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Alarm bells sound as Atlanta United fails big test at NYCFC

The Five Stripes were dominated from the opening whistle and fell out of contention for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.

Sep 25, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York City FC forward Heber (9) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Atlanta United during the second half at Yankee Stadium. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
Sep 25, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York City FC forward Heber (9) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Atlanta United during the second half at Yankee Stadium. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

There is not much point to breaking down the nitty gritty of New York City FC 4, Atlanta United 1. Atlanta was outcoached and outplayed. Individual errors plagued the Five Stripes all over the field, and the seeming lack of basic soccer fundamentals was shocking at times.

This game was an opportunity for Atlanta to stay in the hunt for the top seed in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference playoffs. It also was a big test against a potential postseason opponent.

Atlanta failed miserably. At this point, the bigger concern is not what will happen if these teams meet again in the playoffs. It is: Will the Five Stripes even make it that far?

“We need to have a serious look in the mirror, all of us,” Brad Guzan said after the loss, per a quote sheet provided by the club. “We play like this, it’s going to be a short postseason. You can’t play like this against good teams at any time. Now there’s two games left in the season. We were playing for something tonight and we weren’t good enough.”

Frank de Boer’s tactics played into the hosts’ hands. The Five Stripes flooded forward and attempted to press high, but  NYCFC easily played through Atlanta and put de Boer’s isolated back three under pressure with quick transitions. Leandro González-Pírez, lined up as a right center back instead of his usual position on the left, absorbed the brunt of the Pigeons’ attack and consistently lost one-on-one match-ups. Alexandru Mitrita took advantage and completed a hat trick in the first 34 minutes.

Playing on the tightest pitch in MLS, individual duels were going to determine the outcome. De Boer has preached the importance of winning individual duels all season. Atlanta lost this statistical battle Wednesday night, 75-67.

“They play very offensive, we play very offensive, so then it is about mentality and winning those duels,” de Boer said. “In the first half they were winning those duels and they created those chances.”

Injury concerns

Atlanta played a lineup with several changes against New York City. Héctor “Tito” Villalba, making his first start since sustaining an injury in a 1-0 loss at the New York Red Bulls May 19, played left wingback in place of Justin Meram. Ezequiel Barco, Julian Gressel and Josef Martínez all missed out with injuries. Brandon Vazquez spelled Martínez. Franco Escobar shifted to Gressel’s right wingback role, which forced the inclusion of Florentin Pogba in Atlanta’s back three and González-Pírez’s move from left to right.

Barco is expected to receive first minutes since the U.S. Open Cup final Sunday at the Montreal Impact. There is no telling how long Martínez will be out, though his injury suffered during last Saturday’s 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes seems to be less severe than initially feared. Gressel suffered a knee injury in the same game. Gressel told reporters Monday he would be fine to play against NYCFC, yet he did not feature. (De Boer has undersold injuries in the past; Villalba was first listed as day-to-day, and the days turned into months.)

So, obviously these injuries hurt the Five Stripes Wednesday night. For all the praise of Atlanta’s depth, it is probably unfair to expect much when three of the team’s best players are missing. De Boer would have been better off deploying a more conservative game plan against the Pigeons. Hindsight is 20-20, but 4-4-1-1 — lined up left to right as Mo Adams, González-Pírez, Miles Robinson, Escobar; Justin Meram, Jeff Larentowicz, Darlington Nagbe, Villalba; Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez; Vazquez — might have worked better. It could not have been worse.

Time to wake up

The biggest worry for Atlanta after Wednesday’s debacle is that it was not an aberration. In the Five Stripes’ past 17 league games, they have conceded three or more goals seven times and kept six clean sheets. When Atlanta gives up one goal, it tends to give up a bunch of goals. De Boer’s team is 0-9-1 when it concedes first in 2019, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Doug Roberson notes, and 14 of its 17 wins have come with a clean sheet.

“It’s a winning thing,” Guzan said. “Its mentality thing. You look at our record, the amount of wins that have come via clean sheets and the amount of wins that have come after we conceded goals. Not good enough. From a collective group. We concede one, heads drop, mentality goes.” 

Atlanta’s form has dipped in recent weeks, a fact that has been obscured by some deceivingly good results.

As multiple people have pointed out on Twitter, yes, Barco was absent for most of those games (he started versus Orlando City and Minnnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final). Once the young Argentine returns to full health, Atlanta will get a boost.

The Five Stripes have two games remaining in the regular season, then a two-week break before the playoffs begin. With MLS’ new single-game knockout format, there is not margin for error in mentality. It is time for de Boer and his players to get right or face the prospect of an early exit.

“We weren’t good the moment we stepped on the pitch,” Guzan said Wednesday night. “They were better than us in every aspect of the game in the first half. We talked about it being a playoff game tonight. We talked about it being a real game. We talked about knowing they were going to come out flying in the first minute. We weren’t good enough.”

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