Corporate heavyweights Robert Kraft and Arthur Blank are not only good friends, but also fierce competitors, each owning both a Major League Soccer franchise and a National Football League team. After Blank’s Atlanta Falcons of the NFL found themselves on the wrong end of the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history — to Kraft’s New England Patriots — it seemed logical that the following season’s rematch in Foxborough would be Blank’s chance for some revenge.
However, the Home Depot founder’s new MLS entry — Atlanta United FC — started their inaugural campaign just a month after that Super Bowl defeat and, of course, Kraft’s Revolution — an MLS original — were on the schedule, their first-ever head-to-head match set to occur in Atlanta in mid-September. A chance for payback in Blank’s backyard was arriving earlier than expected.
And Atlanta’s soccer team made no mistake in providing Blank some measure of satisfaction at the expense of Kraft when Atlanta United FC throttled 9-man New England by an American football touchdown, 7-0. This time, the New England franchise was on the wrong side of history — in more ways than one. Not only was it the worst defeat in club history, but the Revolution also became the first-ever MLS team to finish a game without registering a single shot. The result didn’t erase the bitter Super Bowl memory, but it at least gave Mr. Blank something on Mr. Kraft at the next billionaires’ cocktail party.
Atlanta United FC
Record: 8-3-1, 25 pts, +10
Standing: 1st in Eastern Conference (10 points above red line)
Current Form: L-W-L-W-W
Firmly ensconced as an MLS Cup contender, Tata Martino’s second-year club continues to impress. Following last season’s 70-goal outburst and +30 goal differential, Atlanta United FC — with 26 tallies in 12 matches — is on track for 74 more goals in 2018. More impressively, at 25 points through 12 matches, they’re almost halfway to 2017’s 55-point total after only a third of the season. That puts them on track for a 71-point campaign, which would best Toronto FC’s record-breaking 2017 total and thus set a new all-time MLS record for points in a season.
After last year’s one-and-done postseason, Atlanta United FC made an offseason splash by bringing in longtime Portland Timber and current US International Darlington Nagbe. The Liberia native has paired well with former Revolution defender Jeff Larentowicz as holding mids in front of Martino’s 3-man backline, and they’ve gotten forward enough to contribute three assists on the season.
The Five Stripes made an even bigger splash by dishing out the biggest transfer fee in MLS history to acquire young Argentinian phenom Ezequiel Barco. The Young Designated Player — courted by clubs throughout the world — already has three goals in just 7 appearances (6 starts). Along with Venezuelan Josef Martinez and Paraguayan international Miguel Almiron, Atlanta United FC’s front three is probably the best in MLS. After a 19-goal campaign, striker Martinez is tied for the league-lead in goals with 8. He’s a one-man wrecking crew who scored a hat trick in Atlanta’s first match against the Revs in 2017. Attacking midfielder Almiron pulls the strings for the Five Stripes’ attack as their number ten. He’s already on 6 goals and 5 assists following his 9 goal/16 assist effort in 2017. With their frenetic, pressing play in the attacking half, the three-headed monster of Barco, Martinez, and Almiron has scored nearly two-thirds of Atlanta United FC’s goals this season. 2017 starter Hector Villalba has also provided a goal and 2 assists off the bench.
Martino’s attack-minded system requires robust wingback play, and his two starters fill the role extremely well. German Julian Gressel, a Providence College product, has contributed a goal and 3 assists on the year, as has former US International and 2017 MLS All-Star Greg Garza. German Kevin Kratz has been stellar as a late-game substitute. His stunning free-kick brace turned a close affair into a comfortable win over Montreal last month.
If there is a chink in Atlanta United FC’s armor, it may be in the back where the club is a bit thin at the moment. Former Revolution defender and Rhode Islander Michael Parkhurst anchors the backline along with former River Plate central defender Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez. Martino’s third centerback slot has been filled by Massachusetts native Miles Robinson in the absence of starting-caliber defenders Franco Escobar and Chris McCann, both out due to injury. Former US International goalkeeper Brad Guzan suffered only one defeat in 14 matches last season, but he already has two in 11 matches in 2018. He does have three shutouts this season, but his 21 saves and 62% save rate are among the lowest in the league. Thankfully, he has an attack that’s bailed him out time and again.
