Red Bulls Preview: Barco fully integrated into Atlanta United offense

Jason Longshore
May 18, 2018 - 2:14 pm
Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco, midfielder Miguel Almiron, and forward Josef Martinez

© Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

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ATLANTA -- First-place Atlanta United returns home to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday as they host the New York Red Bulls. After a slower start to the season due to a focus on the Concacaf Champions League, the Red Bulls have won four of their last five matches. They have two games in hand on Atlanta and trail the Eastern Conference leaders by seven points. 

The Red Bulls are one of the leading scoring teams in the MLS this season, with 23 goals in their nine matches. Bradley Wright-Phillips leads the way with six, but nine others have scored this season. Newcomer Alejandro Romero Gamarra, better known as Kaku, is settling in quite nicely with three goals and seven assists. 

Kaku has replaced Sacha Kljestan as the Red Bulls' playmaker and is growing increasingly comfortable driving the team forward. Look back at his performance in the big 4-0 win over cross-town rivals NYCFC. Kaku scored the opener in the 2nd minute and assisted on two more goals before the end of the first half. Limited his opportunities to impact the Red Bulls' attack will be critical for the Five Stripes on Sunday. Jeff Larentowicz will have his hands full in the center of the field. 

Atlanta's underrated defense has been critical in 2018. Since the opener in Houston, they have only allowed nine goals in ten matches. Michael Parkhurst came off the bench in that opener and his fine form has been critical for Atlanta this season. His excellent positioning allows Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Miles Robinson, Franco Escobar, and Chris McCann to be aggressive and close things down before the opposition can create scoring opportunities. When they don't, Parkhurst is there to clean things up. 

Jesse Marsch's squad is known for their pressing style that can force their opponents into turnovers. Midfielders Kaku, Sean Davis, Tyler Adams, Florian Valot, and Daniel Royer feast on these opportunities and counterattack quickly. They also have a great deal of formation flexibility in how they approach the match. In 2018 so far, they have most often used a 4-2-3-1. In the second half of last season, Marsch deployed a unique 3-3-3-1 that flummoxed opponents. 

Atlanta has played out of a 3-5-2 almost exclusively in 2018. With Ezequiel Barco now fully integrated into the lineup. the attacking trio of Barco, Miguel Almirón, and Josef Martinez is developing jaw-dropping chemistry and efficiency. Take a look back at the second goal in Orlando last weekend. Almirón started the sequence near midfield, splitting two defenders with a pass to Barco. Ezequiel carried the ball forward on the dribble, before laying it off to Greg Garza. Martinez made a run to the back post, dragging defenders with him, while Barco and Almirón both made delayed runs to the top of the penalty area. Barco then finished with a right footed blast with the outside of his boot that left Joe Bendik with no chance to keep it out. 

The formation gives Atlanta a style of playing that they did not possess in 2017 against the Red Bulls, where they lost 2-1 in March and drew 0-0 in October. Jesse Marsch's team has struggled in the playoffs against teams that sit back and look to counter. Columbus, Montreal, and Toronto deployed this tactic to great effect in the postseason in the last three years. While it would be surprising to see Atlanta play a defensive style on Sunday, the 3-5-2 allows them to have more security when turnovers occur. The attacking quality of Martinez, Almirón, and Barco is strong enough to create chances. 

Our coverage will start with the 5 Stripes Countdown at 6:30 and kickoff will be just after 7:00 p.m. on 92.9 The Game. The Full Time Report will follow the final whistle and Mike Conti and I will be with you for an hour after the match.