Two defenders out. A half-empty stadium, at best. Poor turf. A determined opponent.
Those are the major factors that could affect Atlanta United when it plays New England at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. on Wednesday.
“We are going to find ourselves playing a strong team,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said.
First, the situation.
Atlanta United was off last week. It is tied with Columbus for first in the MLS Eastern Conference with 25 points. However, the Five Stripes are coming off a 3-1 loss to New York Red Bulls that saw some players on the team lose their concentration and cool following several questionable decisions by the officials.
In addition to the dropped points, centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez received his fifth yellow card this season, which means he will sit out. Greg Garza received a red card, so he will also miss the game. The good news is Chris McCann, Franco Escobar and Jose Hernandez are finally healthy after missing the past several games and are capable of moving into the starting lineup.
“I think I was a good learning experience for our team,” Martino said. “We know in difficult situations we need to remain calm and keep our composure on the field, regardless of injuries or decisions that go against us.”
Second, the opponent.
There may be several nerve-rattling situations in Wednesday’s game because the Revs, like the Red Bulls and Sporting KC, which are the last two teams to defeat Atlanta United, will aggressively press. First-year manager Brad Friedel has taken a collection of good players that few thought much of before the season and turned them into a team that has an identifiable, aggressive style that has helped it go 4-2-1 at home.
Martino said the Revs’ press isn’t the same as the Red Bulls, but how the midfield triangle of Diego Fagundez, Wilfried Zahibo and Luis Caicedo line up will give them a clue what Friedel plans to do.
Atlanta United has had trouble playing out of the back against teams that press. Julian Gressel said sometimes missing a pass by just a yard or two can be the difference. Because the team had some issues breaking out against the Red Bulls, and knowing the press is coming from the Revs, Martino and the players spent part of last week working on playing out of the back.
“Not as effective as the Red Bulls yet but it’s their first season doing it,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “If we can keep the ball, put them under pressure and make them defend, it’ll make our life much easier.”
Lastly, the venue.
Parkhurst, who played for the Revs from 2005-08, pauses about four seconds while thinking of his answer when asked why Gillette Stadium is such a quirky place to play.
“Tough place to go because New England knows how to play there well,” he said. “The turf is not the best. Sometimes the crowd is not the best. It’s just a lot different than what we are used to, but there’s no excuse.”
Without knowing what Parkhurst was thinking during those four seconds, these are the facts: The Revs’ home is the bizarro-Mercedes Benz Stadium. While both buildings host NFL teams, Atlanta United’s stadium features a roof, at least 45,000 people for every game and was constructed to house a soccer team, so the turf is at least adequate. And, the football lines are scrubbed off and aren’t visible during soccer games.
Conversely, Gillette Stadium is averaging 14,114 per game this season (21st in MLS), and it looks like much fewer because of the stadium’s capacity of more than 66,000 and lack of roof, which combine to reduce the game-day atmosphere. Gressel said it will be important for the players to stick together to grind out a result.
“Forty-five thousand fans, for you or against you, it gives you energy,” Parkhurst said. “It shows it’s a game that matters. It feels empty even when they do have a decent crowd.”
Plus, despite using the same turf as what was put down at Mercedes-Benz, the artificial surface at Gillette has a horrible reputation, as Parkhurst noted. And, the football lines are very clear on the field at Gillette.
Not everyone dislikes the venue and the quality of the field. Gressel said that as a student at Providence he attended his first MLS game at Gillette. As one of the 10,000, Gressel said he thought the atmosphere was good. After playing in it last season in a 0-0 draw, he said he didn’t find the experience to be that bad.
“I thought it was going to be much worse than it actually was,” he said.
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com