Atlanta United is undefeated in its past four games. Last week the Five Stripes completed their tour of MLS Cup finalists and earned a draw in a wild game north of the border. This week the team will travel north again to face the Poutine Princes in the undeserved week 6 red card derby. While the Toronto game was a good test for Atlanta and they passed while giving fans a limited number of heart attacks along the way, the game this week could be an opportunity to steal three points on the road but injuries and suspensions could derail United.
Which version of Montreal will show up?
Last season Montreal developed a bad habit of shipping late goals and giving away points down the stretch. Despite having the reigning defender of the year in Belgian International Laurent Ciman, in 2016 the team struggled to keep clean sheets and backed into the playoffs after sitting near the top of the Eastern Conference table for much of the season. Despite that, the quick countering offense led by Ignacio Piatti’s 17 goals had Montreal looking to be one of the teams expected to vie for a top spot in the table again.
Things haven’t worked out that way and the Impact have no wins and three draws in five games. They started the season with four of five on the road and were perhaps the victims of bad luck with the two red cards earned in their opener and last week against Los Angeles. In their one home game Les Bleus were their own worst enemy, giving up two goals to Seattle and dropping two late points in a repeat of their struggles from last year.
That said, Montreal is capable of scoring goals in bunches and scoring them quickly. Like Atlanta they focus on pressing and striking on transition. In another similarity, both teams have been without their top scorers as Nacho Piatti has been injured for the Impact and Josef Martinez has been sidelined for United. In Piatti’s place, Montreal will have to rely on Dominic Oduro and Matteo Mancuso to get on the score sheet.
Atlanta’s pieced together forward line vs. the cobbled together defense of Montreal
MLS tests depth like no other league. The salary cap limits how much like-for-like depth teams can build when injuries, international duty, and red cards keep star players out of lineups. Atlanta will be missing Martinez and Yamil Asad this week while the Montreal will have center back Hassoun Camara listed as doubtful with a head injury and defensive midfielder Marco Donadel suspended due to a red card
Camara missed time earlier in the year when Montreal drew NYCFC 1-1 and was out injured when Jermaine Jones ran through the Marco Donadel shaped hole in the Montreal midfield to put LA up 2-0 in their game last week. Without their starting center back and midfield defensive anchor, the Impact could struggle against an Atlanta attack that can score even without their top striker.
On the United side, the team has struggled with players moved around the field. Julian Gressel does not have the same vision and crisp passing as Miguel Almiron in attacking midfield. For his part, Almiron was great as a left midfield drifting centrally but did not have the same connection with Greg Garza that Asad and him have. Jeff Larentowicz is a capable defensive midfielder but Gressel and Carmona have shown that they are the best pairing in central midfield.
With Asad out this week it looks like Atlanta will play a similar lineup to the one starting last game perhaps with Jacob Peterson starting in place of Asad. The team struggled to build possession against Toronto and had to rely on speed to get the two goals and the draw. Atlanta will need to overcome these issues and exploit Montreal’s absences to impose themselves on the game and earn a win in this match.
Expected goals part deux
By all rights, Atlanta should feel lucky to have come away with a point last week and the data reflects that. Toronto dominated much of possession and looked dangerous around the United goal. Their expected goals was right at what they scored with an xG rate at 2.28 and an actual score of two goals. On the other hand, Atlanta should have just scored 1.1 goals rather than the two that went in the net.
It looks like Tito Villalba will be starting at forward again this week. Against Toronto he just had two shots and both went in the net. As the good, bad, and ugly post pointed out, he didn’t have a particularly good game and struggled in one-on-one situations last week. Montreal isn’t as stout defensively as Toronto so Atlanta should generate more chances but Villalba will have to get himself into more dangerous positions to take more shots if Atlanta hopes to steal three points this week.