D.C. United are coming off two losses in the past week, two games in which they failed to score goals. Needing a win to get back on track, they welcome Atlanta United to Audi Field on Sunday night, presenting a daunting task for the Black-and-Red. In 2017, Ben Olsen had the upper hand against Tata Martino, as D.C. won three times against Atlanta. This year has gone more according to plan though, as Atlanta has won the first two meetings, both by a 3-1 scoreline.
Atlanta is in a tight race with the New York Red Bulls for the Supporters’ Shield this year, and trail by just a point, with a game in hand. The 5 Stripes won’t then play again until September 15 because of the international break, so there’s no reason for Martino to do anything but put his best available squad on the field in Atlanta’s first ever visit to Audi Field.
Martino tinkered with a 3-5-2 formation earlier this year, trotting it out for the first time back in March, when United traveled to Atlanta for the second game of the season. That was a deviation from last year, and Martino stuck with that formula until injuries starting taking their toll on the second year team.
So Atlanta has been back in a 4-2-3-1 since the middle of June, and they’ve won 7 of the 11 games after the switch. Josef Martinez set the new regular season scoring record last weekend in a win over Orlando City, and Atlanta even survived some off the field drama surrounding Ezequiel Barco, who joined the team in the offseason, breaking the league record for an incoming transfer fee.
There are a lot of recognizable faces in the Atlanta lineup, and it starts in goal, where Brad Guzan deputizes. Guzan has had a strange journey at times, beginning when he started his MLS career with Chivas USA back in 2005. For much of his career, both with club and country, he has been able to unseat the starters in front of him, mainly Brad Friedel with Aston Villa, and Tim Howard with the US national team. Since joining the 5 Stripes last winter, Guzan has been mostly solid for Atlanta. He’s been on the higher end of keepers in MLS for the past two years, but there’s been a definite decline in the overall goalkeeping in the league during the same time.
Captain Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez are Martino’s two starting centerbacks, and they pair have playing in 26 and 24 of Atl’s 26 games, respectively. Atlanta have given up 30 goals this season, behind just the Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders. Neither defender is a dominant force in the middle, but both players are intelligent and athletic enough to deal with most attackers in the league. It is worth noting that Atlanta has not kept a clean sheet in their past six games, but they’ve only conceded multiple goals in just one of those outings.
Both outside back positions have seen the most turmoil for Atlanta this year, and against D.C., Atlanta will likely once again field two midfielders at left and right back. Chris McCann is not a natural left back by any stretch, and had generally been used throughout the midfield by Martino otherwise. But with starter Greg Garza out with a shoulder injury, and backup Mikey Ambrose absent with a knee ailment, McCann will likely start his sixth game of the season at left back. If there was one assumed weakness in Atlanta’s starting lineup, it would be the 31-year-old, but Atlanta seems to understand how to cover for him well enough.
Julian Gressel, who was the Rookie of the Year in MLS last year, will fill in for the injured Franco Escobar at right back. Sal Zizzo would be another option, but the defender is likely out for the season. Gressel had some time earlier in the year as a right wing back in the 3-5-2 formation, but was then used where he was needed most, as a deep lying midfielder. From the right back spot, Gressel is a threat to get forward to aid attacks, and had chipped in with 2 goals and 10 assists for United this year.
Atlanta did right by Carlos Carmona during the offseason, selling the Chilean to Colo-Colo, as he looked to move home for his wife’s pregnancy. Problem was, that left a gap at defensive midfielder for Atlanta, and they did not fill it before the end of the transfer window in May. Anyone and everyone who was capable played there, before Eric Remedi was brought in as Carmona’s natural replacement. Remedi, an Argentine, had previously spent his time with Banfield, playing in the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana for the Argentinian side. The 23-year-old has made four starts in five appearances since his move, and provides a presence in midfield that Atlanta had been lacking all year.
His partner behind Atlanta’s attack will be Jeff Larentowicz. The 35-year-old has started all 26 games for Atlanta this year, playing all but 132 minutes. What Big Red lacks in youthfulness and athletic ability, he more than makes up with his experience. Larentowicz has made 383 appearances in 14 years in MLS, and has earned a favorable reputation among Atlanta supporters as a steady presence in their side.
In the last meeting between the two teams, back in July, the big news was that Ezequiel Barco was left off the game day squad for Atlanta. After the game, Martino said it was a disciplinary action. Then there was a bit more..... interesting news that came to light. Barco was kept out for three games, and since then, has two appearances. He played 89 minutes against Orlando last week. Atlanta fans expected a bit more from Barco, who Atlanta paid $15 million for during the offseason, replacing Yamil Asad. But Barco has struggled at times, and has had trouble getting in sync with is what is one the best attacks in the league. Four goals and one assist isn’t a terrible output for a 19-year-old, but there’s definitely been more growing pains than Atlanta had hoped for.
Hector Villalba will start opposite of Barco on the right wing. The Argentine hasn’t found the same levels that he did in an electrifying 2017, but he’s been more productive of late. In the first meeting this year, Villalba had a goal and two assists against the Black-and-Red. He would then not record another goal or assist until June 13th, when he scored against the Columbus Crew. Villalba is up to four goals and eight assists this year, and had a four game streak with an assist snapped against Orlando last weekend.
Miguel Almiron is still the point of the attack for the 5 Stripes, and has a goal and two assists in the previous two meetings between the teams this year. Almiron has been a source of some frustration in 2018 for Atlanta. His nine goals this year have matched his total from last year. But he’s taken 29 more shots, and wasted several good scoring chances throughout the year. If he was a slightly better finisher, then Atlanta might have put away any hope that the Red Bulls have of winning the shield this year. As it is, Almiron still has all the tools to give United’s back line nightmares.
Far and away, the star for Atlanta this year has been Josef Martinez. With eight games remaining this season, Martinez has already set a record with 28 goals. He’s likely to set a number that would be near impossible for anyone else to beat. He scores in a variety of ways, leading the league in headed goals, despite just standing at 5’6’’. He has four goals in four games against D.C., including a hat trick the last time these two teams faced off. Good luck keeping him off the score streak, given United’s issues defensively this year.
Martino will likely have the same bench that he had against Orlando as well. Atlanta has seven injured players right now, with Darlington Nagbe missing to go along with the players previously mentioned. Two others out on loan. Three others were part of the ATL 2 game on Friday night, and Chris Goslin is coming back from injury as well. Which really leaves Martino with no decisions to make in drafting up 18 players for the game. There aren’t many options to change the game drastically from the bench for Atlanta, but youngster Andrew Carleton and striker Romario Williams have the best chance of altering the game for Atlanta if need be.