Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0: 5 observations

Shots went just wide. Fouls were hard. Frustrations were vented.

Atlanta United’s 0-0 draw with New York Red Bulls on Sunday at Red Bull Arena had a playoff feel. Perhaps because these two teams could meet in as soon as 10 days in the MLS playoffs.

“It was an intense game,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “I think it was a measuring-stick game for us.”

Though the Red Bulls dominated 19 of the final 20 minutes in the first half and most of the second half in outshooting Atlanta United 13-9, Martino thought his team had seven “clear” chances to score to New York’s two, and proceeded to start to describe those chances in his postgame press conference when that number was doubted.

Atlanta United’s best two chances came near the end of the first half and beginning of the second half. Both were on shots by Hector Villalba. On the first, Villalba tried to beat on-rushing goalkeeper Luis Robles with the outside of his left foot, but the shot rolled past the left post. On the second, Villalba was sent in by Julian Gressel, but his shot bounced off Robles’ chest or face.

The Red Bulls countered with several good scoring opportunities in the second half, but Brad Guzan kept them out.

“We knew going in it was going to have (playoff) feel,” Guzan said. “They are a proper team.  They have very good players. Jesse (Marsch) sets them up in a way that allows them to attack with numbers.”

Here are five observations about the game:

The playoff impact. The draw, combined with a 3-2 win by Chicago over Philadelphia, dropped the Five Stripes (15-9-9) into fourth place in the MLS Eastern Conference with one game remaining in the regular season. The team is two points behind second-place NYCFC, which was beaten 2-1 by New England, and one point behind the third-place Fire, which defeated Philadelphia 3-2. Columbus, which defeated Orlando 1-0, is in fifth, one point behind Atlanta United. The Red Bulls (13-12-8) are locked into the sixth and final playoff spot.

The first- and second-place teams will receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The third- and fourth-place teams will host games against the fifth and sixth seeds in the first round, which is a knockout format.

Columbus will play at NYCFC in their final games.

Next game is huge. Atlanta United will try to pass both Chicago and NYCFC when it hosts Toronto, the league’s best team this season, on Oct. 22. Atlanta United has posted on social media that it has surpassed the record-setting attendance game against Orlando in which more than 71,000 tickets were sold. The roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is also scheduled to be open for the first time for a soccer game, if the weather permits.

Toronto has already clinched the Supporter’s Shield for earning the most points during the regular season and has locked up the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta United and Toronto drew 2-2 in their first meeting in April. Atlanta United played that game without Josef Martinez, who was injured.

Martino said Atlanta United will do everything it can to defeat Toronto, get the three points, and possibly move up the standings.

Because the Red Bulls can’t finish above sixth, Martino said they could rest as many starters as they want for their finale at D.C. United. That could prove invaluable considering the first playoff game could be as soon as three days after the end of the regular season. The implication is that Martino doesn’t want his team to face a fresh team in the playoffs. The two-legged semifinals will start Oct. 30 or 31.

The boost. Martino repeated what he said on Friday that midfielders Miguel Almiron and Chris McCann could return for the game against Toronto.

Almiron has nine goals and is tied for the team lead with 13 assists. He suffered a hamstring injury in a victory against Montreal on Sept. 24. 

McCann left in the first half of last week’s 3-2 loss to Minnesota United.

Their return should help the team overcome the loss of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who received a yellow card that will force him to miss the game against Toronto because of accumulation.

Guzan’s heroics. Guzan, coming off a tough week that included being on the U.S. national team that was eliminated from World Cup competition, had two huge saves in the second half to help Atlanta United escape with the point.

On the first, Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who leads the league in assists, got free in the 64th minute to put in a low cross from the left side toward forward Bradley Wright-Phillips. He got a touch to it, but Guzan somehow tipped the shot over the bar.

“I tried to make myself big,” Guzan said.

Guzan then saved a point-blank header from Gonzalo Veron, who came in for Wright-Phillips. Guzan finished with three saves, one cross claimed and one punch.

Clogging up the middle. Atlanta United did a solid job of keeping Kljestan and Wright-Phillips, the team’s leading scorer, from having too much influence. Either Jeff Larentowicz or Carlos Carmona stuck with Kljestan when he had the ball, and Atlanta United’s defenders, usually either Michael Parkhurst or Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, would throw their bodies between Wright-Phillips and the ball so that he couldn’t get running starts at the goal.

“It was focus,” Larentowicz said. “The movement of their midfield is all predicated on getting the ball to those two players. We did a pretty good job to get a zero, especially this time of year in a place like this.”

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