Atlanta United snagged a gritty 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night against New York City FC. Here are three things we learned.
Atlanta United found a way to beat New York City FC on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium. It was only the second time NYCFC lost at home and the first home loss with Yangel Herrera in the game. It was also Atlanta’s first playoff win in club history after losing in the Knockout Round of last year’s MLS Cup Playoffs.
With the win, Atlanta leaves New York with the upper hand. An away goal goes a long way in a two-legged series such as this one, with away goals being the first tiebreaker if the aggregate score finishes tied. Now, Atlanta can draw or win to comfortably advance to the conference finals.
There were 39 fouls committed between both teams, and with the many fouls and an additional five yellow cards, the pace of the game was inconsistent and choppy. There was almost no flow from all the constant stoppage. Plus, the field conditions were subpar after the Yankee Stadium grounds crew laid new grass in recent weeks.
Here are three things we learned from Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
3. Atlanta can change its tactics
Atlanta United has a clear identity under manager Tata Martino: start the ball with Brad Guzan in goal, find the center backs and defensive midfielders, and build up play down the field.
This tactical identity works most of the time, but Martino receives criticism for not changing those tactics against certain opponents, such as the New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls press up the field against their opponents, and it is difficult for Atlanta to build out of the back the way they normally do.
Although NYCFC do not press high as the Red Bulls do, their pitch makes Atlanta’s tactics difficult to execute. Building out of the back requires a lot of space. Atlanta needs their center backs to have space to move the ball forward and find either their teammates on the wing or through the middle.
Space is not an issue at Mercedes Benz Stadium since the pitch is the largest size possible. But because NYCFC play in a baseball stadium, the pitch can only be so big. It is no secret that it’s the smallest pitch in the league. Atlanta had to change their tactics accordingly.
Instead of playing out of the back, Guzan would instead kick the ball downfield. Once the ball was downfield, the Atlanta player that received the ball would immediately play it back to their nearest teammate behind them. This gave Atlanta possession far from goal and allowed them to seemingly build from the halfway line instead of their own goal.
Atlanta also used set pieces to their advantage. Knowing that they could not build play up the field the way they like, they clearly worked on set pieces in training over the course of the week. Atlanta’s “first” goal came on a set piece, despite it being disallowed from Miguel Almiron being offsides. The Five Stripes’ actual goal also came on a set piece, and Atlanta deciding to not build out of the back and choosing to score on set pieces proved to be the way to win the game.