MARIETTA, Ga. — The New England Revolution showed exactly who they were in their first-ever game against Atlanta United. Back in September 2017, the Revs went into Mercedes-Benz Stadium and tried to stifle Atlanta’s attacking flair with a physical game plan. They were a little overzealous and lost two players to red cards in the first 38 minutes. The Five Stripes showed no mercy and scored seven goals.
New England has a different manager these days — former United States international goalkeeper Brad Friedel is in his second season with the club — but the philosophy remains the same. The Revs want to break opponents with a high press and hard challenges. Atlanta (0-2-2, 2 points) still hasn’t won on the road against this week’s opposition, drawing 0-0 two years ago and 1-1 last season. First-year manager Frank de Boer expects a hard fight on Saturday.
“They will be on top of us, and we are prepared for that,” de Boer said Thursday at the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground. “[You have to] always start first with the hunger to win duels, to win games, and afterwards the quality can be decisive. They will give us a hard time. We know that.
“You have to be prepared for those kinds of small fouls, but still continue what we are good at. One time, you will break through. They make fouls because you are in a good position. You can also be proud of that. And hopefully, the referee sometimes helps you in that and protects you in that [by showing cards], because that’s also very important when the referee sees, every time, small fouls. Five small fouls for me is also a yellow card. They have to recognize that. That way that can also help the offensive team.”
Under Friedel, New England accrued the second-most cards and led Major League Soccer in fouls per game in 2018. The Revolution (1-4-1, 5 points) rank fifth and fourth, respectively, in those categories this season. They don’t control possession, ranking 22nd in the league with an average of 46 percent. But, when they do have the ball, it’s often in dangerous areas. Thirty-seven percent of New England’s possession comes in the attacking third, which is tied with the high-pressing New York Red Bulls for tops in MLS, according to Who Scored. (Conversely, Atlanta United leads the league in possession but ranks 14th in time spent in the attacking third.)
“[I]t’s up to us as players to make the right decision, movement off the ball, present options for the guy on the ball,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said, explaining what Atlanta must do against New England’s defensive strategy.
“So in that sense, if we’ve got to be more direct then we have to be more direct, but nine times out of 10, hopefully there are some options to play the ball,” Guzan said. “You have to take care of the ball, you have to be good with the ball. If they’re going to high press and you turn the ball over, obviously they’ve got numbers in and around your goal. If you take care of the ball and connect a few passes and you break the press, then you’re going to be going the other way. Ultimately, regardless of what they do, you’ve got to be secure with the ball and make sure you protect it.”
Centerback Leandro González-Pírez enjoys playing opponents like the Revolution. He has confidence in Atlanta’s ability to break their press and, as a result, find good scoring chances.
“I know they are very physical,” González-Pírez said Thursday. “They are so intense. Personally, I like that because we can find more spaces than [against] normal teams when they sit back. So I like that. I know we have to be more careful than normal, because when they push forward all the time if they recover the ball in our [side of the field], they can be more dangerous. We have to pay more attention. When we pass the ball, we have to make quality passes and try to find spaces to attack the defense and to try to score.”
This won’t be the first time the Five Stripes have faced an aggressive opponent in 2019. In the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals first leg, Monterrey broke up the game with an astounding 25 fouls and won 3-0. Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, who is available to play Saturday after recovering from a hamstring injury, suffered 10 fouls against los Rayados.
González-Pírez believes his team has grown since that game.
“Maybe we played different against Monterrey than we are playing now,” he said. “Maybe we are more comfortable, with more confidence. Maybe we are one or two steps forward from that game. Maybe if we play against them again, now, maybe it would be a different game.
“So I think that the kind of game is similar, because [New England] plays similarly, with different players, of course. But they are a good team, they are a difficult team. They are very physical, very strong guys, very athletic players. So we have to be ready for that, and we are trying to prepare the tactics to break them down.”