And then there were four. It's time to get hyped for the Conference Championships, with the first legs kicking off Sunday, Nov. 25. Over the next week, we're going to dive deep into New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United and Sporting KC vs. Portland Timbers to see where each side can find an edge in their matchup. With the help of columnists Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw, we'll parse all facets of both Conference Championship clashes, one day at a time. Today, we start with the goalkeepers.
While Josef Martinez and Bradley Wright-Phillips are often in the spotlight, both Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls are anchored by a top 'keeper in MLS.
Luis Robles and Brad Guzan each finished in the top five of 2018 Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year ballot as they helped lead their clubs on a Supporters' Shield race for the ages.
Robles, the Red Bulls' captain, anchored a defense that conceded a league-stingiest 33 goals in 34 regular-season games, starting 31 of them. He missed MLS action for the first time in 183 games this season, only set back by a partially torn ACL that he has soldiered on through without fuss or dip in form. Despite leaving three games on the table, he led the league with 14 shutouts during the regular season. It was one of many career bests for Robles in 2018, including wins (21) and goals against (30). Thanks to a stout defense, he also registered a career low in saves.
It's worth noting, of course, that Robles lined up behind 2018 MLS Defender of the Year winner Aaron Long and two of the three 2018 MLS Best XI defenders in Long and Kemar Lawrence.
Guzan, meanwhile, started all but one game for ATL this season, only missing out when suspended for a red card. He kept eight clean sheets while the team conceded 44 goals on the season, tied for fourth-fewest in the league despite their penchant for aggressive, attacking soccer.
According to American Soccer Analysis, Robles had the third-best mark for goals conceded vs. expected goals conceded at -5.79. Essentially, the numbers argue that based on the shots against him, he should have conceded 5.79 more goals on average based on the quality of chances he faced. Guzan finished in the bottom third in that chart with a mark of +1.81, meaning the numbers argue he gave up 1.81 more goals than he should have.
Guzan held a significant edge in possession terms, completing 1202 passes at a success rate of 72.2 percent compared to Robles' 855 at 57.3 percent.
So, which team has the edge between the sticks?
NY Red Bulls
Robles was arguably the goalkeeper of the year, and the way the Red Bulls play – high press = high line – means he’s asked to do a ton of sweeper-keeping. He’s been damn near flawless at it. Guzan’s a more traditional ’keeper for Atlanta in that they just don’t ask him to do as much stuff. But he’s steady and commands his box well, as is befitting an EPL veteran.
I give the edge to the Red Bulls.
It's a fool's errand to pick between Guzan and Robles. Guzan probably has more ability to have a huge game, but I don't think anyone in MLS would say having Robles is a disadvantage.
Here's the only talking point regarding the goalkeepers: When Atlanta have played against the Red Bulls, the Five Stripes have tried to pass out through the press. If you pass out against the press, you have to use your goalkeeper as the extra number. Guzan isn't super comfortable with the ball at his feet; he isn't a liability, but he doesn't provide the automatic outlet, either.
As a result, Guzan will have more responsibility in the game, and the variance on his performance will carry more weight in the game. Just something to keep an eye on.