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Stu Holden: Atlanta United, Toronto FC will be ‘tactical, hard-fought battle’

The Fox Sports analyst predicts a ‘heavyweight boxing match’ in Wednesday night’s Eastern Conference final.

May 8, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (2) makes a slide tackle against Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow (2) in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
May 8, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (2) makes a slide tackle against Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow (2) in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA  – When Atlanta United and Toronto FC meet at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Eastern Conference final of the MLS Cup playoffs Wednesday night, Stu Holden will provide television viewers with his analysis. The two-time MLS Cup champion and former United States international takes his usual seat in the booth with play-by-play announcer John Strong for the FS1 broadcast.

In a telephone interview with Pro Soccer USA hours before kickoff, Holden offered his assessment of Frank de Boer’s performance as Atlanta manager in 2019, how the Five Stripes might counter Alejandro Pozuelo playing as a “false nine” for Toronto and how he expects the game to play out.

Pro Soccer USA: With what you knew about Atlanta United and Frank de Boer, what was your initial perception of de Boer’s hire, and how would you assess the job he’s done this season?

Holden: “I think with Frank de Boer, it was in line with what Atlanta United have been from day one, in that it was big and bold and newsworthy. When that hire was announced, I think a lot of people were impressed at the pedigree of manager – and player, of course, remembering his fantastic career as a player. It was one, I think that intrigued me. It was one that initially felt diametrically opposed to what the Tata Martino coach was, which was this fatherly, beloved figure; a clear style and identity; high tempo; high scoring; fly by the seat of your pants; scoring goals and last-ditch defending, a style that Atlanta United came to love, the fans especially, and then a pragmatism that came around the playoffs and bringing the first-ever MLS Cup to Atlanta.

“I think for Frank de Boer, it’s been a really interesting season. It took him time to adjust. He gets thrown into the deep end with Concacaf Champions League, and then as this season progressed, it was a team that was really trying to find their new identity and what they were going to be, and Frank de Boer trying to make them more defensive, which didn’t resonate well with the team. I think what he’s been able to achieve over the course of this season, I give him a lot of credit for, because I think I had my doubts, especially early on. I still have some doubts about what the best version of this team is, but Frank de Boer has found a way by making bold decisions, by making tweaks along the way, by being willing to adapt to games and players and his squad that he has. I think he has a really talented squad, one of the best in the league.

“To get results is important. If we quantify this season and Frank de Boer whether it’s been a success or not, I think you have to look and say they’ve won two trophies this year. They’re in the Eastern Conference final. They finished with the second seed in the East, and they have an opportunity to get to a final and host MLS Cup and a chance to defend their title. When you put it in those terms, it’s hard to call this season, as of now, anything but a success. It doesn’t matter how you’ve done it. They’re here, and Frank de Boer has a chance to really, any doubters that are left, to show them that he’s certainly capable of this job and that he has been the right man and the right hire from his first day.”

Pro Soccer USA: The success they’ve had and getting to this point – like you said, the players were vocal to the media about not liking de Boer’s playing style. He and Pity Martínez had a dust-up in the media. Did you ever play on a team that had that sort of dysfunction?

Holden: “I haven’t where people have come out publicly. I was part of a Houston Dynamo team in 2006 and ’07 that won back-to-back [MLS Cups]. We knew what we were. We knew why we were good, and [manager] Dom Kinnear, that was clear from day one. At Bolton, it was the same thing, and with the national team with Bob Bradley very similar.

“I remember [Leandro] González-Pírez, we did a game shortly after he came out publicly and was critical of the way the team was playing and set up defensively. Look, I give credit again to Frank de Boer for listening to that, for handling that internally and also then making the turn around to make the team tick again. Whether those voices still exist, I think Pity Martínez has found it more difficult than Frank de Boer to adjust to this league.”

Pro Soccer USA: Not a lot of MLS teams have won championships back-to-back. Is it more difficult to win the second one?

Holden: “Atlanta United are trying to be the fourth team in MLS history. And going into the 25th season next year, that shows you just how hard it is. And considering the fact that they lost their coach, which was a key piece, and they lost their star No. 10 [Miguel Almión] to the Premier League for a big transfer fee, and while they went out and replaced him with Pity Martinez, there was inevitably going to be a transition there.

