Baer: How Atlanta United shut down New York City FC's attack

Atlanta United came into Sunday night's match against New York City FC with a clear game plan: clog up the midfield and make life difficult for NYCFC's star attackers David Villa and Maxi Moralez.

They accomplished just that in a 1-0 win at Yankee Stadium in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs. Head coach Tata Martino rolled out a 5-3-2 formation with Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez up top, allowing them freedom while everyone else was there mostly to defend. Atlanta have turned to a five-man backline many times this season, but it's usually had three forwards at the top instead of two.

This tactical plan worked especially well in the first half, when the Five Stripes scored their lone goal through Eric Remedi and limited the Cityzens' pleasing style of play.

With Almiron subbed out at halftime and Atlanta up a goal, Martino had his team retreat even further into their own end as NYCFC controlled 67 percent of the possession. With Remedi, Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe all in central midfield, Moralez was forced to find his touches out on the wing in less dangerous positions. 

The image on the left is Moralez's heat map against the Philadelphia Union from NYCFC's Knockout Round win on Wednesday when he had a goal and two assists. The one on the right is his heat map from Sunday night. The few touches he was able to get in central midfield came further away from goal then the ones he got against Philadelphia.

Villa was busy dealing with three center backs by himself until Jo Inge Berget entered in the 63rd minute. Villa was able to get four shots off, but none had an expected goals value greater than .08. None could be described as a genuine chance.

With Moralez and Villa corralled — and Yangel Herrera and Alexander Ring fighting for every inch in the midfield — much of NYC's possession came on the wings, where they were able to overload the Five Stripes with their winger and fullback against either Greg Garza or Franco Escobar. Those four combined for two shots and three chances created. The Cityzens completed just one of their 14 open play crosses.

It would be surprising to see Martino roll out a similar game plan next week at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, not only because they will be at home needing just a draw, but also the field dimensions will mean there is more space for NYCFC to exploit. Not to mention Almiron having another week to rest his hamstring.

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