What Are They All About? Atlanta United
MLS voodoo. Each team in MLS typically has two or three matches a season that just make absolutely no sense. This past weekend the Chicago Fire had one of theirs, drawing 0-0 away to Orlando despite being up two men for a long portion of the match. Missing Dax McCarty and Juninho revealed a thinner squad than many would like to admit and the clear lack of a playmaker that can change a frustrating match in an instant was also evident. Not much else needs to be said about the match or the result and Chicago may continue on their way to what seems like an inevitable playoff berth. Next on the agenda is a home match against Atlanta United on Saturday (3 PM on Unimas).
This will be the second meeting between the two sides after Atlanta thrashed Chicago 4-0 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in March. A bizarre Brandon Vincent own goal in the fourth minute and a Johan Kappelhof red card in the eleventh minute meant that the contest in Atlanta was over before many even took their seats. Both sides are drastically different heading into this encounter with Chicago riding high on a six-match unbeaten streak after a bumpy start while Atlanta has suffered injuries to key personnel, struggled on the road, and realized the unforgiving nature of the league.
This match will be crucial in terms of the standings as both sides attempt to juggle a hectic schedule that will now include the US Open Cup and a series of international matches. A victory for Atlanta could see them rise above the red line for the first time since early May while Chicago will be looking to capitalize on its games in hand to put pressure on TFC for the top spot in the East. Will Tata Martino finally adjust on the road and repay Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra for their confidence in his tactics, or will Paunovic and the Process continue their unbeaten run at home? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Atlanta Form Guide (last five matches): L-W-W-D-L
Previous Result: A 3-1 loss away to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Kann; Garza, Pirez, Parkhurst, Mears; Carmona, Larentowicz; Asad, Almiron, Gressel, Villalba
Strengths: The last time we previewed this team we focused on Tata Martino’s style of play, the cohesion among the front four, and the need to show they belong as Atlanta strengths. Those have remained positives for this side since then, but let’s see where else they could succeed.
Surprising Ascent: When Atlanta United signed goalkeeper Alec Kann many thought that the Georgia native was merely a place holder until they could acquire Sean Johnson or Brad Guzan. However, the twenty-six-year-old former Fire player has played above many people’s expectations this season. Starting in all thirteen of Atlanta’s matches, Kann has saved forty-six of the sixty-eight shots he has faced, is in the top quarter of MLS keepers in terms of save percentage, and is in the middle of the pack in terms of his goals against average despite playing behind some questionable center backs. With Guzan set to arrive in July, it is no longer a safe bet that Kann will give up the spot without a fight. Given that Bendik was among the difference makers for Orlando in their match against Chicago, the Fire should be wary of another in-form keeper.
Er ist Gut: While everyone may be coming to Toyota Park to see Bastian Schweinsteiger, there will be another German on the field that is worth watching. Julian Gressel was certainly not a well-known name in MLS when it was first called at the Super Draft but the Greuther Fürth youth product has taken the league by storm. Initially Martino slotted him next to Carlos Carmona as a dual pivot in midfield, but injuries forced a shift in the front four which saw Gressel given room to roam on the right wing. Five assists and two goals later, the Bavarian seems to have kept the spot for himself.
Quick bursts on the counter and an innate ability to turn on a dime have been the standout traits shown by the youngster as his three assists to Almiron against NYCFC and Houston were almost carbon copies. Gressel stated after practice on Wednesday that he is looking forward not only to the possibility of playing well and swapping shirts with his childhood idol, but since all of Schweinsteiger’s matches are streamed in Germany, he’ll have a rare opportunity to impress his family back home. Matt Polster could be facing his toughest test yet.
Weaknesses: The standings may only count on the last day of the season, but Atlanta currently find themselves in eighth place of the Eastern Conference. They are fun to watch, flashy, and effective at times, but if being above the red line come October is the goal, Atlanta seemingly has a long way to go. Let’s see where they could struggle on Saturday.
