And then there were four. It's time to get hyped for the Conference Championships, with the first legs kicking off Sunday, Nov. 25. Over the next week, we're diving deep into New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City vs. Portland Timbers to see where each side can find an edge. With the help of columnists Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw, we're parsing all facets of both clashes, one day at a time. On Wednesday, we started with the goalkeepers, today we continue with defenders.
There will be plenty of high-profile defenders on the pitch for the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Sunday (5 pm ET | ESPN, TSN, TVAS, ESPN Deportes) and they'll be needed. Each side will have their hands full with high-flying attacks and strangling high-pressing.
One side has four current international defenders and the other has an All-Star, former Argentine youth national teamer and a young Argentine on the rise. As with all other factions of the respective squads, talent is not in short supply.
Despite a league-wide uptick in goals this season, the Red Bulls conceded just 33 goals in 34 MLS matches, becoming the third team in the last five years to allow less than a goal-per-game. Their backline boasts 2018 MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long, USA international Tim Parker, 2018 MLS Best XI member Kemar Lawrence and 2018 World Cup veteran Michael Murillo.
The fullbacks handle the large swaths of space from end line to end line in a pressing system, while the center backs are comfortable defending in unenviable situations, like occasionally being isolated at midfield 1v1 as a byproduct of said high press. All four have above-average (or better) recovery speed for their positions — It's as balanced and dynamic a backline in MLS.
Atlanta's system is a bit different. They generally play with three central defenders, depending on health, and with the wingbacks having more attacking responsibility than defensive, as dictated by the nature of Atlanta's style of play. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has been nearly ever-present for Tata Martino over the last two years and, like Parker and Long, has the ability to cover a ton of ground. As a bonus, he's strong in possession. Michael Parkhurst, club captain and stalwart veteran, finished third in MLS Defender of the Year voting.
So who would our experts take?
Long was the Defender of the Year; Lawrence is who I chose for Defender of the Year; Parker’s an international-caliber center back; Murillo played in the World Cup this past summer. RBNY’s backline is stacked and the biggest reason they conceded the fewest in the league this year.
Parkhurst found a new lease on his soccer life in Atlanta, and had one of the finest seasons of his legitimately great career in 2018, while LGP was probably one of the top five or six central defenders in the league. Those guys are the ever-present rocks at CB while the personnel, tactics and formation around them always shift.
I hate when you make me pick between two beautiful things, Tom. We need to break it into three categories:
Centerbacks: Tie. Long and Parker make up the most physically dominant duo in the league; there’s a reason Red Bulls concede so few goals. But I’m a Parkhurst truther; I’m going to force my child to watch his videos when he/she is a kid. And LGP might be the most all-around talented (passing ability, balance, ball winning) center back. Plus Atlanta play with three center backs, likely with Jeff Larentowicz as a third, and the extra player always provides an advantage in the area.
Outside backs: Red Bulls. Garza and Escobar are good; Lawrence and Murillo are the best (maybe in a tie with Columbus). Lawrence and Murillo are a little more reliable defending in the wide areas and slightly more trustworthy to complete the final pass.
Coordination: Red Bulls. A huge part of defending isn’t just talent, but how the players move together. The Atlanta back five I expect to see has only played together twice this year (the last two games). This Red Bulls group has been on the field together most of the year.