What Are They All About? Atlanta United
A win over a Western Conference opponent, four points and second place in the table, a debut goal from Nikolic, and a clean sheet. No, that’s not what happened in a FIFA simulation. The Chicago Fire continued their apparent turn around in beating Real Salt Lake 2-0 at Toyota Park. They are living up to their preseason form so far and the sky seems to be the limit for them. However, after shaking off the cobwebs against Columbus and playing an injured and beleaguered RSL side in strange weather conditions, their first stern test arrives this Saturday. The match against Atlanta United at Bobby Dodd Stadium (3 pm CT on Univision) will allow both sides to legitimately gauge their development at this early stage. The stakes are high for both clubs as Chicago has failed to live up to expectations over the last few years and Atlanta has been touted as the new MLS expansion model after spending big in the offseason. Will Carlos Bocanegra’s new project triumph over the club he made 122 appearances for, or will Chicago continue to silence critics? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Atlanta Form Guide: W-L
Previous Result: A 6-1 win away to Minnesota.
Formation: 4-2-3-1: Kann; Mears, Parkhurst, Gonzalez Pirez, Garza; Gressel, Carmona; Villaba, Almiron, Asad; Martinez
Strengths: While they would be the first team to reach the post season as an expansion side since Seattle in 2009, many pundits have Atlanta etched into a playoff spot. They have proven time and time again (at least in the offseason) that they are not to be taken lightly and have set their aim high both on and off the field. Arthur Bank, Darren Eales, and Carlos Bocanegra are spearheading what many are touting as THE expansion model moving forward. Let’s see where they might succeed.
Tata Martino: Atlanta spun quite a few heads on a Tuesday morning in late September of last year when they announced that Argentine Gerardo “Tata” Martino would take the reins as the first ever coach of the franchise. For those unfamiliar with the man, Martino famously took the subpar Paraguayan national team to the quarter finals of the 2010 World Cup. A combination of his tactical astuteness (we’ll get there shortly), keen mixology abilities in terms on integrating youth and veterans, and his ability to create an environment where the players fought for one another resulted in Paraguay advancing in the tournament. Their loss to the eventual Spanish champions might have been expected but the thin 1-0 score line was not. Tata followed up that campaign with a run to the 2011 Copa America final to prove that his team’s performance was not a fluke. He was rewarded with a job at Barcelona and then went on to coach the Argentine national team. Not only does he have an excellent resume, his connections in South America, where he spent his early coaching career, have ensured that Atlanta has a steady pipeline of talent awaiting the chance of being coached by Tata.
Tiki-Tata: In case you missed the match, the 6-1 result listed above was not a typo. Atlanta’s match in Minnesota may have happened amidst a snow storm but it was the Georgian outfit responsible for the more impressive flurries. Statistically speaking the match was even in possession, passing numbers, completion rates, and shots on target, but Atlanta was far more calculated in their penetration and clinical in their finishing. From the first whistle Martino and United showed that their fast-paced high press style was not reserved for home matches and any recovery of possession was turned into a quick counter. Shouts of “one touch”, “first time”, “don’t wait”, and “outside” were heard from the Atlanta bench and amongst the players themselves. The instructions were clear, get the ball wide and play quick, even in the snow. Speed, agility, fitness, chemistry, and confidence oozed from United as they proved the expansion sides are indeed polar opposites.
The front four of Josef Martinez, Hector Villaba, Yamil Asad, and Miguel Almiron have shown a level of comfort playing together that takes other attacking units months to nail down and Carlos Carmona’s return to the lineup provides some comforting assurance that they have a box to box engine behind them if they do lose possession. Double digit shots seems to be the expected norm for Atlanta as all of the front four registered at least two shots in each game with the wingbacks chipping in as well. While the Minnesota match skews numbers because of the bizarre elements, the New York encounter should be taken as normative for how Atlanta will attempt to play on Saturday. A 73% pass completion rate, 424 pass attempts, a concentration of possession on the flanks, and pressing in twos and threes in the opponent’s defensive half typified that match before a late collapse. It’s no surprise how they’ll look to play on Saturday, however matches aren’t played on a whiteboard.
Redemption: With around 55,000 fans in attendance Atlanta was fifteen minutes away from glory in their first ever match. While their hearts may have been broken, the fans and the team will be wanting their first home points of the season and a reassurance that they can compete against conference rivals. We expect emotions to play a part in this one as there is not only an opportunity for history on the club level but the likes of Jeff Larentowicz, Alec Kann, and Aron Hyde could gain closure on some rough parts of their careers as well.
