D.C. United enters tomorrow’s MLS season opener with a very settled team. There are no DCU players on the injury report. The only question at all appears to be whether Lucas Rodriguez, Zoltan Stieber, or Ulises Segura will start on the left wing. Atlanta United, on the other hand, faces a major question: do they punt on this game?
Normally the odds of the defending MLS Cup champions coming in against a legitimate threat to their title during the opening weekend of the season and fielding a bunch of reserves are extraordinarily long, but there’s real reason to expect an unfamiliar ATL lineup tomorrow. Dirty South Soccer is expecting as much, while Mitch Northam (once a B&RU writer, now covering Atlanta for ProSoccerUSA) guessed that the champs could swap out 10 of their 11 starters. Atlanta coach Frank de Boer told The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas he would rotate throughout this year in what is perhaps the most dramatic shift from Tata Martino’s reign.
These folks know their stuff, and they’re thinking United’s best 11 will be facing a first-game-in-the-Open Cup-quality version of Atlanta. Why? Simple: the Concacaf Champions League. Atlanta’s first leg loss left them with a ton to do in Thursday’s second leg, so they had to field their best eleven to come back and knock Herediano out. They did that, but that just handed them another set of CCL games, the next of which comes Wednesday night, in Mexico, at altitude, against Liga MX juggernaut Monterrey.
Atlanta has had no hesitation offering up big talk about their ambitions, and they’ve backed it up every time. When it comes to the CCL, they want to win it, and you don’t knock out Monterrey by sprinkling 4-5 second-choice players throughout the team. It’s going to take Atlanta’s best to win that game, and the realities of playing Thursday-Sunday-Wednesday while also having to travel from Georgia to the District to Mexico are harsh. Something’s got to give, and most likely, that means arguably the weakest starting lineup Atlanta has ever put on the field in MLS play.
So that’s the good news. While I don’t think ATL will send out a complete reserve team, I do think they’re going to switch out at least 5 players, and they could go as far as 8 or 9. While de Boer has referred to his formation as a 343, and others have called it a 5221, I think there’s no other way to describe it than a 3421:
Let’s start in goal, with an easy one. Brad Guzan is going to start this game. Goalkeepers very rarely need rotation, and at this stage of the season, there’s nowhere near enough wear and tear to necessitate a move. That said, expecting the USMNT version of Guzan would be a mistake. While he’s one of the better goalkeepers in MLS, he’s not top-tier like Bill Hamid, and to start this season he looked just a bit slow to react on shots and when put under pressure by Herediano in the first leg (in the second leg, Herediano more or less didn’t dare to press Atlanta at all).
Things get trickier from here. I suspect Miles Robinson, at 21 and noted for his fitness, will start this one, and he won’t start in the middle of this trio (de Boer learned his lesson after a disastrous attempt to play Michael Parkhurst at right-center back in Costa Rica). If Robinson does need a rest, though, de Boer’s options are slim. He could start Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, but the Argentine is more valuable than Robinson and therefore more likely to get a game off ahead of the trip to Monterrey.
Parkhurst should start in the middle, mostly because when he has a good game, he doesn’t have to run all that much. He was not tested by Herediano in the second leg, and though they have the option of playing Jeff Larentowicz here, their needs in central midfield (we’ll get there momentarily) probably mean another start for the 35 year old.
Gonzalez Pirez is the starter at left-center back, but I suspect he gets a rest due to his athletically demanding style of play, and because he’s so vital to Atlanta’s CCL hopes. That opens the door for Florentin Pogba to make his competitive debut for Atlanta. Given his background (including stints as a regular in Ligue 1 and in Turkey), this isn’t like handing some rookie a debut. If Pogba is deemed not ready, or if he’s used centrally, the spot could go to former Maryland Terrapins fullback Mikey Ambrose.
Out on the right, another Terp might get a start, and for local fans who know the Maryland program, it’ll come as something of a surprise. Gordon Wild was a goalscoring phenom in College Park, but in Atlanta he’s now been seen as a back-up wingback, and unless de Boer wants to completely destroy Julian Gressel’s legs, Wild seems likely to get the start here. One thing worth noting: Atlanta’s wingbacks are given freedom to slash inside in the final third, which would free up Wild’s dangerous left foot to shoot.
Over on the left, Brek Shea did quite well against an admittedly pathetic attempt from Herediano to slow him down, and it looks like he has the edge over widely-touted homegrown wingback George Bello. As such, look for Bello to start over Shea tomorrow, though it is worth noting that Bello is thought to be carrying some kind of knock. Wingback is too much running to not rotate, though, so look for a move to be made on both flanks.
Centrally, Atlanta runs into a problem: they just don’t have many players that can play these roles, and said roles are very demanding. With free kick wizard Kevin Kratz nursing an injury that probably leaves him short of the fitness to start, that shortage will be even more keenly felt tomorrow. Larentowicz is a solid bet unless he ends up playing in the back, but his partner is unclear. Eric Remedi’s ball-winning is vital to Atlanta, but he found himself in a battle all game long on Thursday. Darlington Nagbe suffered fewer kicks and challenges, so he might be in line for a start despite being needed mid-week. Either way, they’ll probably share the minutes here, with the starter going 55-60 before being replaced by the non-starter.
Further forward, the one sure thing is that Hector Villalba seems like a starter as part of the attacking trio. He’ll play this role differently than Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez and Ezequiel Barco have, as Villalba is more winger/forward naturally than a playmaker underneath a forward. Look for Villalba to start wider in attacking phases than what we saw from Pity and Barco, and he’ll rely on his tremendous acceleration to burst into the area as a second goalscoring threat along with the starting striker. Villalba isn’t first choice under de Boer, but he’s an outstanding player that would start for virtually anyone else in MLS.
The other role is probably going to Pity Martinez, who came off after 70 minutes in the second leg. Barco went the full 90, and though both players have looked extremely dangerous so far, it feels like Pity will start this one. However, we could see another highly-rated Atlanta homegrown, Andrew Carleton, get the nod instead. Carleton is, like Barco, a player that benefits from this change in shape, as he likely belongs in a more central position than out on the wing and having to drift inside.
Up top, Josef Martinez didn’t play the full 90, and though the benefits of sitting out for the final 10 minutes against Herediano are probably limited, it seems like a sign that de Boer wants to have his Golden Boot winner available for at least an hour or so tomorrow. That’s not ideal news, what with Martinez being so smart off the ball, so fast, and so good at turning dangerous plays into goals. If they want to hold him out for Monterrey, they’ll probably go to Jamaican striker Romario Williams. Williams is nowhere near the same level as Martinez, but playing for another team, he’d probably have a more well-established reputation as a physical, fairly quick target man capable of causing problems at the MLS level.
Off the bench, de Boer will probably be willing to give some big names a few minutes to either try and steal a result, or to protect a lead if things don’t go so well for D.C. Barco, Gressel, and Remedi could all be brought into this one, as could Kratz if he’s deemed fit enough to travel up for the game. If Josef Martinez doesn’t start and Atlanta finds themselves down, he figures to be a sure bet to come on as well.