Say what you want but the international break is the worst. Fans are filled with anxiety over whether or not their national teams will qualify for the World Cup while club team supporters are anxious about whether or not their teams’ star player will get injured in a game that doesn’t affect league standings. If you were in the Venn diagram of Atlanta United and USMNT fans, you felt a mixture of elation with the 4 points the Stars and Stripes earned and dread as the Five Stripes lost their striker for 4-6 weeks with a quad strain.
To make matters worse, the army of intelligent squirrels that MLS bread to create the 2017 schedule has Atlanta facing off against Seattle on Friday night. This gives the team one less day to recover from international play and the rigors of intercontinental air travel.
How will lineup changes impact United?
Atlanta will most likely be playing without Miguel Almiron who played 135 minutes for Paraguay over two games and will be traveling to Seattle from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Kenwyne Jones may also have limited availability after logging significant minutes in both of Trinidad and Tobago’s games. While Carlos Carmona played just two minutes in the international break, he may also be held out since he missed most of practice over the last two weeks.
Julian Gressel has been put forward as a possible replacement for Almiron as central attacking midfielder moving up from his deeper #8 role he has played so far this season. Gressel scored 15 goals for Providence last year and has shown that he can link the defense with the attack, but he is not as strong on the ball as Almiron and will have to deal with Ozzie Alonso getting in the way of everything in midfield. How he plays will be crucial if Atlanta is going to get a point or steal a win in the match.
Further up the field in some ways this week isn’t the worst timing for Josef to miss a game. He was unlikely to play a full 90 minutes even if he had been healthy if he had played in both games for Venezuela so Atlanta should have been preparing for his absence for this game anyway. That also means that the team has been preparing his replacement for the past two weeks in practice.
As far as replacing him, it seems likely that Yamil Asad will play as a false 9 and Jacob Peterson will move into his role on the left wing. Peterson and Asad have both had nearly two weeks of practice in these roles. That time will have been crucial for Peterson to build chemistry with Greg Garza since Atlanta has looked very dangerous when Atlanta breaks down the left side of the field with Asad starting there.
For Asad, it means that he’s had two full weeks to practice rounding goalkeepers, defeating offside traps, and work on his diving headers.
Key Matchup: Atlanta’s backline vs. Whoever starts for Seattle up front
In the past two weeks Seattle has shown that it can punish disorganized defenses and will exploit midfields that allow them to find space to work when they counter. The Sounders found that space in the past two games and fought back from a 2-0 deficit against Montreal in the match before they battered the New York Red Bulls for a dominant 3-1 win.
In contrast to New York and Montreal, Atlanta has only allowed three goals this year. Of those, only one was from the run of play with the others being an own-goal and a penalty. In comparison, Montreal is notoriously spotty on defense and was prone to giving up late goals last year. For their part, New York is still working on a new system and badly failed to control the midfield against Seattle.
Atlanta will have the benefit of two more weeks of practice so that the defenders can continue to build fitness, chemistry, and communication skills. One more thing in Atlanta’s favor will be that the Sounders will likely have to rotate their squad. They had five players on international duty including Clint Dempsey who is still recovering from a heart condition, Jordan Morris who injured his ankle against New York, and Nico Lodeiro who will be traveling to Seattle from South America. Left back Joevin Jones, who also gets involved in the Sounders’ attack, may also be doubtful after playing two qualifiers for Trinidad and Tobago.
With the Sounders possibly missing their three headed attacking monster Atlanta should be able to contain the Seattle attack which may feature Will Bruin, who lost his starting spot in lowly Houston last season, at forward.
An opportunity to exploit Seattle’s backline
While Atlanta should have all four starting defenders on the field, the Rave Green may rotate their backline. As mentioned above, Joevin Jones may not play and if he does it will be his third game in seven days. Defensive anchor Roman Torres will most likely be on the bench as the center back played in both of Panama’s World Cup qualifiers and may be suffering from a severe case of being served after Christian Pulisic set up Clint Dempsey for a goal.
Chad Marshall is a lock to start but is slow and may be paired with Tony Alfaro who played in six games for the Sounders last year and watched Atlanta score four goals on Seattle in the preseason. At right back, an out of position Cristian Roldan or versatile MLS newcomer Gustav Svensson could be options to fill out the defense.
The backline rotation presents Atlanta an opportunity to take advantage of players who have not played a game as a unit to this point in the season. Seattle will have been planning for this as well but their plan B defenders against Atlanta’s starters should be a matchup that favors United.
While coach Tata Martino noted that he expects a close up and down match, in a lot of ways the game shapes up well for United. There is never a good time to play Seattle but going against their B lineup is definitely more favorable than playing them at full strength. Atlanta will be happy with a point from the match but stealing another win on the road should not be out of the question this week.