Atlanta United’s 3-1 win against New England on Sunday didn’t include too many shocking decisions from either team, probably because both knew they were likely going to face each other again in the MLS playoffs on Oct. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
That probability turned into reality as Decision Day’s final results across the league posted.
Now, what will Atlanta United and New England do when they face each other again?
“I have heard that Bruce Arena is a coach that can suddenly make changes, so we have to be ready and prepared for that, and we have two weeks to do that,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said.
Arena joked that he can pull napkins out of his sleeve, but wasn’t offering many more hints as to what his team is going to work on in an attempt to dethrone the reigning MLS champs. There were references to not letting Josef Martinez get behind the defense, which he did to score the second goal on Sunday.
“We will obviously make some changes,” he said. “Probably the game that we are going to want to win, if we have a choice, is the next one. So, we will see.”
New England caused Atlanta United problems early in the game by creating one-on-one situations down Atlanta United’s left side. Cristian Penilla took advantage of Franco Escobar several times in the first half, including on the Revs’ goal. New England also was disciplined with keeping its wingers wide and then sending midfielders on runs through the middle. Atlanta United began tracking the runners and those threats were nullified.
“Obviously, the first five, 10, 15 minutes caused us a few issues, and we just had to adjust accordingly,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “The second half was much better from us in closing down the space and opportunities to run behind us. Ultimately, it allowed us to dictate the tempo of the game. That was a positive change.”
Atlanta United used one wrinkle, twice switching formations. The team started with five in the back, then went to four in the second half as subs came on, and finished with three.
“It is always good to get a feeling in a different system, and sometimes you need to do that to get more control of the game,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “Now, we have a little taste of that already, so maybe now I can make one click and they can do it. ... We will have to see, maybe we will need it in two or three weeks.”
Atlanta United has good muscle memory for switching formations. Gerardo Martino switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 for last year’s playoffs and Atlanta United went 4-1-0.
De Boer also switched up personnel on Sunday, benching Pity Martinez in place of Ezequiel Barco as the second striker underneath Josef Martinez. De Boer said he started Barco because he wanted to improve his game fitness. He said on Friday that he thought Barco could play around 60 minutes. Barco, who said after the game that he could have gone 90, played 63 minutes. De Boer said decisions about the starting lineup will be affected by what he thinks gives his team the best chance to win. Last year, Martino started neither Hector Villalba nor Barco in playoff games, for example.
Barco finished with two shots on goal on Sunday, two chances created and completed 80 percent of his passes. Arena implied that he expects to see Pity Martinez, one of the team’s three Designated Players, in two weeks.
Atlanta United has done well when facing a team two consecutive games. It defeated and then tied Orlando during the 2017 regular season, won both games in last year’s playoff semifinal series with NYCFC and split games with New York Red Bulls in the conference finals.
So, facing New England twice in three weeks isn’t too weird.
“It just kind of is what it is,” said midfielder Julian Gressel, who finished with a goal and two assists. “Like I said, it was nice to win today and have them experience a loss here. Hopefully, we can end their season in a couple of weeks, repeat that performance from today. Obviously, we’ll take a look and analyze things, and create a plan again for in a couple weeks.”
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