Atlanta Dispersed: The easiest place to start with the weakness section is to admit that this Atlanta side will be missing some key pieces heading into this match. In late March, Josef Martinez suffered a severe left hamstring strain that looked like it was going to keep him out for up to six weeks. It’s been over two months since his last appearance and he finally returned to training last week. Although he traveled to Vancouver with the squad he did not feature in the eighteen and Tata Martino has said he is still day by day after a series of set-backs. Whether Atlanta wants to risk him in an away match on a day where it is reportedly going to be 90 degrees is up for debate. Additionally, Miguel Almiron and Kenwyne Jones have been called up for international duty (Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago, respectively). Jones will not return in time for Saturday’s encounter and although Almiron is slated to hop on a flight to Chicago from Lima after his match on Thursday, it would be surprising to see him recover from ninety minutes at altitude in just forty-eight hours. Together, that trio has taken part in eighteen of Atlanta’s twenty-eight goals on the season. A total which will surely be missed on Saturday.
Dije Que No: Atlanta United cannot seem to get it done on the road. They have only won two matches away from Bobby Dodd Stadium this season, and while that is not atypical of MLS, their results came against Minnesota United (in a snow storm against what was then a joke of a side) and RSL (a team that has the lowest PPG ratio in the league). Although they’re averaging around a point per match on the road, those two results slightly skew the data and they certainly don’t look comfortable in away fixtures. Part of the problem is that Tata Martino seems incapable of adjusting his team or his tactics in a way that other coaches have done to great success this season. He plays the same formation, the same lineup, and the same high press style no matter where they are.
Although Martino was criticized for his inability to adapt during his time at Barcelona, this particular character trait could be his downfall in MLS. The season is long, the pitches are diverse, the climate is unpredictable, and there is an especially uneven distribution of home team victories in the league. If we were Martino, we would learn from Orlando’s draw against Chicago and clog the midfield with Jeff Larentowicz, Kevin Kratz, Carlos Carmona, and Julian Gressel, while allowing Villalba to play underneath Asad (or perhaps give the 5’ 11” Bryan Rochez his first ever MLS start). However, it is more likely that he keeps the same formation, same personnel, and perhaps even pushes Josef Martinez back into the lineup too early. Keep in mind, they have an Open Cup fixture against the Charleston Battery next Wednesday before welcoming Columbus to Bobby Dodd next Saturday...
What’s a Backline?: A glaring issue that stems partially from the aforementioned inability to adapt is a back four that seems out of sorts in many matches. Yes, Tyrone Mears and Greg Garza were acquired because of their ability to get forward–Garza scored in the encounter against Vancouver–but both wingbacks have struggled on the counter throughout this campaign. It seems simple enough, if you’re too busy pushing up the flanks you’ll be exposed. Should Chicago elect to utilize Drew Conner as a right back behind Solignac and keep the tandem of Vincent and Accam on the left, it could prove to be too overwhelming for Atlanta.
Additionally, the center backs have not looked all too impressive this season. Michael Parkhurst is showing each of his thirty-three years on the pitch after being told by Columbus that he is superfluous to their needs in the offseason. He’s slow to close, is beaten too often in the air, and doesn’t seem to be totally in sync with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. The pair had a dreadful outing against Vancouver, mismarking crosses from open play and set pieces and miscommunicating on several counters. Perhaps it is understandable why Pirez is on his sixth club at the tender age of twenty-five. All in all, Atlanta has only kept two clean sheets on the season and none in their last nine matches. For an in-form side like Chicago, Saturday could be a chance for Nikolic and Accam to have a field day.
Prediction: Although there is always room for deviating from the storyline, Chicago’s home form is too good and Tata Martino is too predictable. The encounter will be much different than the first iteration in March. Chicago 3-1 Atlanta. Nikolic, DeLeeuw, and Polster score for the Fire.