Atlanta United has had almost three weeks to figure out how to approach tonight’s game against D.C. United, but I have strong doubts that they’re going to change much. Tata Martino has his system, their roster hasn’t really changed much, and there are few players outside of their normal starters that are making a real push to get more time. This team is who we thought they were, in other words.
That means a high-pressure 433 designed to play out of the back, but with an emphasis on playing quickly. Atlanta doesn’t want to connect 25 passes every time they have the ball; rather, they want to break your lines and exploit the speed they have throughout their attack.
Brad Guzan had joined up with Atlanta the last time these teams met, but was not yet eligible due to the transfer window not yet being open. He’s a significant upgrade over Alec Kann, but it is worth noting that the Five Stripes will ask him to play with the ball at his feet in the same difficult spots they required Kann to make passes. United made that pan out for a goal back in June, and while Guzan is pretty decent on the ball (he was a central midfielder on elite youth teams well into his teen years), it’s still a big risk that Tata’s approach requires.
Another change in the last two months has come at right back, where young English loanee Anton Walkes appears to have taken over from Tyrone Mears. Walkes is a natural center back playing out of position, but he brings some much-needed athleticism that the aging Mears simply doesn’t have these days. Patrick Nyarko torched Mears in June, but with Lloyd Sam likely facing Walkes, United will have to find a different way to create chances. Sam’s craftiness will have to be on display, because he’s not fast enough to consistently beat Walkes for pace.
Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez are still the starting center backs. Both players fit Atlanta’s style on the ball to a tee, though their actual defending (particularly Parkhurst’s) can leave something to be desired. United needs to get Patrick Mullins on track, and if he’s able to get physical with this pairing, we could see him finally break out of his funk.
Greg Garza appears to be ready to go after injuring his shoulder in the All-Star Game. That’s less than ideal for United, as Garza’s ability to get up the left flank and join the attack helps Atlanta keep teams under intense pressure. Naturally, they’ll want to expose the space that leaves, but Garza does a pretty good job of not being caught out too often. If Martino opts to hold Garza out for one more game, former Maryland Terrapin Mikey Ambrose is the alternate here, and while he does have Garza’s willingness to attack, he’s not really a comparable player in terms of overall ability.
In the midfield, Jeff Larentowicz has quietly held down the #6 job for just about the entire season. The veteran plays a game with little in the way of glamour, but with so many other Atlanta players charging forward trying to put on a show, it helps to have someone who has no qualms about focusing on holding his position, connecting passes, and generally doing the thankless work behind the scenes. All that said, Luciano Acosta’s mobility may trouble Larentowicz if United can find their Argentine playmaker in the right spots.
Carlos Carmona was originally brought in to be the #6, but he’s turned out to be a better fit as Atlanta’s #8. The Chilean covers a ton of ground, providing plenty of support as a linking midfielder to a team that demands a lot of that position. Carmona’s reliable technical ability and experience (time in Serie A, and 50 caps for Chile) make him a difficult player to force into turnovers, and he’s a big factor in how Atlanta presses teams. If there’s a flaw with Carmona, it’s that his temper seems to get the better of him too often, and when that happens he tends to lose focus and drift out of games.
The third man in this midfield is also the star of this particular show. Miguel Almiron is a do-everything attacking midfielder. He’s got 8 goals and 9 assists, making him one of the best set-up men in MLS and one of the best goal-scoring midfielders in the league. Almiron’s relentlessness on both sides of the ball means that he’s often at the heart of the turnovers ATL’s high pressure creates, and he’s also damn near impossible to keep tabs on when the Five Stripes have possession. He’s a Best 11 caliber midfielder for a reason, and keeping him contained is going to be an enormous test.
While the rookie of the year talk has cooled a bit for Julian Gressel (possibly due to 17 days between games?), Martino trusts the young German quite a bit. The short version of events is that Gressel keeps Trinidad & Tobago legend Kenwyne Jones on the bench even when Josef Martinez is unavailable. It seems like Martinez is more likely to come off the bench than start tonight, which means Gressel will be the right winger.
Gressel plays more of a complimentary role, drifting inside when needed to be an option for combination play rather than looking to dominate play himself. However, as a back-post runner, Gressel has the build of a target man, and he’s no slouch when it comes to that combination play (6 assists in 22 appearances). If Martinez does manage to start, Hector Villalba will shift back to his natural right wing role.
Still, it’s more likely that Villalba plays through the middle, where his speed and straight-to-the-point style have caused fits for center backs all over MLS. Due to Martinez’s injury troubles, Villalba has ended up producing 10 goals and 4 assists while spending the majority of this season playing out of position. In other words, despite being second-choice, Villalba is a dangerous player who fits very well with a style of play built around Almiron’s ceaseless movement and a high tempo on both sides of the ball.
If Martinez does start, all of those things are sharply amplified. The Venezuelan has only managed 9 games in MLS (6 starts), but in that time he’s scored 9 goals. As a team, Atlanta has scored 22 goals in the games Martinez has been involved in, which means they’ve got more goals in those 9 games than United has on the entire season. The Venezuelan fits this Atlanta system perfectly (do you sense a theme here?), and his finishing ability is right up there with the best in MLS. If he’s able to play any part today, United fans should be worried the entire time.
Out on the left, Yamil Asad is sometimes overshadowed by Almiron, but he’s a key chance creator for this team. Asad’s 10 assists on the year are no accident, and his ability to find pockets of space to operate make him a real problem for a United team coming into this game with their two most experienced defenders (Steve Birnbaum and Taylor Kemp) both out. Asad also has a knack for winning fouls, which given United’s poor set piece defending on the year is a major concern.
Off the bench, Atlanta will likely be looking to get Martinez some minutes as they build him back up to full fitness. That’s pretty bad news, as we’ve already discussed. Another potential attacking spark is US under-20 forward Brandon Vazquez. The 18 year old has only played 154 minutes spread across 11 substitute appearances, but he has breathed life into Atlanta’s attack in those cameo appearances (including at RFK in June, where he was arguably the main factor in Atlanta’s late push for an equalizer). Vazquez has largely played as a wide forward, but he can occupy any of the three forward spots depending on what Martino needs at the time.
With a game on the weekend and a badly congested schedule in the weeks to come (Atlanta has only played 22 games this year), we may see some moves made with the future in mind. German utility midfielder Kevin Kratz could play on either wing or in the spots Almiron or Carmona occupy. Irish midfielder Chris McCann could also come in to add fresh legs in those latter two spots, particularly if Atlanta has a lead to protect. We might also get to see homegrown winger Andrew Carleton, who is one of the stars of the same US under-17 team that United’s Chris Durkin captains.