Record: 5-4-3, 18 pts, +3
Standing: 6th in Eastern Conference (3 points above red line)
Current Form: D-L-W-L-W
The Revolution saw two second-half leads slip away over the weekend, settling for a road point in a 3-3 draw at Vancouver. A Cristian Penilla-created own goal produced a 1-0 half-time lead, then his individual effort after fighting off veteran defender Sean Franklin for an over-the-top ball gave New England the dreaded 2-goal lead just after the break. Sure enough, two defensive breakdowns by the Revs coupled with two clinical finishes by Whitecaps FC winger Cristian Techera knotted the match at 2-2 almost immediately. Teal Bunbury’s team-leading 6th goal restored New England’s lead at the one hour mark, but it didn’t hold, as Techera completed his hat-trick about 15 minutes later.
First-year coach Brad Friedel utilized a 3-5-2 for the second consecutive week, this time with some new faces in the lineup. New dad Diego Fagundez returned from suspension to reassume number ten duties. Gabriel Somi replaced Chris Tierney at left back, while Claude Dielna handled a centerback post in place of the recovering Antonio Delamea (absent from the game day roster). Wilfried Zahibo also returned to holding mid in place of Scott Caldwell, who came on as a substitute. Kelyn Rowe, last week’s starter at left wing, didn’t see any action, but forward Brian Wright did late in the match. Once again, injured Juan Agudelo was absent from the 18-man roster.
The Revs’ high press was marginally effective in creating turnovers and subsequent half-chances, but New England was generally forced to play mid and long balls down the flanks in order to create opportunities in the attacking half. Some transition and counter attack options presented themselves with little effect.
Defensively, Vancouver took advantage of the space down the wings to foment their attack. Too often New England defenders and wingers couldn’t get back in time to close down Caps’ midfielders or just failed to mark in the box, and they were eventually victimized by the playmaking of Felipe and the well-timed runs of Techera.
The Revs return home — after a long journey and on short rest — to face the top scoring team in MLS, who were off last week and haven’t played in 10 days. Atlanta United FC will be well-rested and likely in better fitness. Can New England’s fragile defending withstand Atlanta’s offensive onslaught, even at Gillette?
Considering the prowess of Martino’s attacking corps, will Friedel risk using a 3-5-2 yet again, affording Almiron et al acres of space down the sides? Or will the first-year gaffer use a four- or even a five-man backline to better handle the Atlanta United FC attack?
Can New England generate any offense apart from their press and counterattack? The overall Revolution pace could present some challenges to an Atlanta United FC midfield that isn’t nearly as fleet of foot. Will the Revs be able to get behind Garza and Gressel and put pressure on the 3-man Atlanta backline? Or will New England try to use a more direct approach down the center of the pitch? Martino has used a 4-man backline on occasion. Will Tata dust that off for this matchup to more effectively contest the Revs’ high-press?
With Atlanta United FC in only its second MLS season, this match is just the third regular-season meeting all-time between these clubs. Following last season’s 7-0 Five Stripes’ win at home, the teams drew 0-0 at Gillette in their final head-to-head matchup of 2017.
The Revolution have yet to score a goal against Atlanta United FC.
New England and Atlanta have identical home records of 4-2-1. The Five Stripes actually have a better road record at 4-1-0, and they’ve already tied their total number of road wins from 2017.
Atlanta United FC is 7-1-1 when scoring first, but the Revs are undefeated at 5-0-2. Atlanta is 1-2 in matches in which they’ve conceded first, while the Revolution are winless and 0-4-1 when initially falling behind.
The Five Stripes are 4-1-1 vs Eastern Conference teams, with their only loss coming in their last match, at home to the Red Bulls — the Revs’ next opponent. New England is only 2-3-2 against Eastern clubs.
Of Atlanta United FC’s 26 goals on the season, 16 have been scored in the second half and 9 have occurred after the 75th minute.
The teams’ second and final regular-season meeting in 2018 occurs in Atlanta in early October.
How to Watch
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, May 30
Venue: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
TV: NBC Sports Boston (Boston); Fox Sports South (Atlanta)
Radio: 98.5 The Sports Hub (Boston); 92.9 the Game (Atlanta)
Streaming: MLS Live (now on ESPN+)