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Atlanta United vs. DC United: What to watch for

Atlanta looks to keep momentum as they come home

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The football lines have been painted over on Grant Field, a tifo is being painted, and Georgia Tech students are hoping that nobody got a high enough grade to ruin the curve in their Introduction to Fire Proofing Highways 101 course. All that can only mean one thing: Atlanta United is finally home.

Bobby Dodd will be sold out again and Atlanta will have the full support of the home fans behind them this week as they take on DC United. For their part DC isn’t looking so great. After storming into the playoffs last year and averaging nearly three goals a game down the stretch, the Black and Red were shut out in their first three matches beginning 2017 and have only managed to score six goals all year. They did manage to put two in the net away to the New England Revolution last week but the Revs definition of defense is beating teams 3-2 and they were playing their second game in four days.

There is a lot at stake for Atlanta in the second ever MLS United derby. For one thing the Five Stripes will leave town again to face NYCFC and the Portland Timbers in the two games following this week and those teams have been playing some of the best soccer in the young season. For another, the loser of the match has to change their name from City Name + United to City Name + Deportivo Morón. To find out which team will be blessed with a new moniker let’s look at what to watch for.

DC United? More like DC Disjointed

Last season’s explosion of offense looked like an aberration for DC United manager Ben Olsen who usually seemed to look upon goals like a vampire scampering to his coffin to avoid the sunlight on both offense and defense. As unexpected as their scoring output was last year, DC’s defensive incoherence to begin this season has been just as surprising. In past years under Olsen DC employed a strategy of trying to score a goal and then choke the life out of a game (and kick the shins of opposing attackers). For most of this year they’ve failed to score and opponents’ have been successful at netting goals despite their bruised tibias.

Defensive problems and scoring ineptitude have left DC with a negative six goal differential. The team has struggled against sides that want to possess the ball and create chances like New England, Columbus, New York City, and the Red Bulls. All of this has led to DC United keeping only one clean sheet all year against a Sporting Kansas City side that has only scored six goals in 2017.

Despite these struggles, DC managed a draw against the New England last week and even went ahead 2-1 early in the first half only to see their efforts at beating the Revs into submission fade when New England equalized early in the second half. This was probably a fair result, any team that concedes a goal to Sebastien Le Toux should immediately spend all three substitutions on new defenders and doesn’t deserve to win, but Ben Olsen should probably be more than upset that they couldn’t hold down a 2-1 lead for three points.

The Piedmont Press

The DC match against the New York Red Bulls should be instructive on how Atlanta can beat their opponents by pressing and winning the ball high up the field. In that match, DC had very little to offer going forward despite having a largely healthy roster. New York controlled 55% of possession and passed with 76% accuracy and largely dominated the game by pressing high to gain possession in dangerous ares of the field.

The Red Bulls play a very similar style to Atlanta and if the Five Stripes can win the ball and possess the ball like New York a few weeks ago they should come away with three points. That said, last week against RSL the Atlanta press evaporated after about twenty minutes and United looked like they took their foot off of the gas, or perhaps their lungs were out of oxygen, and RSL looked to have the better chances for much of the rest of the game. Whether it was over exertion in the near mile high altitude of Sandy, Utah or RSL was just more successful at breaking the United press, Atlanta will have to resolve how to implement their pressing style for a full game to get a good result this weekend.

One player who could make that difficult for Atlanta is Luciano Acosta. The former Boca Juniors midfielder is a true no. 10, though given his diminutive stature you could call him a no. 5, who has the creativity and vision to turn a soccer pitch into a canvas adorned with rabonas, Cruyff turns, flicks, and upper 90 screamers. La Joya hasn’t been able to dazzle the league with moments of brilliance so far this year due to an injury that kept him sidelined for most of the young season but he’s a threat if he starts on Sunday. Atlanta will have to bottle him up if the team hopes to get their second straight win to end the month.

The expansion treatment

While the DC United defensive cohesion hasn’t been the same this year, they can still put boot to shin with the best of them. Last week against Real Salt Lake, Atlanta wasn’t getting foul calls despite playing the team that sits third in the league in fouls committed. For their part, Atlanta was called for more than double the fouls of RSL. Part of that is due to Atlanta, let’s be honest, fouling more in an effort to force turnovers, but the team just wasn’t getting calls.

This trend isn’t exactly new. In the past weeks United has been called for a red card on a foul that didn’t merit one against the Impact and had another player sent off on a questionable call in Toronto. In the RSL game several Atlanta players were exasperated with the refereeing throughout the game and perhaps that led to the confrontation between Sr. Sonrisa Miguel Almiron and the increasingly slow, increasingly underhanded, but still trash talking in broken Spanish Kyle Beckerman at the end of the first half.

At times this year players on Atlanta United have looked like they were losing composure and last week wasn’t the first time that the team from Hotlanta looked like it would lose its cool. In the first match Carlos Carmona kicked the very kickable Felipe in the last 15 minutes of the game. During the Minnesota game captain Michael Parkhurst beckoned his team to calm down at one point before the goal blizzard ensured a positive result. Although Atlanta has broken the mold for an expansion team in MLS and is not playing like a first year club in the league, referees do not know the players on the team, or manager Tata Martino for that matter, and haven’t started giving them the borderline fouls that many established players in the league get.

On the other hand, Atlanta didn’t react negatively when Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was sent to bed with no poutine in Montreal or Yamil Asad hit the showers early in Toronto. This will be important for the DC game because they are sure to use the kick Villalba and tug on Almiron’s jersey strategy to slow down the Five Stripes. Atlanta will have to remain patient and keep composure in games with physical play.

Despite not getting calls last weekend, Atlanta succeeded in not falling into the trap of losing their cool in Salt Lake. This was despite Kyle Beckerman no doubt making the ‘Don’t Cross The Line’ campaign look like giving out D.A.R.E. pamphlets in a trap house. The D.C. United corporeal style of play will test Atlanta in a different way and they need to stay calm in order ensure a good result this week.