Across their first 12 regular-season meetings, the Five Stripes could not conjure a single win (0W-8L-4D), dating back to a wild loss to RBNY in their inaugural MLS match, a 2-1 comeback loss at Bobby Dodd Stadium, ATL’s temporary home at Georgia Tech while Mercedes-Benz Stadium was under construction.
That long string of struggle finally reached its conclusion on Saturday night at MBS, thanks to an early poacher’s goal from Giorgos Giakoumakis and an ensuing 90 minutes of intelligent, tenacious game management from Atlanta.
“Their style is completely antagonistic to what we try to do,” Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said after the 1-0 victory. “So it's a very good battle in that sense. Nothing against that style, it’s just different, not good or bad or whatever people want to categorize. It's just a different style, that is disruptive, that is looking for long balls, second balls, chaos in certain areas, long throw-ins to create chaos inside the box. So they put you under pressure, because they have very good tactics about that.”
Most ATL fans would likely point out the asterisk on that lengthy streak: a 3-0 win in the first leg of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final that sent the Five Stripes on the way to their MLS Cup championship later that autumn. But as Pineda’s words suggest, the vexing nature of the Red Bulls’ high press has also been emblematic of Atlanta’s broader difficulties with that playing style, which has grown more and more popular across the league in recent years.
That lends extra weight to Saturday’s breakthrough – particularly in the wake of the 6-1 beating they suffered at the hands of the Columbus Crew last week.
“Getting back to who we are, that was the theme of the week,” said Pineda. “And the players show who they are today: a team that wants to play always, that shows a lot of – there is another word, but bravery, to play under pressure, under a lot of pressure.
“We want to play,” he added. “But also, in the moments we needed to defend, we defend. In the moments we need to win the duels, I think we won most of those. So very happy for a very good performance, and obviously for the first time beating New York Red Bulls in history in the regular season.”
Atlanta were without Thiago Almada for that international window thrashing in Columbus, and while the Argentine starlet wasn’t quite at his devastating best on Matchday 6, his influence nevertheless shone through. It was his shot that handcuffed RBNY goalkeeper Carlos Coronel just seven minutes in, dropping an inviting rebound into Giakoumakis’ path for the early goal that, crucially, allowed the rest of the match to unfold on ATLUTD’s terms.
Red Bulls boss Gerhard Struber threw Pineda a curveball by shifting into an aggressive 4-4-2 shape immediately after the break – “during this time, we created the most possible chances, but not high-quality chances,” said the Austrian – but the visitors’ hopes of a second-half revival faded as Atlanta held their nerve and came to grips with RBNY in front of the 43,511 appreciative fans on hand.
“We show a very mature performance, I would say, and the moments when we needed possession, we did it,” said Pineda. “Especially after [Matheus] Rosetto was on the field, we start to have a little bit of composure on the ball. And that's how we were able to understand different moments of the game, how to control the game. So I think, again, kudos to my team, they did a great job.”
The W pushes his side into a tie with New England for second place in the Eastern Conference (13 points), just one point back of leaders FC Cincinnati. It’s a promising sign that the Five Stripes are on a path back toward the lofty heights of the Tata Martino era, with a blend of style and steel similar to those sides.
“People telling me possession doesn't matter – today we had almost 60% of possession. And that's how I want to defend most of the time,” said Pineda. “If you don't want the ball against these types of teams, They put you against even more pressure. So again, very brave for my team, trying to play under a lot of pressure, and I felt we did very good.”