Weaknesses: While expectations were high going into the season, reality came crashing down on Atlanta in their home opener. An experienced New York Red Bulls side taught many of Atlanta’s foreign pieces that beautiful soccer does not always win matches. Grit won out on that day and more importantly it exposed some blatant gaps in Atlanta’s squad that many had previously chosen to ignore. Let’s take a look at where they could struggle.
Tata Martino: You may have guessed before starting this preview that a discussion of anything related to Argentina would take up as much space as possible. Well, despite all of the grinning and back slapping from above, Tata is not exactly the legend that everyone makes him out to be. He spent just one season with Barcelona and by the club’s high standards that year was a failure. His 2013/2014 tenure was one of only two season between 2008 and 2016 Barca did not win the league, they lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid, and they lost to Atletico Madrid in UEFA Champions league quarter final. Although Tata left on his own terms, admitting that results were not adequate, he did so without adding a single meaningful trophy to Barca’s cabinet, the first time that had happened since 2008. His legacy there was one of not utilizing the transfer market properly, lineup complacency, toying with the tactics too much, and failing to recognize the need for substitutions. Many foreign managers have struggled in MLS and if Tata shows any of those traits here in the States, Atlanta’s place in the top six may not be so assured.
While it may be too early to tell, small glimpses of trouble have started to surface. In the wake of their loss to NYRB, there were questions about Tata subbing Jeff Larentowicz on too late. Rather than opting to manage the match in the 70th minute or so, he kept the flashy starters in. A 75th minute equalizer led to the reactionary substitution of brining on the former Fire captain and just a minute into his appearance, New York took the lead. Just five minutes later with possession and any chance of a result slipping away, Carlos Carmona was ejected after a petulant stamp attempt on Felipe. When they were flying, they were flying high, but when they struggled, they really struggled. It showed both on the pitch and on the sideline with Tata slumping his shoulders and tucking his arms under his armpits long before the final whistle. We can only analyze what we’ve seen an we’re not sure that thumping a Minnesota side that is quickly becoming the laughing stock of the league is enough to see Atlanta thrive in a long season. Perhaps examining Tata’s history might have better indicated Open Cup success.
One Dimensional: Although we may have praised Tata’s approach to soccer above, he rarely deviates from that style. Thus far in the season we have an example of it working well and one of it failing. If they run into tough times this season we’re not sure they have a plan B and it showed against New York. There are drastic issues apparent on both sides of the ball for Atlanta.
Moving Forward: Unsurprisingly, Atlanta has just one successful open play cross and one successful pass into the box in their 180 minutes of play this season. Given their roughly 70% passing completion average in that time, it is not due to pass completion failure but pass attempts. Atlanta loves to build up through small passes, largely down the flanks, before shooting from distance or dishing it off for Martinez to drive into the box on his own. Dax McCarty and Juninho’s task of disrupting the midfield will take on extra importance in this one. If they, along with Kappelhof and Meira, replicate the play witnessed in the first half against RSL or the second half of Columbus then Chicago will succeed. The narrow pitch at Bobby Dodd also didn’t prove as conducive to Atlanta’s wide play as TCF Bank Stadium in Minnesota. The narrower that Chicago can keep the pitch, the more question marks will arise for Tata and his charges.
Defensive Issues: Atlanta’s high press looked fantastic in the first half of their opener but the early season fitness levels exhibited by most of MLS really affected them later in the match. Whether or not they can keep up the fast-paced style implemented by Tata in week three remains to be seen, but the speed exhibited by Accam will certainly be a factor. Atlanta will keep a high line, Mears and Garza will have offensive responsibilities, and Parkhurst isn’t exactly a speed demon, so the Ghanaian will be expected to chase down balls over the top from the midfield. Whether that leads to his own chances or set pieces, Atlanta showed against New York that they cannot mark dead ball situations, nor do they defend well when they don’t have the ball in front of them in live play.
Prediction: We said at the beginning of the season that the schedule was quite kind to Chicago. This is a great opportunity for them to take advantage of Atlanta on a narrower field and before they gel completely. Seven points from the first three matches was our prediction which means that the Fire need to win this one. Chicago 3-2 Atlanta. Nikolic, Juninho, and Harrington for Chicago. Che for Atlanta.