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Atlanta United projected lineup to face D.C. United

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It turns out you do actually need a defensive midfielder

D.C. United and Atlanta United are offering up this week’s study in MLS contrasts. Tata Martino is a dogmatic coach who will play a crowd-pleasing style no matter what; Ben Olsen, despite the nearly meaningless term “Bennyball” continuing to be used by fans, is a pragmatist who makes his tactical choices based on player availability, roster quality, and (to a certain extent) the opposition.

It goes much deeper than that, of course (new guard vs. old guard, 70,000+ fans expected to show up for a game against a team that is technically itinerant at the moment, etc), but let’s focus on the soccer side for now. Despite the league-wide, justified appreciation for Tata’s full-speed-ahead high press and his team’s commitment to attacking quickly and with numbers, Atlanta could not solve the worst team in last year’s Eastern Conference. United, with markedly less talent, lower morale, and lesser fan support, took all 9 points from last year’s meetings.

It’s probably easier for United to continue that trend now than it was last year. A combination of injuries and departures has left the Five Stripes looking pretty vulnerable at the moment. They will probably spend on a TAM-level player to replace ball-winner Carlos Carmona, but that player isn’t in town yet. Last week, in a game that was every bit as lopsided as the 4-0 scoreline suggests, the Houston Dynamo ripped Atlanta apart thanks to their lack of a defensive midfielder suited to play Tata’s system.

As a result, we’re expecting at least one change for Atlanta:

Last week, Jeff Larentowicz played as a center back, leaving Atlanta with Chris McCann as their alleged defensive midfielder. Larentowicz hasn’t played well as a center back in years, and McCann isn’t mobile or smart enough to play defensive midfield in this system. This week, it looks more and more like Michael Parkhurst will replace McCann, with Larentowicz moving up to the #6 role he was successful at last year.

However, there are complications in what should be a straightforward choice. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, a Best 11-caliber center back who had his worst game in MLS last week, left injured before halftime. He was training yesterday, and at this point it feels like he’s more likely to suit up than not. It would be far easier for United if McCann were forced into another start (or if Martino gave a debut to 17-year-old homegrown player Chris Goslin), but it looks more like Atlanta will reunite their center back duo from 2017.

Franco Escobar was brought in during the offseason to be an upgrade over Tyrone Mears at right back. Let’s check on how that’s going:

This is a map of the Dynamo’s key passes, cross attempts, and assists from last week. Houston’s gameplan revolved around their ability to slice through the soft Atlanta midsection and feed right winger Alberth Elis, but they also found it very easy to play balls into the box from the left wing. If Escobar and Julian Gressel (probably miscast as a worker bee right-central midfielder in this 433, but Atlanta has to choose between that or moving Miguel Almiron further from goal) can’t do a better job exchanging runners and being harder to play against, Yamil Asad could have an outstanding game.

On the left side, Greg Garza was maybe the least bad of Atlanta’s defenders, though he certainly carries some responsibility for Elis dominating the game. It’ll be interesting to watch him and former Xolos teammate Paul Arriola duke it out on the touchline, but Arriola might want to take a hint from Elis and aim some of his runs towards the channel or at Gonzalez Pirez instead.

Joining (probably) Larentowicz and (definitely) Gressel in midfield, big offseason acquistion Darlington Nagbe appears to be an odd fit. His ability to receive the ball in tight spaces and his acceleration out of those spots certainly will help Atlanta’s attack, but the fact is that he’s nowhere near defensively active enough to fill the #8 role on this team, particularly with Carmona gone. Moving Larentowicz into the anchor role will fix some of ATL’s issues from last week, but the midfield trio they appear to be looking to play will still give Luciano Acosta and Ulises Segura plenty of room to make things happen.

It may be sounding like Atlanta is ripe for the picking, but we haven’t really discussed their front three yet. This group has enough talent that United could play well, exploit the weaknesses that are spread throughout the Five Stripes midfield and defense, and still lose 3-2. Almiron may be better as a #10 than in this free-to-roam left wing role, but this keeps him closer to goal than having to support the rest of the central mids defensively.

Last week, he managed to miss a sitter and also a penalty kick; that probably won’t happen two weeks in a row, so United has to be solid as a defensive unit. When he’s on, Almiron may well be the best player in all of MLS. United will need to be especially quick to figure out when Almiron is drifting inside, and may in fact want to consider a 4231 instead of playing a lone defensive midfielder (particularly if they take the lead).

Josef Martinez probably would have won the Golden Boot last year if he had not had multiple injuries during the season. The Venezuelan’s speed and relentlessness make him a different test for United’s center backs than last week’s bombardment of crosses, and containing him will go a long way towards securing a win. That’s far easier said than done, though, and if Atlanta can make Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnbaum have to turn and chase Martinez, watch out.

The theme of speed in their attack carries over to the right wing, where Hector Villalba (another player to spend some time in Tijuana) can make life miserable for any left back in the league. Oniel Fisher’s positioning has looked a bit suspect since joining United, and if that carries into today’s game, United is probably going to have to post more than one goal to get a result.

Atlanta’s squad, for all of its big names, doesn’t have much in the way of game-changing talent to bring in off the bench. German utility man Kevin Kratz is tidy enough and has the soccer IQ to fit into several roles, but I’d generally say that if he comes in, expect it to be either a direct replacement for Gressel or to move Gressel into the front three for either Martinez or Villalba.

USA u20 attacker Brandon Vazquez is a more attacking option, providing some speed on the wing or as an out-and-out striker. Speaking of strikers, Romario Williams scored 15 goals last season in the USL and is a regular call-up for Jamaica these days. Andrew Carleton, a player whose hype machine grows with every appearance, somehow was not brought in last week despite Atlanta clearly looking to give minutes to youngsters after it became clear that a comeback was not on. He should be on the bench, but it seems like Martino is hesitant to actually put him on the field.

More of note for United, there was a blink-and-you-missed-it rumor of a 3412 being given some reps at Atlanta’s most recent training session. In that case, Escobar would join Parkhurst and Gonzalez Pirez as part of the back three, with Garza moving up as a left wingback, Gressel pushing wide to handle the opposite flank, and Almiron playing underneath Villalba and Martinez.

This would be more dangerous going forward, but if anything it would exacerbate the weakness of their central midfield. However, Martino’s intention would probably be to mitigate the number of times United was able to counter with just two defenders staying home. Adding a third center back would allow Atlanta to stall D.C. breaks forward, perhaps just long enough for the wingbacks and defensive midfielders to recover.

It’s a major risk, because it would count on Nagbe providing defensive cover that he simply never has at any point in his career (there’s a reason he’s so often been played out wide). Escobar appears to be more of an attacking defender than the kind of player who suits a back three, and Gressel is not at all a wingback. However, Martino may view the plus side as worth this major role of the dice, because there’s not much evidence that United can possess at length. Last week, for example, United couldn’t even string possession together against 10 men.

All that said, it seems more likely that Martino will start out with the 433 and will hope for better performances from key players. In the case of Brad Guzan, that means more consistency from moment to moment. He was great in holding off a rampant Dynamo, and holds no real responsibility for the first three goals (it could have been six by that point). However, he basically made Houston’s fourth for them by slapping a harmless cross down into the box, and Atlanta’s overall set piece defending was horrible primarily because of a lack of attention and leadership. If Guzan repeats this performance, we may see United robbed a few times, but we may also see them get some gift chances in the exchange.