Chris Armas wants his New York Red Bulls team to play with the ball, controlling the match through possession. Does that help Atlanta United and Tata Martino?
It is the biggest game of the season. The two best teams. An MLS Cup appearance on the line. A burgeoning rivalry that has dominated the Eastern Conference. Playoff soccer at its finest.
The New York Red Bulls — the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls — will face Atlanta United — the Supporters’ Shield-losing Atlanta United — in the Eastern Conference Championship, the first leg being played on Sunday.
Predominantly, in the two seasons of Atlanta’s existence, the Red Bulls have dominated this contest. In four matches, they are yet to lose and boast an aggregate score of 7-2. Against any team, that is an impressive record. Against a team that has more points than any other team in MLS over the past two seasons, it is a staggering achievement.
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This historical success, and their slightly greater completeness in all areas, makes the Red Bulls slight favourites. But there is one element that is crucially different in this fixture than in any other contest played between these two teams before: Chris Armas and the subsequent tactical response of Atlanta.
In the most recent match-up, a 2-0 win for the Red Bulls that kept them in the Supporters’ Shield race, a race they would end up winning, Atlanta were roundly dominated thanks to their inability to break through the Red Bulls’ high press. Armas has continued Jesse Marsch’s defensive philosophy in that sense.
The difference is what New York now do with the ball. Armas prefers a more possession-orientated style, a slower, more considered tempo that prioritises control and relentless pressure over speed and directness. In that match, Atlanta did not sit deep. They played with a mid-block that neither compacted the space the Red Bulls could work in or pressured their distribution from deep.
But since that defeat, Tata Martino has adapted, as evidenced in the Eastern Conference semi-final win over New York City FC. Atlanta, more recently, has employed an extremely deep defensive line, defending with discipline and sound distances, before then countering at great speed through Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez.
This is the style that has provided Armas’ Red Bulls with the most trouble. When New York struggle to break down their opposition, they begin to grow frustrated and force the play. Turnovers are subsequently committed, space opens up in defensive areas, and they grow vulnerable to the counter-attack.
Knowing all of this, could it, therefore, be the case that Armas’ style, however successful it has been in the latter half of the season, may hinder his team? He will not change it. And nor should he. He has been extremely successful as a result of it. But he could become a victim of it.
This is one of the most intriguing matches in MLS history. These are the two best teams of the season, clashing over two legs. Ironic, then, that what has got one of them to this point could be the very thing that now undermines their chances of progressing any further.