What Are They All About? Atlanta United
Forward progress. This past weekend the Chicago Fire earned a point on the road against Toronto FC, drawing last year’s champions 2-2 at BMO Field. Although the match was full of controversy as the growing pains associated with the implementation of VAR were on display, the result was ultimately fair on the day. As vital as points are, the performance was one to be proud of as Chicago dug themselves out of an early hole, showing character and perseverance that has largely been lacking thus far in the season. A second consecutive road result and some tactical stability have ensured that April was a better month than many expected after a woeful first month of the season in March. The Fire will have a chance to further climb the standings as they host Atlanta United this Saturday (7:30 CT at Toyota Park) to start a tough spell in May that will see them play five matches in four weeks, including four Eastern Conference opponents.
Atlanta United enters the fixture on an incredible run of their own having gone undefeated in their last seven matches. Their only defeat on the season was an opening day loss to Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium and their form has them sitting in second place of the Eastern Conference, just a point back from NYCFC with a match in hand. Tata Martino’s sophomore season is shaping up to be as successful as his maiden voyage in MLS and the Five Stripes will be looking to earn their first ever victory in the Windy City. Investments in the first team, the youth academy, training facilities, stadium development, marketing, and scouting are largely responsible for what looks to be growing success for Atlanta and Saturday’s match will certainly be a juxtaposition of very different organizations. Will it be the old guard that hang on for a win at home, or will MLS 3.0 continue its steam roll across the soccer landscape? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Atlanta Form Guide: W-W-D-W-W
Previous Result: A 4-1 home victory over Montreal.
Formation: 3-5-2; Guzan; Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst, McCann; Gressel, Nagbe, Larentowicz, Garza, Almiron; Barco, Martinez
Strengths: As an organization, Atlanta has set the bar for expansion in MLS across all fronts. Arthur Blank entered the league with ambition, financial backing, and some of the best technical hires MLS has seen. The result of such a foundation was an exceptional expansion year which included not only results but a sexy style of play, sell out crowds, and a unique culture that swept the city. It won’t be hard to pick out positives in this section as there are too many to count. Let’s see where Atlanta might succeed on Saturday.
Attack, Attack, Attack: This is an Atlanta side that scored seventy goals in their expansion season and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. They have only been kept off of the score sheet on one occasion (the first fixture on the calendar against Houston) and Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba have seemingly improved since last season. When you add the acquisitions of Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco, the result is the most dynamic attacking force in the league. Completing an average of over 500 passes per match, hitting double digit shots in every match, and a twenty-one-goal haul after just eight matches have been the result of such an approach and they’ll be looking to take advantage of a less than stellar Fire defense this weekend.
El Turri: The Five Stripes shipped Yamil Asad to DC United as they made room for one of the brightest young talents to come up through the Argentine Primera in recent years, Ezequiel Barco. The attacking midfielder/secondary striker has been touted as the center piece of future national teams by some in the Argentine media and his desire to be molded by Tata Martino is the only reason the nineteen-year-old ended up in MLS as opposed to one of the top European leagues. His skill on the ball is almost as head turning as the fifteen-million-dollar transfer fee that Blank shelled out to acquire him.
Barco came up through the Independiente youth academy—which has produced the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gabi Milito, and Fernando Amorebieta—and rewarded the club for its faith in him despite his diminutive stature and lack of physical growth. Barco’s most significant contribution to Independiente was his goal in the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana final last season, a strike that helped bring the club just its second ever continental trophy.
Saturday’s match will be Barco’s fourth consecutive appearance after dealing with an unfortunate quad strain for the first six weeks of the season. He has been employed as a secondary striker by Martino, playing underneath Martinez, and has been given the freedom to drift between either flank. He should be a handful for Brandon Vincent and Veljko Paunovic might want to think about bringing Ramos in from the dog house to help deal with the speed that the Argentine brings to the table. The clock is ticking for Barco to develop, impress, and move on to bigger and better things and he certainly has the talent to rise to the occasion.
Weaknesses: While Atlanta is a sure bet in terms of making the playoffs, many of the factors that led to their elimination in the first-round last year remain unaddressed. They certainly won’t be left off of the score sheet but there are ways to get at the Five Stripes defensively. Let’s see where they might struggle on Saturday.
We Spent All of the Money on Forwards: One of the down sides of creating an attack-minded team is that it puts extra pressure on a team’s ability to get its defensive acquisitions correct. The offseason departures of Anton Walkes (Portsmouth), Tyrone Mears (Minnesota), Carlos Carmona (Colo-Colo), a lack of signings to replace them, the utilization of midfielders as outside backs, and the ever-aging legs of Larentowicz and Parkhurst, all seem to indicate that Martino has no interest in defending. Although they have kept three clean sheets on the season, almost every goal conceded by Atlnata was a direct result of their high pressing style of play and lack of tracking back from their attacking players. Parkhurst, Pirez, and Cann have often been caught isolated on the break with Larentowicz slowly tracking back in time to see the ball hit the back of the net. This is one encounter in which Paunovic might think about rolling out the 3-5-2 with Gordon next to Nikolic.
Prediction: Atlanta United is cruising towards the top of the standings and their undefeated form will continue. However, their defensive struggles aren’t going to be remedied this weekend either. Chicago 3-3 Atlanta. Almiron, Barco and Larentowicz for the visitors. Nikolic, Gordon, and Kappelhof’s first ever Fire goal for the hosts.