23 NYCFC 1, Atlanta United 0

June 27 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

July 3 Chicago 3, Atlanta United 0

July 8 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

July 17 New England 1, Atlanta United 0

July 21 Atlanta United 1, Cincinnati 1

July 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Orlando 3, Atlanta United 2

Aug. 4 Atlanta United 2, Montreal 2

Aug. 7 Atlanta United 3, Columbus 2

Aug. 15 Atlanta United 1, LAFC 0

Aug. 18 Atlanta United 1, Toronto 0

Aug. 21 Atlanta United 2, D.C. United 1

Aug. 28 Nashville 2, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 10 Atlanta United 3, Orlando 0

Sept. 15 Atlanta United 4, Cincinnati 0

Sept. 18 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 2

Sept. 25 Philadelphia 1, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 29 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 0

Oct. 2 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

Oct. 16 Atlanta United 2, Toronto 0

Oct. 20 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

Oct. 27 Atlanta United 2, Miami 1

Oct. 30 Atlanta United 1, Toronto1

Nov. 3 Atlanta United 0, New York 0

Sunday at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE