Here are three takeaways from a showing that encapsulated both teams’ seasons well.
I feel like I’ve seen the goals NYCFC scored today a million times. The kind of goal where the ball just bounces around off a set piece or someone deftly recycling the ball back into the box, followed by [loud noises], followed by someone being in the right place at the right time to pick up a rebound or play the ball into an open blue shirt.
Atlanta were never going to match NYCFC’s ability to win the chaos of a pitch that demands you do everything in your power to ram a round ball through a square hole if you want to compete. When NYCFC withstood Atlanta’s initial assaults over the first 35 minutes and began to find space to put shots toward goal, you could feel Atlanta losing their grip on a game they never truly had control over. And once you slip up at Yankee Stadium, you’re not going to clammer back.
"I think it was a very, very high-intensity game during 90 minutes," head coach Ronny Deila told ABC postgame. "Atlanta’s a really good football team but I’m so proud of the boys today. The intensity we had in our pressure was unbelievable. They almost didn’t create anything and we attacked them over and over again in their half, and we should have created more chances in the end. But you can’t say anything negative when you win 2-0."
NYCFC are now 7W-1L-2D at Yankee Stadium this season with 27 goals scored and just four surrendered. They were more than happy to sit back, let their defense get set against Atlanta’s quartet of isolated attackers and wait for Atlanta to not withstand the pressure of having to avoid even the slightest slip up on a bouncing ball near the box.
"You know the first half, maybe we kind of felt the pressure a little bit of maybe past playoffs, but then to keep fighting as a team to keep working," midfielder James Sands added to ABC. "I think we really wore them down and took advantage of the second half."
That being said…
The absence of NYCFC midfielder Keaton Parks is a bit easier to hide on the Yankee Stadium field. A relatively passive first-half performance coupled with some earned-but-still-lucky bounces in the second half is easier to live on against Atlanta. But going on the road to New England on Nov. 30 probably isn’t going to allow for either of those things.
We’ve said it a ton on MLSsoccer Dot Com – NYCFC have phenomenal underlying numbers and at times have looked like the best team in MLS via the eye test, too. Yet they’ve either been unlucky or lacked consistency or both. If unlucky NYCFC or inconsistent NYCFC turn up in Foxborough, then this group is in trouble.
You can’t sit back against the Revs and expect to weather the storm. They’ll know that and they’ll prepare for it. But the difficulty level is about to ramp up exponentially. NYCFC will need to put a better foot forward to survive. The question is whether that’s even possible without Parks and the also-injured Anton Tinnerholm.
To their credit, they certainly turned it on in the second half. And it’s clear they feel like they can flip that switch at any point.
“[Deila] said ‘Boys, it’s our time.'" goalkeeper Sean Johnson said on ABC of Deila's words of inspiration at halftime. “The second half historically with this team has been extremely strong, so the first half we just wanted to make sure that we did what's necessary to give ourselves a chance to go on late in the game when our talent took over. The boys were superb tonight.”
One half of "superb" soccer is good enough for Atlanta. NYCFC probably don't want to find out if it’s good enough for the best regular-season team in MLS history.
There was always some hope in Atlanta that everything would come together in the playoffs. Frankly, that hope had been there for weeks though. And it’s not often that it all suddenly comes together in Round One.
It became apparent, even when ATLUTD played well and turned their season around, that the connective tissue from back to front that the league’s elite teams have didn’t exist with this Atlanta United team. There were players that had brilliant moments in a vacuum, but never a team that could have brilliant moments with the consistency needed to challenge the league’s elite. The parts never improved the whole and maybe even made it kind of worse. And being the anti-Rapids was never going to get you far.
So, now what?
There are tweaks to make. You don’t have to overhaul Atlanta from top to bottom but there are bad contracts to get rid of and depth to build. The midfield needs a consistent ball-winner and a box-to-box player, and I’m not sure Emerson Hyndman returning from an ACL tear can be that. US men's national team defenders George Bello and Miles Robinson could potentially be on their way to Europe. Ezequiel Barco could well be gone, too. This will not be the same Atlanta United team in 2022. But it will be a team constructed with input and the philosophies of head coach Gonzalo Pineda in mind.
Let’s not forget, this wasn’t even a year zero for Pineda. This was a year negative 0.5. Making the playoffs itself was the goal for him personally. Even if that certainly didn’t match the goal of the team at the beginning of the year. Everything is trending in the right direction. However, once again, Atlanta are staring down the barrel of another important offseason being carefully watched by an increasingly impatient fan base. Next year can and has to be a step forward. That won’t come without creating a group willing to make off-ball runs and work for each other when the spotlight is on someone else during the game.
Atlanta aren't too far away from that to make it happen. They were definitely too far away from that to make a run in these playoffs though. Or to really challenge any quality team. Their final tally against playoff teams this season was one win in 16 tries.
But it’s onto 2022 now. And maybe things will improve as Pineda truly begins to make this team his own.
“I said before that I am pretty happy with what I have right now," Pineda said postgame. "And I stand by that mindset. Obviously, you would like to change a few things – there might be some that come naturally because there are always moving parts to the offseason. But we will try to analyze and evaluate all the players and the cohesion of the team in general and let’s see what we can do better.
“I feel that with a preseason, having everyone fit and ready to go, I think we can improve a lot. At the same time, the experiences we took this year, those lessons are going to help us in the future.”