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Small NYCFC pitch? Small problem, says Atlanta United

Atlanta United isn’t doing anything different in training to prepare for the oddness of playing soccer at Yankee Stadium, with its tiny pitch that may provide one of the biggest advantages of any soccer field around the world.

Atlanta United will face NYCFC in the Bronx on Sunday in the first leg of a two-legged series in the MLS playoffs. The second leg will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 11. 

If Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s mammoth field is analogous to the size of a iPad Pro, Yankee Stadium’s is an iPad Mini. The dimensions are listed as 70 yards by 110 yards. Those are the FIFA minimum requirements for a field. The pitch at Yankee Stadium is believed to be much smaller, with Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes saying in 2015 that it’s actually 68x106.

But, big or small, Martino didn’t seem concerned that his team needed any preparatory work to be ready for Sunday’s game, which may look more like bumper cars than a flowing game featuring some of the league’s most skilled players.

“We will train the same way we do each week and get ready for the game,” he said. “We only trained once at Mercedes-Benz stadium before we played there, and we won six games in a row.”

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That is true.

It’s also true that the fields at the team’s training center are closer in size to the 75x115 pitch at the Benz than they are to the youth soccer-sized pitch that will be placed across the outfield, and part of the infield, at Yankee Stadium.

To try to get the best result Sunday, Parkhurst said the team must first be mentally strong and recognize that if New York City is able to play there, and post a league-best home record of 12-1-4, then Atlanta United can also be successful, drawing on its history-breaking road record of 10-5-2.

“You have to have confident that it’s possible to play on the field,” he said.

The challenge of playing on a field that small is any errant pass by an opponent can almost instantaneously be turned into a counter-attack by NYCFC. It happened in its 3-1 win against Philadelphia on Wednesday in the Knockout Round game. The Union stubbornly tried to play out  of the back. The pass was picked off. One pass down the field led to one shot and the opening goal. The sequence took around three seconds.

“We’re feeling we are in a good shape, especially at home,” NYCFC fullback Anton Tinnerholm told MLSSoccer.com. “No opponent wants to come here and play against us. I think it’s a nightmare for the opponents to come here. We’re going to use that for our advantage.”

Atlanta United is familiar.

It pulled out a 1-1 draw in its only game there this season. But, that draw was the result of goalkeeper Brad Guzan making a franchise-record nine saves. Playing without injured Miguel Almiron in the second half, Atlanta United rarely was able to get out of its own half. And, when it did get possession, it didn’t try a lot of long balls to relieve the pressure.

Parkhurst recognized Philadelphia experiencing the same issue in its playoff game.

“When away teams get on that field, they think there’s just not enough space,” Parkhurst said. “It’s too tight. You second guess a pass. And you turn around and you go backward, you go backward, and New York City presses and it happens over and over again.

“That’s what I watched in the Philly game.”

Centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said the diagonal layout across the stadium is also awkward visually when trying to set lines for offside traps.

“I don’t know if it will impact the game or not,” he said. “In this game, we will go in and try to counter what New York does well. Play our style, the way we want.”

While Atlanta United wants the best possible result, it knows that it’s not necessary because it’s a two-game series, which minimizes some of the pressure of playing at Yankee Stadium.

If Atlanta United can get out with a draw, or even a 1-0 loss, the team can turn that around with a good result at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where it went 11-2-4.

“I’ve advanced in these types of scenarios not winning the first game,” Parkhurst said. “You don’t have to do it. But we want to take advantage of every minute that we have. The game passes you by quick. These experiences and opportunities don’t last long.”

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