Perhaps a game against the last team they scored more than one goal on is just what D.C. United needed. It’s hard to say at this point what they need beyond better players and better play from those on the roster. But maybe, just maybe, Atlanta United’s high-risk, high press, high tempo approach is going to leave enough space for the Black-and-Red to find a way to score somehow.
Or perhaps Atlanta will finish what they started last time. If you’ll recall, United won 3-1 in a game where they could have been down 1-0 inside 70 seconds, and 3-0 down by the time Kenwyne Jones put Atlanta in the lead in the 10th minute. Bill Hamid was brilliant early, Atlanta got cozy with their 1-0 lead and total dominance, and then United landed a sucker punch of an own goal.
It was fun, in its way, but it was also not really a likely formula to win games. If that game played out the way it did in those opening 20 or so minutes, D.C. would have had to dig out of a big deficit in a large chunk of them. And we know this team isn’t exactly equipped for thrilling comebacks.
This time around, Atlanta will be coming up here to face United, but it probably won’t mean much of a change in style. The Five Stripes may not be as dogmatic as, say, NYCFC, but they still play more or less the same way home and away. They might not high press as often at RFK tonight, but they will look to send numbers after the ball when it gets to certain places (Jared Jeffrey and both fullbacks come to mind). They’ll still play out of a 433 that sometimes looks like a 4231 depending on the movement of Miguel Almiron.
In goal, Alec Kann is winding down his run as Atlanta’s starter. Brad Guzan can’t start games until next month due to the transfer window, and realistically there’s virtually nothing Kann can do to hold him off. Ultimately, for our purposes, Kann is not a particularly good goalkeeper, but he’s not particularly bad either.
At right back, Tyrone Mears has been first choice all season. However, the former Seattle Sounders defender is 34, and with ATL facing a schedule just like DCU’s (i.e. Saturday, USOC on Wednesday, Saturday again, and a Tuesday July 4th game), it stands to reason that there’s a chance he gets rested. If that’s the case, former TFC fullback Mark Bloom will slide in. In either case, right back is the more conservative side for Martino’s side.
At center back, Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez are probably the best passing pair of center backs in MLS. That helps Atlanta quite a bit, but as is often the case in MLS, it comes with a problem: they’re pretty vulnerable when it comes to actually defending. In particular, when they have to win physical battles, make tackles, and generally do the work as individuals rather than as part of an organized unit, they struggle. United has to expose that, whether it’s via the counter or through the flashes of actual good attacking soccer United has shown in each of the past three games.
On the left side, Greg Garza tends to get forward quite a bit, helping to provide the extra numbers Atlanta needs to do what they’re trying to do. He’s been solid defensively, too, but there’s only so much he can do given that his assignment involves jumping into the attack so much. It’s no accident that United looked to go at the space behind him on counters, and it’ll probably be a big part of their plan tonight. If Martino opts to give him a rest, Bloom again would be the choice.
At the base of the midfield, veteran Jeff Larentowicz has battled his way into a starting role, just as he did with LA last year. Larentowicz lacks flash, but he’s precisely what Martino needs out of his defensive midfielder: a smart player who takes up good spots, has positional discipline, and is comfortable dropping between the center backs in possession (allowing the fullbacks to push up high). Still, he’s been slow for a long time, and Luciano Acosta should be able to get away from him on the dribble.
Carlos Carmona was initially brought in to take that job, but he’s a bit more of a dynamic presence rather than a deep-lying anchor. Eventually, Martino figured out a way to make use of both players by giving Carmona more freedom to roam on both sides of the ball. However, the Chilean international is suspended, and Atlanta has apparently narrowed their options down to either Kevin Kratz or Julian Gressel.
Kratz is a utility midfielder that has often been deployed as a defensive, game-killing sub on the flanks. However, this sort of #8 role is probably what he’s best at. He’s no Carmona (both in terms of technical ability and athleticism), but he’s not likely to do anything too dumb either. Gressel, meanwhile, has found his way onto the field pretty much no matter who is available for Martino, who is a big fan of the rookie out of Providence. This position is supposedly his best as well, though moving him back there requires striker Josef Martinez to be ready to play an hour or so after being out for months with a quad strain.
That brings us to Almiron, who is having a potential Best 11 season after his multi-million dollar transfer. The Paraguayan’s engine is as much a feature of his game as is his undoubted skill. It’s not just that he’s able to place the ball while shooting with power from just about anywhere within 25 yards of goal, or that he’s a gifted passer. Almiron never stops moving, which makes him both a key to their attack and a major factor in their high press.
Gressel will probably start out on the right wing, but if Martinez is seen as fit to start, it’ll be Hector Villalba instead. That’s a big difference: Gressel is more of a pass-and-move, high energy type who looks inside first to combine with others. Villalba can do that, but has the speed to torch people out wide if needed. He’s also more of a goal threat than Gressel, though both are potential goalscorers.
Villalba is the most likely starting center forward, but it’s not his natural role. Jones was signed before Martino and before they acquired Martinez, but the Trinidad & Tobago target man is not a natural fit for the high-tempo style Atlanta plays with. Villalba was moved into the middle to cope with that problem when Martinez got hurt playing for Venezuela. While he’s had some good moments in this role, it’s clear that he’d be better wide. United’s main worry needs to be preventing him from running the channels for through balls, because his speed will allow him to escape just about any DCU defender.
If Martinez gets the nod, though, United’s problems will be compounded. Martinez is fast, physical, and has a similar relentlessness to Almiron. Plus, he’s one of the best finishers in MLS, so even half-chances end up being big threats (for example, here’s his goal against Columbus from the weekend). He’s definitely going to play in this game; the question is just whether he’ll start or sub in.
On the left side, Yamil Asad is currently tied with Victor Vazquez for the MLS lead in assists. He’s also provided a few goals, and generally acts as a strong compliment for Almiron, Martinez, and Villalba. While he’s an accent piece, he’s a really good accent piece who drifts inside to create the quick combinations Atlanta uses to unlock defenses. Of course, he’s also a dirty player who tends to lead with his elbow a few times a game (you probably remember that fact), and he loves to exaggerate contact. United needs to stay composed in the face of that sort of thing and hope that the referee catches the dangerous fouls.
Off the bench, Atlanta will probably bring Martinez and Kratz in if they’re not in the starting lineup. Jones is also an option, particularly if United is actually holding onto a lead (I know, getting ahead of myself, but it’s fun to dream). With their upcoming schedule, we could also see Irish ball-winner Chris McCann replace Almiron to protect a lead, and US youth international striker Brandon Vazquez could get into this one as well just to keep the team fresh.