“Atlanta United have set expectations high from day one. I think that has created a winning culture here in Atlanta, which is really important. But with this new playoff format especially, it was important for this team to perform well in the regular season. They’ve created a real home-field advantage here in Atlanta. Their playoff numbers, I think they’ve scored nine goals and conceded none [from open play] at home in all their playoff games. They’re doing pretty well at home, and they put themselves in position to succeed.

“I think they would have looked at LAFC losing last night and said, ‘This is a real opportunity for us to win another cup.’ If they were to do it again, it would start putting them in the conversation for MLS dynasty already in their third year.”

Pro Soccer USA: With LAFC losing, does that add more pressure for Atlanta against Toronto, because now they go into the game knowing if they win they get to host another MLS Cup final?

Holden: “I think you see it as a massive opportunity. I also think for Atlanta United it creates a sense of urgency, as well, of not allowing Toronto to do what Seattle did last night, which was from the first whistle compete and play with high intensity, get in LAFC’s face, take the game to them, start to ramp up the pressure on them in front of their home fans. You could see what that did to LAFC. They were playing on edge. They couldn’t get a hold of the game: missed touches, missed control. They didn’t look like any version of themselves we had seen this season.

“For Atlanta United, I know that they would have all been watching that game last night. We talked to a couple of players yesterday that all said they would be watching to see who they would potentially face if they were to win. You don’t start to look ahead and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to play Seattle at home.’ You have to get the job done against a good Toronto team.

“It’s an absolute incentive and even more motivation to even think about having two home games now that you would have to win to win an MLS Cup. I’ve got to say, I’d be going into this one with a little more pep in my step if I was a player.”

Pro Soccer USA: Toronto is likely to play with Alejandro Pozuelo as a false nine. Based on the variety of personnel and formations and tactics de Boer has used in the playoffs, how do you think Atlanta will counter that?

Holden: “I’ve got to say, it’s a really interesting proposition for Frank de Boer because of the injuries and Miles Robinson being announced as out for this game, whether Parkhurst is fit enough and healthy enough to start. You’ve got [Florentin] Pogba, González-Pírez, they can play in a back-three, they can play in a back-four. It’s something that Frank de Boer is very proud of, his team’s ability to be tactically flexible and read the game and feel the game.

“But then you couple that with the defensive questions for Atlanta United up against a Toronto FC team that is playing without arguably one of their best players in Jozy Altidore, but yet have found success unbalancing opponents with a guy like Pozuelo, who is a false nine. It means the center backs a lot of times have to mark space in front of them and make sure that they’re communicating without having a direct hand on an opponent. His ability to find pockets and create overloads in wide areas is a really fascinating part of the game.

“I could see Frank de Boer potentially playing with a back three and going with three center backs, but allowing those to get wide to help double in the wide areas when and if Toronto get forward. This isn’t an easy lineup selection for him, because you talk about defensively solid and sound there, and then which player do you go with up front? He didn’t start Pity Martinez in the first game. He started him against Philadelphia, and he clearly has a lot of talent at his disposal, but for him it’s finding the right balance and the right mix, whereas I think Toronto FC are going to be a lot more predictable in that sense.”

Pro Soccer USA: How do you think the game will play out?

Holden: “All indications, to me, are that this one is going to be a methodical, tactical, hard-fought battle. You have two experienced teams. You have Toronto FC that just won MLS Cup two years ago. You have a team in Atlanta United that won last year. You have big players on both sides, guys like Michael Bradley that are experienced in this league, Michael Parkhurst for Atlanta United, potentially. There’s a number of differentiating factors here.

“I don’t think we’re going to see an early goal in this one. It’s going to be risk averse and teams kind of feeling each other out, heavyweight boxing match, taking little jabs, trying to wait for little gaps to open up. Ultimately, I see this one being decided by the quality on the field, the difference makers, and Josef Martínez getting a sniff in front of goal or Toronto FC potentially falling asleep and Julian Gressel pouncing and providing that moment, that ball the other way.

“I think Toronto FC have the ability to really frustrate Atlanta United, to control the game a little bit, to ramp up that pressure. That’s why I said to you a little bit earlier, competing from the first whistle is paramount for Atlanta United to really set that tone that, ‘This is our house. There’s a reason we’ve been successful here.’ I honestly think this is a really even game, as opposed to the Seattle-LAFC game. And I know I’m saying this is a tactical battle, but the way the playoffs have been this year, it’s hard to say that this is going to be like a 1-0 game because they’ve all been really high scoring and fun. But I just think this is going to be the more tense of the two games.”

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