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Matchday Preview: Atlanta United

What to watch for as Atlanta aims for their first regular season win against the Red Bulls

SOCCER: JUN 27 MLS - New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC
Marcelino Moreno (center) and Atlanta United have still never beaten the Red Bulls in the regular season.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Isn’t it crazy how people and concepts simply cease to exist once they’re outside of your perception? Just think about how many minds you’ve crossed and promptly permanently exited from. You are so small and irrelevant.

Oh yeah, also the Red Bulls are playing.

Tactics Board

Unfortunately it seems no players took a look at my preview that stressed the psychological importance of a home win last Saturday, because yet another flat performance in a 1-0 loss against Orlando City has left the team floundering for answers. Marvel night at Red Bull Arena produced no heroes, with no one really taking charge of the game for New York, and Gerhard Struber failing to come up with answers from the bench. The team was reduced to hopeful shots from distance all night, their 15 shots only resulting in 1 on target. This very website has outlined the root of the team’s problems, with Struber’s at times overzealous adherence to his tactical philosophy stifling the team’s creativity and leaving players unsure of what to do when chances arise. Time will tell if Struber’s doubling down on his ideas will work, but results on the pitch are needed as a slump at the tail end of the season could put the Red Bulls postseason in more peril than it should be.

Next up on the schedule is Atlanta United, a team that while by no means a geographical rival of the Red Bulls, has still produced some feisty encounters after the two teams battled for Eastern Conference supremacy in 2018. Similar to the Red Bulls, Atlanta have fallen off the pace since 2018, as key departures and untimely injuries have left the team typically finding themselves scraping into the playoffs and getting eliminated early. They currently find themselves second to last in the East, but only 4 points off 7th place and postseason soccer. It’s been a nightmare of a season for the club, with injuries to key players like Brad Guzan, Miles Robinson, and Josef Martinez leaving the team changing on a week to week basis. Nonetheless they’ve kept a respectable pace, with head coach Gonzalo Pineda doing a masterful job riding out the season-long storm. Even if they are second to last, the team is confident and showing good promise considering the circumstances.

Pineda has been flexible tactically throughout the season due to the revolving door of personnel available to him, but he’s generally stuck with a 3 in the back setup similar to the Red Bulls, utilizing wingbacks consistently and experimenting with 1 and 2 striker formations. The Mexican head coach wants his side playing expansive, attacking soccer, moving the ball around and playing games on their own terms. Atlanta has done quite well in this regard, averaging the second highest possession in the league (57.7%), and completing the second highest passes per 90. They’ve been very effective keeping the ball, and move it up the field rather effectively. If that weren’t enough, they’ve taken the most shots per 90 in the league, and the second most shots on target per 90 in the league. The statistics are partially exaggerated due to their tendency to take shots from distance (although they are pretty good at it), but they will certainly be putting goalkeepers to work. It hasn’t quite translated to goals, with the team’s 33 goals on the year very much average, but the side is much more dangerous than their league position would have you think. At times unlucky, at times the victim of stellar goalkeeping, and at times the victim of poor finishing, the Georgian side are able to put on a show on their day, and it will take quite the performance from the Red Bulls defense to stifle them.

On the defensive end Atlanta have not been so smooth, with their 36 goals conceded largely canceling out the good they’ve done on the attacking front. Pineda’s men do not press very much by design, while they’ll certainly step to the ball when required they are in no hurry to force mistakes. The plan is to essentially bait teams into playing directly and taking more risks, as Atlanta have faced the second lowest amount of attempted passes in the league and the lowest amount of carries. If the ball is won back then Atlanta have more space in which to operate, and their quick ball movement is facilitated. The problem arises when the ball isn’t won back, despite not actually giving up that many shots the shots that are given up are high quality opportunities, with Atlanta’s opponents having a very low average shot distance, and very high xG numbers. Attackers simply haven’t had to work too hard with the chances being given to them, and the consistent mistakes have left the club where they are.

The Red Bulls-Atlanta matchups always glimmer with potential, with the two attacking sides that have noted dislike for each other always promising an entertaining affair. It hasn’t always been entertaining, with the last 4 meetings resulting in only 4 goals, but it will be nervous viewing on both ends. The main task of the Red Bulls will be to disrupt Atlanta and make sure they cannot establish a consistent rhythm. The side has never been particularly susceptible to the press with their skill on the ball, but keeping them from passing their way around you is a good place to start. Challenging for every ball and still maintaining the defensive shape is a tough ask, but it’ll have to be done if New York wants to stay in the game.

Squad Superlatives

Most likely to use an Android: Dom Dwyer

As a striker who voluntarily wears the number 4, and donned the number 6 at his prior club, Dwyer would have no problem going against the norm and refusing to buy into the Steve Jobs monopoly.

Most likely to actively avoid jaywalking: Andrew Gutman

Just a regular law-abiding citizen. A cheerful fellow. I miss him.

Best dressed: Miles Robinson

Doesn’t have much competition on the team, but his Instagram is full of outfits that you probably couldn’t pull off.

Most likely to steal your girl: Ezequiel Barco

He’s technically not an Atlanta player at the moment, currently on loan in Argentina, but… just look it up.

Predicted Lineups

New York Red Bulls (3-4-3): Coronel, Long, S. Nealis, Reyes, Tolkin, Casseres, Amaya, Duncan, Luquinhas, Barlow, Morgan

Atlanta United (3-4-3): Rios Novo, Gutman, Franco, Sanchez, Wiley, Sosa, Almada, McFadden, Moreno, J. Martinez, L, Araujo

Players to Watch

Rocco Rios Novo

The 20 year old Argentine goalkeeper has been a revelation for Atlanta this season, after joining the club’s USL outfit on loan in 2021, he’s provided cover for the injured Brad Guzan during another loan in 2022. You could mistake him for a field player, standing at a relatively miniature 5’10 and spending more time on the ball than some outfielders, but he’s been an integral part of the possession system Gonzalo Pineda has put into place. In the previous meeting between Atlanta and New York, Gerhard Struber specifically cited Rios Novo’s technical quality as one of the struggles he faced during the match. While Rios Novo hasn’t been as consistent a shot-stopper as one would like, his ability to make crucial saves and keep his team in games has kept him in between the posts for Atlanta. He’s a memorable character that will produce some highlight reel moments on his day, and will certainly play a part in the midweek fixture.


The Brazilian magician has seen his wand blunted in recent weeks, after a red-hot start to his life in New York his impact has noticeably cooled as the Red Bulls form has faltered. Part of the adjustment to stateside soccer is playing through the hot summer months, and with the exhausting high pressure system an adjustment period is merited. Still, no goals in his last 8 league games is cause for concern, and while his talent is obvious Struber would prefer a more tangible impact. Luquinhas’ dribbling quality is more than capable of unlocking the most stubborn of MLS defenses, and with Atlanta sometimes failing to handle players on the move they could be a good opponent for someone of Luquinhas’ skillset. The Red Bulls attack has been largely blunted in recent weeks for reasons well expounded on, and the return of arguably its best player would go a long way in getting the team back on track.

Final Prediction

Despite all the promise for an entertaining affair, with the Red Bulls on a downward spiral and Atlanta looking bright, I don’t see New York’s problems being fixed right away, as the teams finish with a 0-0 draw.