The biggest game of the regular season takes place on Sunday.
The top two teams in the league face off with potential hardware on the line (1 pm ET | ESPN – Full TV and streaming info). Atlanta United currently lead the New York Red Bulls by four points in the Supporters’ Shield race; if the Five Stripes win, the first trophy in the club’s history will almost certainly be coming to Georgia.
To preview, let’s compare them position by position.
Both have the ability to make monster saves; both are reliable; both organize from the back. There’s barely anything between them. I could point to Robles as having better numbers this season – fewer goals conceded and more saves above expectation – but I’d probably take Guzan in a game to save my life. So this one’s a wash.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls have a strong case to be the best defense in the league. They are currently tied with Seattle for the fewest goals conceded, and all four of their defenders could make the claim to an MLS All-Star spot (Aaron Long and Michael Murillo were named to the All-Star team and both started against Juventus). They aren’t just individually talented, either; their styles mesh perfectly with how the team plays.
They each boast the athletic qualities to cover ground in the press, the courage to play in 1v1 situations, and the concentration to transition forward quickly. I’m not sure head coach Chris Armas would take any compilation of defenders over his own.
Atlanta have plenty of talent of their own, but they’ve been playing mix-and-match at outside back all season. Center backs Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez have been constants, but they’ve had six players fill into the other two spots. Head coach Tata Martino has a big decision to make there.
On the left side, 16-year-old George Bello started the last game and put in a nice performance against Real Salt Lake. Will Martino trust a teenager with the biggest game of the year, or will he return to veteran Chris McCann?
On the right, Martino has switched between Julian Gressel and Franco Escobar lately. Gressel provides the more attacking option. He also solves one of Martino’s other dilemmas: getting other important players on the field. When Gressel plays right back, it gives Martino a chance to start Ezequiel Barco or the recently-returned Darlington Nagbe. But I’m guessing Martino goes with the more traditional, conservative defender in Escobar for this tough away game.
Either way, Atlanta’s defense is strong, but not to Red Bulls’ level.
New York Red Bulls
Jeff Larentowicz and Eric Remedi/Nagbe for Atlanta vs. Tyler Adams and Sean Davis for RBNY: As an overall combination of ability, I would probably take Atlanta. But Red Bulls games aren’t played like other soccer games. We need to think about the abilities in the way the game will be played. RBNY will make it frenetic and duel-oriented. The ball will be bouncing around more than Atlanta prefers. The more chaotic the game, the more the rugged, hyper-mobile Adams gains the advantage.
Here, we are looking at the line of three attackers behind the striker. I don’t think anyone could argue that Atlanta have the best trio in the league (although maybe LAFC would try?). The Five Stripes lead the league in scoring, and the selection of Gressel on the right, Miguel Almiron central and Tito Villalba on the left have 58 goals and assists between them, most of any group in the league.
A decision point here could be Martino’s lineup selection. He has the option to play Gressel at right back, moving Villalba to right wing, Almiron to left wing, and inserting Nagbe into center midfield. Does facing Almiron/Villalba/Nagbe make Red Bulls fans feel any better?
The Red Bulls attack hasn’t been shabby, either, ranking fourth in the league in goals scored. Daniel Royer and Kaku are each having good seasons, and Mark Rzatowski has stepped into the injured Florian Valot’s spot well. They just… aren’t Almiron, Villalba and Gressel.
This would have sparked an awesome conversation… until this happened.
Bradley Wright-Phillips will be suspended for the game due to yellow card accumulation. The Josef Martinez v. BWP bout had plenty of juice, and Josef v. Derrick Etienne Jr. just doesn’t have the same pizzaz. So, um, I think we’ll take the guy that’s scored more goals in a single season than anyone else in league history.
The Five Stripes will likely begin the game with Ezequiel Barco on the bench, meaning Martino can call on the most expensive purchase in MLS history in the second half. As his second sub, he might be able to summon US men's national team regular Nagbe. If he needs a goal late, he’ll have the option to turn to arguably the best free-kick taker in the league, Kevin Kratz, as well. In other words, the Atlanta bench is nice.
New York tend to take a different approach through their subs. Instead of adding skill to calm down a chaotic game, they often add bite to make it more so. Alex Muyl, Connor Lade and Brian White will be the most likely introductions. They fit exactly what the Red Bulls want, but Barco offers the most likely candidate to change the game.
It’s the guy who’s managed Argentina, FC Barcelona and Paraguay. Tata Martino might have the best coaching resume in Major League Soccer history. And he’s used the last 18 months to build one of the most impressive juggernauts in league history.
Chris Armas only has three months and 14 games of professional head coaching experience. Armas is 8-3-3 in those 14 games and has certainly shown he’s up for the task, but it’s an unfair question to ask of him.
We usually end the tale of the tape here, but there’s one more topic we need to add specifically for this game
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls are the Red Bulls because they don’t care about the other things I listed above. Or, at least, they don’t care as much about them as other teams in the league. Their system is their team. They beat opponents through their style of play.
They press and win second balls and press again and win the second balls again until they either take a shot on goal or pin you so far back that you can’t get out of your end. They make teams play a faster, more chaotic pace than they're used to. The last time these teams met, it worked. They frazzled Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and left 3-1 winners.
For everything Atlanta’s done well this year, they haven’t shown they can play the Red Bulls’ game at a Red Bulls’ level. Whether they figure it out on Sunday might not just determine who wins the Supporters’ Shield, but who wins MLS Cup down the line.