Flexibility key to Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls

Credit: Isaiah J. Downing

Credit: Isaiah J. Downing

Among the reasons that Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls are the last teams fighting for the Supporters’ Shield is each’s ability to successfully adjust tactically.

The two teams will face each other Sunday in Harrison, N.J. Should Atlanta United win, it will have a seven-point lead over the Red Bulls with three games remaining. Should Red Bulls win, Atlanta United will have a one-point lead.

They are six points clear of the next-closest contender because each does what it does well.

Atlanta United has seamlessly switched between a 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 formation this season. In some cases, the 3-5-2 has focused on defense and counter-attacking. In others, the players have bombed forward with the wingers playing almost as the third and fourth forwards, pressing teams in an attempt to create turnovers near the goal. The 4-2-3-1 has been used somewhat similarly. The team leads MLS in goals scored (65) and has the largest goal difference (plus-29).

The Red Bulls once were the best pressing team in MLS. Former manager Jesse Marsch coached a blitz that helped New York win the Supporters’ Shield in 2015 and make the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

Marsch left at midseason, and Chris Armas has throttled back New York’s style in favor of a more possession-based approach. The team was 11-5-3 under Marsch this season, including a 3-1 win against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in which its pressed the Five Stripes, and is 7-2-2 under Armas. They have scored 55 goals and have allowed 32, tied for the fewest in the league.

“Ultimately, we know it’s going to be a tough game,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Whether they are pressing for 90 minutes, 70 minutes or 40 minutes, ultimately they are a team that likes to get forward. Play not necessarily direct football, but a team that doesn’t look to combine 1,000 passes. They look to attack when they can.”

So how will each team play Sunday?

With Darlington Nagbe in the starting 11, Atlanta United typically plays in the 3-5-2. In the two games he has started since returning from an adductor injury, the team is 2-0, with five goals scored and none conceded. In the game he didn’t start, Atlanta United reverted back to the 4-2-3-1, fell behind San Jose 3-1, but rallied to win 4-3 behind a formation switch to a 4-1-3-2.

Nagbe likely will start Sunday, which means the 3-5-2 seems probable.

The Red Bulls seem likely to use the 4-2-3-1 formation, with a big question mark as to who will play striker in place of Bradley Wright-Phillips.

With so much on the line, Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst said it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Red Bulls go back to the high press.

“It’s not what it was at the beginning of the year,” he said. “Hopefully we can take advantage of it. But they are still getting results other ways.”