Bigger field may mean bigger things for Atlanta United

It doesn’t seem like 10 yards on paper would make that much of a difference, but it could mean everything for Atlanta United and its inaugural season chase for the MLS playoffs.

The field at the team’s new home of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is 5 yards wider and 5 yards longer (measuring 75 yards wide by 115 yards long) than the field at its previous home of Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, which was listed at 70 yards wide and 110 yards long.

But after Sunday’s first game at the $1.5 billion building, it looked like another Atlanta parking lot could be constructed in the 925 extra yards of space that is the difference in the area of its old home field and its new one.

“The field is ginormous,” Atlanta United fullback Greg Garza, using a technical term for measurement similar to “bajillion” or “buttload of” in its exactness.

Atlanta United used every inch of its new field in running Dallas off the turf in a 3-0 win. In its hope of climbing from its current spot of sixth higher up the Eastern Conference standings, Atlanta United (11-8-6) will host New England (10-12-5) on Wednesday.

“It is a big field and hopefully, we can get used to it as quickly as possible,” Garza said. “It’s a lot different than Bobby Dodd (Stadium).”

Atlanta United President Darren Eales hinted a few weeks ago during a tour of the new stadium how the team may take advantage of its spacious new home. He said they wanted a larger field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for several reasons, among them to give team’s speedy attacking players room to run.

That’s exactly what happened on Sunday.

Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, Yamil Asad and Josef Martinez couldn’t be hemmed in by Dallas because there was so much room to cover. 

In the buildup to the first goal, Almiron ran into an acre of space on the right side of the field and won a corner kick. Carlos Carmona alertly quickly took the corner – which is a different tactic than the team has used – by passing the ball to Almiron, who whipped in a cross that resulted in a goal by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in the 14th minute.

It was much different than what happened in the previous two games: a 1-0 loss at D.C. United, which plays at 75x110 RFK Stadium, a field that is as wide, but not as deep, and a 2-2 draw at Philadelphia, which plays at 73x120 Talen Energy Stadium, a field that is deeper but not as wide.

Both of those teams consistently packed in their defenses, taking away space for passes and for runs.

Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said Dallas tried to play compactly, but the size of the field made it difficult.

“… There’s still space, still pockets to be found because the field is so big and the turf is so fast,” he said.

A wider field makes it more difficult for the fullbacks to decide if they should stay close to the centerbacks should an opposing midfielder or forward run inside, or if they should go out to deal with an overlapping midfielder or fullback that is sprinting down the sideline.

That moment of indecision can make all the difference and was exemplified by the tackle of Martinez by goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez early in the game that was briefly ruled a penalty. 

On the play, Yamil Asad had the ball with Martinez running off the shoulder of Dallas centerback Matt Hedges inside and Almiron running off fullback Hernan Grana’s shoulder outside. Grana chose to go outside and cover Almiron. That decision opened up a passing lane for Asad to split the two defenders with a pass. Martinez ran onto the ball and was tackled by Gonzalez in the penalty box. VAR eventually ruled that Martinez was offisdes, negating the penalty kick, but the play illustrates how Atlanta United took advantage of the space.  

Atlanta United didn’t have too many problems at the smaller Bobby Dodd field, going 6-2-1 with 22 goals scored. 

But the team is looking forward to more games at its new bigger home.

“It helps because we are a team that likes to play and attack,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “When teams are defending, it helps to have more space.”

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