ATLANTA – For Atlanta United, Decision Day presented by AT&T had a decidedly different feel this season.
A year ago, ATLUTD found themselves picking up the pieces of a matchday-34 implosion, as the team reckoned with a 4-1 thumping from a middling Toronto FC side that handed the Supporters’ Shield to the New York Red Bulls. That humbling arrived on the heels of the news that Tata Martino would not be returning as the team’s manager next season, making for a Classic Atlanta Sports Moment™. At least, it seemed like it at the time.
Instead, it turned into a tipping point for the city’s first title-winning team in 23 years.
The stakes were lower on this edition of Decision Day. A 3-1 win over New England at Mercedes-Benz Stadium meant the Five Stripes would claim the Eastern Conference’s second seed and a first-round Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs rematch with the Revs. Still, the game had a broader meaning for those in Atlanta.
“If you look at last year and losing Supporters' Shield the last game of the season, that was certainly a kick up the backside going into the playoffs,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Today was a bit of a different feeling because we wanted to use it to send a message that when they come back in two weeks' time, it's not going to be easy. It's going to be hard.”
Atlanta certainly sent a powerful message about their attack, but defensively things weren't so clear. The backline of Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez consistently found themselves isolated and in trouble, especially at the beginning of the match.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to leave the backline to fend for itself when you have a group as gifted and athletic as that back three. It is a bad thing though to leave players on an island if those on the island are consistently setting themselves on fire.
The Revolution's first goal came in the eighth minute when Escobar made a horrific touch that gifted Cristian Penilla a clear path to goal. Penilla took his second one-on-one chance of the game vs. Guzan and converted easily this time. Mistakes like that from the backline are a large part of the reason Atlanta lost the xG battle in this one, 1.93-1.83.
“They've got players that want to get on the ball and they've got players that can stretch you vertically,” Guzan said. “Obviously the first five, 10 minutes that caused us a few issues and we had to adjust accordingly. The second half was much better in closing down space, closing down their opportunities to run behind us and ultimately allowed us to dictate the tempo of the game.”
Excluding a consecutive pair of fluky chances from Juan Fernando Caicedo, only one other New England shot came from inside the Atlanta box in the second half. It helped that Frank de Boer shifted to a more pragmatic back four with 30 minutes left in the game, a move that may signal his intentions for his team in the new one-and-done playoff format.
While the game started as an extremely open, back-and forth-affair, it ended with Atlanta well in control of proceedings after taking the lead. The quicker Atlanta venture into pragmatism in their next meeting with the Revs, the better for the Five Stripes.
“You can see the maturity of the team,” Julian Gressel said. “Earlier in the year, maybe going down one or them equalizing at 1-1 after a short amount of time, sometimes we've had games before where we didn't play well again after that. Today we really came out of the half and played well in the second half and deserved the win and made sure that we won the game.”
In a year in which watching the Five Stripes has consistently felt like watching a self-aware superweapon re-learn how to operate itself, on Decision Day they sent a message to New England – and themselves – that they were ready to face adversity. As much as last year’s team may have needed a kick in the backside to refocus on MLS Cup, this year’s may have needed that reassurance just as much.
A confident and fully fit Atlanta team is dangerous proposition and the Revs will now have to deal with both. De Boer’s side go into the playoffs as healthy as they have been all season. There were concerns about Josef Martinez’s ability to play in Sunday’s game, but de Boer let Josef himself decide whether he was OK to start. Josef clearly thought so, and de Boer said he agreed after watching Josef making slide tackles in training the Friday before the game.
“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs. Today I chose this system with these players. So we have to evaluate this game and everyone has to be on top of things. Anything can happen. It could be changed in two weeks.”
While de Boer made some unexpected personnel choices on Sunday, there weren’t too many surprises tactically from either side.
“Both teams did exactly the same as what they mostly did the whole season," de Boer said. New England played like most games and like the most important games with a 4-4-2 and [Carles] Gil on the right side coming in a lot to the midfield. This was exactly what we expected and then I think they also expected how we played today. There were no secrets today.
“I've heard that Bruce Arena is a coach that suddenly can make changes and we have to be ready for that and prepared for that, and we have two weeks to do that," he added.
Beating a good team twice in a row is difficult. Everyone knows how wild things can get in the playoffs, and that was before it became single-elimination. Arena will undoubtedly have a trick or two up his sleeve – Guzan’s words, not mine – for the next game.
And, also, ya know, “Atlanta.” Nothing is a done deal. But the Five Stripes laid out the blueprint for how the first round might go for everyone involved on Sunday afternoon.