The New York Red Bulls return home Sunday for a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference final with Atlanta United FC, though both teams are in very different positions since their last meeting.
Both the Red Bulls and Five Stripes started the season poorly. Through week six, the top two teams in the East in 2018 had just two wins between them. Both teams came into the season shouldering significant losses at crucial midfield positions, though Atlanta purchased a high price replacement for their loss.
Miguel Almirón powered Atlanta’s vaunted attack last season. His meteoric rise in MLS gave way to transfer rumors even before the 2018 season began. His form throughout the season made his exit inevitable. Atlanta attempted to replace Almirón by recruiting two players, Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez. Barco joined Atlanta last season, but struggled to make a direct impact on the score sheet.
Pity Martinez led River Plate to a Copa Libertadores victory, and earned the South American Player of the Year award in the process. Martinez operates as a classic playmaker, preferring to create chances through possession and passing. Atlanta’s attack traditionally functioned best in quick transition moments, and Martinez did not adapt well to the style change. His first few months in MLS could be labelled as forgettable.
A change of pace
Change at the top also created difficulty for Atlanta, losing Tata Martino, and adjusting to the whole cloth changes of Frank De Boer. De Boer’s attack favors a player like Pity Martinez, but that has limited the effectiveness of last year’s golden boot winner dwindled as the team’s style changed.
Atlanta’s solution was to focus on defense, and it has worked wonders, winning six of their last seven matches, and getting big performances from Miles Robinson. The young defender out fo Syracuse is giving Atlanta a security blanket. His speed and defensive instincts allow Atlanta to possess the ball freely, without fear of over-committing numbers in the attack. Robinson leads the team in clearances per 90, and is third on the team in interceptions per 90.
Atlanta’s struggles to start the season, and their turnaround, are similar to the Red Bulls. Chris Armas fixed some of the defensive issues by moving to a three center back formation, gutting out results agains the Galaxy, FC Cincinnati, and FC Dallas. Having Amro Tarek on the backline with Aaron Long and Tim Parker shored up the defense, allowing the team to possess the ball in more advanced positions thanks to the freedom afforded to the fullbacks.
The difference between the two sides however, is that the Red Bulls are still not quite back on track, and the defense is still capable of letting in goals. While Atlanta let in just two goals since April 13th, they both came in a single match. All of their victories in that stretch were shutout victories. The Red Bulls kept a single clean sheet so far this season, their win over expansion side FC Cincinnati.
However, the Red Bulls scored first in their last four matches, something they struggled to do earlier in the season. The pressure release taking the lead has on a defense is immeasurable. Earlier in the season while the team struggled, they were regularly trying to get back into games from losing positions. That would take a toll on any team, but especially a high-energy, high press side like the Red Bulls.
The other big difference between Atlanta and the Red Bulls right now, the strength of opposition they have beaten. Atlanta defeated five teams below the playoff line in their 6-1-0 run. Only Toronto FC boasted a winning record heading into their match with Atlanta. The Red Bulls, by contrast, defeated two strong teams during their 3-1-1 turnaround. The LA Galaxy, currently in a three game slide, lost only once before their defeat against the Red Bulls. Similarly, FC Dallas had not lost at home since last October when the Red Bulls defeated them on the weekend.
Chris Armas’s biggest question heading into the match has to be around who to include. Last week, the team’s regular starters dropped three points at home in a lackluster effort against the Montreal Impact. Then on the weekend, fringe first team and depth players delivered an emphatic win on the road in Dallas. The result came on the backs of performances from players like Andreas Ivan, Omir Fernandez, and Derrick Ettiene. All three players have struggled to earn first team minutes this season, despite performing well in limited roles.
Armas has a chance to make a statement of intent to the team this week, and it will be interesting to see what he decides to do. Does he go with the starters who continue to struggle this season, or rely on new blood to reinvigorate the team?
Also, Armas must deal with a number of injured players in the squad. Aaron Long, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Luis Robles are all expected to miss the match due to injury. Amro Tarek, Brian White, and Ryan Meara are expected to take their places this weekend. Meara and White were both involved in matches against Atlanta last season with similar injury issues. Meara started away at Atlanta for a 3-1 win, and White started at home for a 2-0 win.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography