5 Five Stripes Thoughts: Atlanta United in the driver’s seat, but lots of highway remains

Mike Conti
November 26, 2018 - 10:06 am

I don’t think too many Atlanta United supporters could have, in their wildest dreams, imagined what played out Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium.


5. Here’s hoping we avoid the “weirdness” that happened the last time we visited New Jersey. Red Bull fans will likely be buoyed by the knowledge that they were a Guzan penalty save away from a 3-0 win over Atlanta United on September 30, and such a result Thursday would send the series to extra time. There were a lot of random, rare events that afternoon that got Atlanta United totally out of sorts. The referee pointed to the penalty spot three times, including twice in the first 25 minutes. There was also a disallowed Red Bulls goal on a late offside call in the first 25 minutes. Atlanta United got flustered in the early going by the choppy, harshly refereed nature of the first half, and yet still recovered to the point where they controlled long stretches of the second half. Atlanta United needs to keep their poise, stick to their plan, and be confident Thursday night. If they are, we will have the first single-game pro sports championship event to ever be played in Atlanta involving a home team.

4. To advance, Red Bulls will have to do things that they’ve never done before. Aside from the fact that no team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit at the end of the first leg in this format, the Red Bulls are going to have to play attacking, almost reckless soccer, in order to give themselves a pulse Thursday. This is something they haven’t had to do all season, and it will likely leave them dangerously vulnerable to counters. Bradley Wright Phillips will obviously be their focal point, but here is a situation where Red Bulls need a reliable secondary goal scoring threat to emerge, and I’m not sure if they have one. Red Bulls looked benign in open play Sunday but looked incredibly dangerous on set pieces. It will be vital for Atlanta United to limit those chances on Thursday.

3. Red Bulls could get a huge boost if Kemar Lawrence returns. It was an enormous shock to see Lawrence out of the 18 when we got the lineup sheet before the match. The club lists his status as “day-to-day” after he took a knock in training. His absence removed a Best XI defender from the Red Bulls lineup, and his replacement, Connor Lade, had tremendous difficulty dealing with Franco Escobar. Red Bulls would get an enormous lift if Lawrence returns, not just because of his defensive ability, but also because he can do far more in the attacking phase than Lade.

2. Here’s a stat to speaks to how well Atlanta United is defending. Our goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, has two clean sheets in three days playoff matches. He has allowed only 0.33 goals per 90 minutes in the postseason. But here’s what’s remarkable: he has only faced five shots on target in the playoffs. Guzan has done all of this while only making four saves. Give Guzan his credit, but this also speaks to the steady, calm, veteran defending that Atlanta United is getting from Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Jeff Larentowicz. Red Bulls have what’s widely believed to be the best center-back pairing in the league, but Parkhurst-LGP were the best center-back pairing by far Sunday night.

1. You are about to be bombarded with lots of 28-3 talk.  We definitely have battle scars in this city. The list of professional sports disappointment is a long one. The “can we blow this” question is already being asked on social media by both local and national sportscasters. Frankly, you’re going to hear this a lot between now and Thursday, because holding a 3-0 lead at the end of the first leg is like holding a 21-0 halftime lead in an NFL game. Don’t let this talk bother you. None of the players on this Atlanta United club know or care about it. I feel their DNA is a little bit different. They strike me as being a very poised, professional club that is confident in their training. They have won difficult road matches this year. In fact, I think in many ways, this match Thursdat will have the same “shooting gallery” feel their their March win in Minnesota had, which will provide a good experience from which to draw upon. Oh, by the way, we aren’t playing against Tom Brady.

The Five Stripes have the odds in their favor to host the MLS Cup Final, but this series is far from over. Here are my five thoughts on Sunday’s match:

It was a dominant, comprehensive, shocking 3-0 win over New York Red Bulls, the team that had just completed the best regular season in MLS history. A club that dominated Atlanta United to the tune of a 5-1 aggregate in the regular season. A side that had tactically given Atlanta United fits all year, and then, for some reason, decided to throw those tactics into the trash.