Last year, Atlanta United FC and the New York Red Bulls competed against one another as arguably the two best teams in Major League Soccer.
While one was lead by an all-time leading goal scorer in Bradley Wright-Phillips and academy bred talents such as Tyler Adams, the second year Atlanta team had the league’s leading goal scorer that season Josef Martínez and just as impressive league-leading attendance numbers. New York came through on the final day of the regular season to jump Atlanta and win the Supporters’ Shield but United got the last laugh by advancing past the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals and going on to win the MLS Cup in only its second year of existence.
Fast forward a few months into 2019 and the two teams meeting for the first time this year is on drastically different terms.
The defending champions entered the season coming up short in the 2019 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League second round and only winning one of its first six MLS matches (1-2-3). The team has since turned it around winning their next five games coming into Sunday afternoon including a thrilling 1-0 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday night, but the growing pains, possibly not helped by the replacement of head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino with former Ajax and Crystal Palace manager Frank de Boer, worried some that the team was experiencing a cup hangover.
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The defending Supporters’ Shield winners had trouble gaining any points to start the season. New York went on it’s first three-plus game losing streak in over half a decade and were an embarrassing 1-2-4 to start the season. A lack of defense, incomplete passing, and failure in terms of ball discipline all showed their mark on a team that had failed to replace Adams or change up its playbook from last year. Wright-Phillips has still yet to score in league play since March 16 against San Jose, where his goal was one of the late-game add-ons in a 4-1 win against one of 2019s worst teams.
Though as of late the team has had a rebound winning three of its last four. Those include a gutsy hold on performance against expansion side FC Cincinnati, a come from behind thriller against Zlatan Ibrahimović, and an impressive win against FC Dallas on the road with mostly youth talent. The sole loss in that span against the Montreal Impact came last Wednesday on short rest and while that isn’t an excuse it is a factor.
But in that point lies the hard truth: New York is inconsistent and unpredictable this season. A win against LA and FC Dallas with two totally different rosters but a loss to a middling Montreal team. BWP only scoring once in 11 games while the secondary forward Brian White has two already. A stellar midfield with Daniel Royer, Andreas Ivan, Alex Muyl and Cristian Cásseres that has combined for 11 goals across all competitions and a defense that has allowed 14 balls to not only reach team captain Luis Robles but get past him.
Not all the blame is off Robles in this situation by the way but he can’t be on all the time when he’s getting attacked constantly by something like a LA squad surging in the late stages of the first half.
So what does RBNY need to do on Sunday to secure a win besides the obvious “score goals?” Well, that is a key factor and there is data that gives New York an advantage in that area. So far this season the team is averaging about 1.7 goals at Red Bull Arena while United is only averaging one goals on the road in most of its games.
For a team that head coach Chris Armas has constantly told “the goals are coming,” three against LA and Dallas each is a good start to that. After his performance against FC Dallas, Cásseres said it’s a whole team effort and for someone young like him he owes to a lot of people just to get the chance.
“I’m really happy that the coaching staff and my teammates are confident in me and putting me out their to contribute to the team,” Cásseres said through a translator after last Saturday’s game. “Working hard every week and trying to do everything I can to help out the team and continue to do so this whole year.”
The defense will also need to come up big against Atlanta’s two top goal scorers this season Martinez and Ezequiel Barco. Both internationals have combined for nine goals this season and while there are always other threats among the 11 neutralizing the biggest threats will be huge for a team that has struggled midily this season.
For Atlanta, a team that is 3 and 2 on the road this season, controlling the pace of the game and getting New York off-balance is how they can come away with three points and remain in the upper middle table of the eastern conference. New York has shown they aren’t usually the type of team to handle adversity well. While the LA game was a good step it isn’t known if this is the new norm or was an exception to the rule.
Get on the board early, disrupt RBNY in the midfield, maybe even earn a couple of yellows while playing physically and New York may not have the fortitude to come back.
The team will be looking to do better than its U-23 USL League 2 side this week, as the group was defeated in the Second Round of the U.S. Open Cup, 4-1, by USL Championship side Memphis 901 FC. The young group got to that point by upsetting the 2018 NPSL national runner-up FC Motown last Tuesday in the competition’s First Round.