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, then discussed defenders yesterday. Today, we continue with midfielders.
Last time the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United graced the pitch together, Atlanta attempted to play through RBNY's suffocating press with minimal joy. The Red Bulls earned a comprehensive 2-0 win, keeping themselves firmly in the Supporters' Shield race, setting up their eventual Decision Day-overtaking of ATL.
That match was won in the midfield, and the Red Bulls dominance came without star midfielder Tyler Adams — not to mention the absence of striker Bradley Wright-Phillips as well. Over two legs in the Eastern Conference Championship, the midfield will go a long way in deciding who hosts MLS Cup.
The Red Bulls' midfield is a balanced and fluid unit that, specifically under head coach Chris Armas, has shown more pitches than just the 100 mph fastball that is their high pressure. Adams and Sean Davis are one of the best midfield pivots in the league, all-action players that cover ground, win possession and generally bother the hell out of opposing midfielders. On the flanks, Danny Royer, Alex Muyl and Derrick Etienne Jr. have helped take the goal scoring load off BWP, scoring each of the team's last four goals between the trio.
Atlanta's group is more possession-oriented, led by Darlington Nagbe and Julian Gressel with Eric Remedi playing the role of destroyer behind them. When they play with a back four instead of three, Jeff Larentowicz steps alongside Remedi. But they're likely to continue with three in the back, with the wingbacks flying high up the pitch as normal. (Miguel Almiron has drifted further forward to be classified as a pseudo striker lately; therefore, we'll discuss him when we compare both teams' forwards.)
So, who would our experts take?
New York’s ability to strangle teams out of the game through midfield is what elevated them to elite status early in the season, but their ability to start combining with the ball on the back nine is what made them Supporters’ Shield champs (and got them past Columbus). Adams was probably the league’s best d-mid this year – he’s the standout name – but there’s youth, technique and tactical flexibility at pretty much every spot here.
Whether it’s been in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2, and whether they’ve been with or without a host of starters, Atlanta have consistently put out a team that plays entertaining, attacking soccer while remaining structured and responsible throughout the most important parts of the field. Remedi’s recent ascent has bumped them up a bit as well, as seen against NYCFC.
The preference in the midfield personnel depends on the playing style you deploy. If you plan to “strangle” teams, then you want Adams and Davis. If you want to sit deep and counter or try to possess, you probably want Gressel/Remedi/Nagbe.
The question of midfield superiority hinges on the question of how the game will be play. More specifically, how will Atlanta try to play? Will we see that Atlanta we saw at Red Bull Arena at the end of September that tried to pass out of the back and control the game through using the ball? Or will we see the Atlanta that played against NYCFC last round that didn't want the ball and took a primarily deep defensive posture?
I suspect it'll be option two and I'm not sure how Red Bulls can overwhelm a team that doesn't show their neck, so, advantage Atlanta.