HANOVER, N.J. — It’s a question every MLS coach has asked this season with few finding the answer — how do you quiet the most lethal and highest scoring attack in the league?
Atlanta have scored a league-best 65 goals this year — almost half by Josef Martinez, the runaway Golden Boot leader this year with an MLS-record 30 goals.
The player most often getting Martinez the ball is Miguel Almiron, one of the top playmakers in MLS with 14 assists.
“We know they both have a really good connection with each other, but I truly believe in our squad and Aaron Long and Tim Parker that we are good enough to control these guys like we showed in the first leg,” Red Bulls midfielder Marc Rzatkowski said. “I’m confident enough to say we want to win, especially at home.”
Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said limiting Almiron’s time and space to play the ball forward to Martinez goes a long way to stopping Atlanta’s vaunted attack. And while he calls the dynamic duo “a big piece of how they operate,” they’re far from their only pieces.
“They’re a team with a lot of weapons,” Armas said. “[Hector] Villalba’s been great and [Julian] Gressel is a threat. Not many people talk about those guys, but we think Gressel is a big piece of that team.”
While the league has clearly identified Atlanta’s ability to get out and hurt teams in transition as arguably its greatest strength, Armas said the squad is also smart about when they attack.
“When you talk about their top players, one of their best qualities is they know when to run hard, they recognize moments with no delay,” Armas said. “So they run hard, they have guys who can deliver the right passes with Villalba, Almiron and Martinez, they’re always looking to run. Typically there’s five in the back so they’re looking to take away spaces and they lure you in the other way. It’s good players, guys that can run and recognizing the big moments to do so.”
In the first matchup between the teams — a 3-1 Red Bulls win in Atlanta on May 20 — Ezequiel Barco put the hosts in front and Martinez appeared to double ATLUND’s advantage only to have his 31st-minute goal called back on Video Review because of a foul on the Venezuelan.
After that, the Red Bulls did well to stymie Martinez, who had just one shot on target.
“They’re a great team, obviously they’re leading the table right now, we all know they’re fast in transition, they have good players going forward, they have a lot of different threats,” Long said. “Just getting our unit back and being able to defend and shut them out at home is the first priority and we’ll get our goals.”
Indeed, while Atlanta leads the league in goals scored, the Red Bulls are tied with Seattle Sounders FC for fewest goals conceded.
It will be strength vs. strength come Sunday afternoon.
“Their whole front four can hurt you and they have a very dangerous team,” midfielder Sean Davis said. “It’s about limiting space for those guys, limiting touches. They’re good enough to find the game at times, but I think our defense showed at their place we have what it takes to limit them offensively.”