Atlanta United has quickly drawn plenty of praise, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Expensive attacking signings have panned out, Tata Martino has looked as smart as expected, and their only-in-MLS acquisitions have been useful starters. D.C. United is facing a major challenge tomorrow, even with star striker Josef Martinez apparently a couple weeks from returning from injury.
Martino has shown some major tactical versatility, and unlike most MLS tinkerers, he’s been able to get results despite toggling between major changes. 433, 4231, 4312, and 4141 have all been deployed recently, and yet they’ve managed road draws against last year’s MLS Cup finalists and are coming into Sunday’s match off of a 3-1 road win over Real Salt Lake (who, despite their struggles this year, have always been a tough mark at Rio Tinto Stadium).
As such, Ben Olsen has a lot to chew on in planning for this game. On top of dealing with a list of absences that leave him with just 19 available players for 18 spots in the Black-and-Red’s gameday squad, he’s got to try to prepare for Martino’s movement between formations and tactical choices. It’s not going to be an easy one, that’s for sure.
However, with Atlanta at home and facing a weakened foe, my guess is that Martino is going to play the 433 his team is probably built for:
Goalkeeper Alec Kann has been adequate so far, but he is most likely the weakest of ATL’s starters. I’ll put it this way: if Travis Worra is on his game, United will have the two best goalkeepers of the four that suit up tomorrow. Kann has no glaring, obvious weakness, but he also doesn’t have that game-changing save in his bag either. D.C. can’t let this be one of those games where they’re super selective about shooting and end up with only 6 or 7 attempts. They need to test Kann with shots and crosses and see if they can make something happen.
Tyrone Mears won an MLS Cup last year with Seattle, and has been pretty solid all around with Atlanta. He’s comfortable with their style of play, and gets forward to cause some danger. However, at 34 he’s not the fastest, and his lateral quickness means he can be beaten 1v1 if he gets isolated.
On the left, Atlanta may have an issue. Normal starter Greg Garza has some kind of injury that has rendered him questionable. The “Five Stripes” don’t have a natural back-up for the occasional USMNT fullback other than Mikey Ambrose, who has generally been left out of the 18. While Ambrose is an option to replace Garza, it may be that Mark Bloom - a right back under normal circumstances - ends up getting the call instead.
If Garza plays, look for him to push upfield as aggressively as any defender in MLS. Garza adds numbers in the attacking third consistently, and even pops up in the box from open play for the occasional look at goal. However, if he’s playing hurt or if he’s rested, look for Bloom or Ambrose to be more conservative.
Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez are the center backs, and they’re among the most comfortable on the ball in MLS. Gonzalez Pirez is a risk-taker to say the least, and has an ability to bypass multiple lines of their opponent’s shape with passes in a style reminiscent of Laurent Ciman. If United lets that happen, they’re going to struggle; if they can maintain their shape and force Atlanta to the right half of their defense, they’ll have a less threatening attack to deal with. Establishing some high pressure - which has been effective against ATL - will require forcing Atlanta to play out of the back via Parkhurst more often.
The other potential injury absence is Jeff Larentowicz, who has fought his way into the lineup as Atlanta’s #6. Martino has a pretty straightforward choice if Larentowicz can’t play, as he can just move Carlos Carmona back and bring 1st round pick Julian Gressel in as the new #8. Larentowicz has added a rugged quality to Atlanta’s midfield, and his willingness to stay home and play simply helps allow Carmona and Miguel Almiron more of the positional freedom they thrive on.
If Carmona ends up here, Atlanta will be an even more attack-minded team than they normally are, though that might leave some space between the lines for United to attack on the counter. If he plays in the #8 role, he’ll be the glue of the midfield while also functioning as a mobile ball-winner. United needs to try and get into his head a bit, because he does seem to be on the brink of a red card in most games.
Almiron is the star of the show, and his relentlessness with and without the ball are a real problem for anyone that faces Atlanta. He picks up loose balls and wins tackles at a rate that would be respectable for a defensive midfielder, while also being one of the most dangerous playmakers in MLS. Almiron has a knack for giving himself enough space to attack defenders on the run, and he’s as much a threat to score as he is to get assists.
Here’s more on how Almiron can spark transition opportunities by winning the ball. With United most likely bringing Luciano Acosta back into the lineup and playing him left of center (as is virtually always the case), the pressure is on Ian Harkes to have a standout performance. He’ll be the man seeing the most of Almiron if both teams keep their #10 in their normal position. It’s also possible that Martino pushes Almiron higher up in order to force more of a battle between him and Jared Jeffrey.
On the wings, Argentines Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad have both picked up a couple of goals so far this year. They’re both quick, technically gifted players who always work off the ball to find openings. Villalba will stay wide more often and slash inside late, using his speed to escape markers. Asad drifts inside and looks to connect more, but has shown a great knack for back-post runs when play moves wide right.
Kenwyne Jones, despite his Premier League pedigree, didn’t get many minutes in the early going for Atlanta. Josef Martinez’s spectacular start in MLS left no room for another center forward, and Martino’s gameplan relies on constant mobility and quickness. Jones is more of a traditional English-style center forward, using his height and powerful frame to hold off defenders and win headers.
He’s still got decent speed and good feet, but the ATL attack is less formidable with him up front than Martinez. If Martino had more wingers to choose from, in fact, Jones might even be stuck behind Villalba, but since that’s not the case United’s center backs need to prepare for someone who can out-muscle them if given the chance.
Off the bench, Atlanta is actually kind of thin on options. Gressel will almost certainly get into the game if he doesn’t start, and he could end up as the #8, the #10 (with Almiron moving wide left, where he’s just as dangerous as he is in the middle), or on either flank. He’ll bring really smooth passing and some added physicality to an ATL side that is one of the smallest in MLS.
After that, though, the cupboard is kind of bare right now. With Martinez and Jacob Peterson out injured, Atlanta’s back-up forward option is 19 year old Brandon Vazquez. Vazquez is a promising USA under-20 who left Club Tijuana in Liga MX to join Atlanta, but his professional minutes have been meager. Still, last week, he was alert enough to take advantage of some truly horrific RSL defending to get a goal deep in stoppage time without any help.
If Martino wants to seal off a win, Irish midfielder Chris McCann - another player initially though of as a likely starter during the offseason - could come in as a ball-winner (don’t be surprised if this move is for Asad, with Almiron moving left as we’ve already discussed).
There’s not much in attacking firepower though. Highly touted winger Andrew Carleton is still with United’s own Chris Durkin and the US under-17s, and last week Martino was reduced to bringing in German central midfielder Kevin Kratz wide on the left as a late-game sub. If United survives late into this game, Martino is more likely to make some sort of high-impact reshuffle of who he has on the field rather than add a game-changing substitute.