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New York Red Bulls' Patryk Klimala battles Atlanta United's Santiago Sosa for the ball in mid-air during their team's match on Wednesday, August 17. (Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
The New York Red Bulls got a much needed win on Wednesday night against Atlanta United FC, 2-1 (Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

The New York Red Bulls win over Atlanta United FC last night was cathartic. The two-fold benefit of adding three points and almost certainly dashing United’s playoff hopes is something fans can take some solace in. But after the two first half goals from Lewis Morgan and John Tolkin something stood out. It was the same thing that seemingly kept Atlanta alive during the match.

When Josef Martinez scored the consolation goal deep into second half stoppage time it was a culmination. A culmination of a second half where the home southern side was the “better” team. That doesn’t mean United was close to scoring on many fronts. But the Red Bulls offense slowed to a near crawl in the final 45 minutes. Atlanta looked to be the team that would score next and sure enough they did. It ruined a clean sheet for Carlos Coronel who’s performance on the night was fairly good.

The Red Bulls allowed Atlanta just under 3/4ths of possession during the game (73.2%). A majority of that majority felt as though it came during the second half. Before any substitutions were made. Before any tactics were really changed. Atlanta was controlling possession. The saving grace was that New York still looked better overall and kept United away from goal for the most part. That’s how the team earned its eighth away win of the season, which is tied for the most in MLS.

But why did the Bulls struggle to gain possession back against an Atlanta team sitting in the basement of the Eastern Conference? It is the latest in a string of performances where New York under-performs against teams. A recent example is allowing five goals against Colorado Rapids. The last match, a scoreless draw against bottom table DC United is another. Whether its roster depth or tactics Gerhard Struber’s men struggle to go 90.

The recent addition of duel threat Kyle Duncan back into the lineup, courtesy of his short term loan, paid some dividends on Wednesday. His low cross from the right side found Cristian Casseres Jr., who set up Morgan near the penalty spot. In hockey, his pass would be an assist and in my eyes it was just as critical as Casseres’ touch to redirect it.

But honestly the defender is still coming into his own back into the RBNY grind. A handful of times, notably twice in the second half, the New Jersey native was picked or pressured enough by Luiz Araújo to force a turnover. Whether it was just an off night, or still getting back into it, Duncan usually is the type of player who can consistently break out past whoever is on him. In fact that’s what he did on the first goal, but he wasn’t able to do it for 90 minutes.

The other winger meanwhile was a menace to Rios Novo. John Tolkin scored the team’s second goal in the 15th minute off a pass turned shot. The ball sailed over Patryk Klimala’s head and past Novo into the left corner to make it 2-0. A VAR check cleared any possible offside.

What’s really interesting is that on the other side of the field was. Andrew Gutman, the Atlanta United defender, spent 2021 with RBNY on loan from ATL. The back line winger was one of the shining spots for United for most of the night. Pushing up, he organized the backfield to try and counter New York’s 3-2 midfield. With Atlanta struggling to get into the final third often, this meant the ball was around midfield and near Gutman a lot.

Back in 2021, Gutman was the better choice on defense compared to a much younger Tolkin. Since then the Chatham Borough native has come into his own and become one of the team’s offensive threats while still playing as a solid defender. But that goes to show the difference in their playing styles. Gutman’s less offensive driven mind allows for more build-up to focus through him. Tolkin meanwhile is speedy and a full field threat.

Maybe that sort of play is what helped Atlanta keep themselves alive for a major chunk of this game. Once Gerhard Struber started making substitutions the tone was pretty set. Taking out Dru Yearwood for Andrés Reyes just after halftime fully signaled a more defensive tone to try and hold the lead. The same can be said for the Dylan Nealis addition in the 81st.

Still even with a shored up defense and some offensive additions the team couldn’t gain control back. Nor could they keep the clean sheet. It’s something to watch against FC Cincinnati this weekend. With their opponent (shockingly) fighting for a playoff spot they’ll be more challenging than in years past.

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