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Atlanta United vs. Houston Dynamo: What to watch for

The Five Stripes take on a road-winless Houston Dynamo

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Last week Atlanta United showed that it could bounce back after two disappointing results. The Five Stripes went to one of the most intimidating baseball stadiums in MLS and came away with a point. The team may feel short changed as they had 70% of the possession in the game and were a couple of final passes, shots not taken, and perhaps a penalty not awarded away from taking all three points. For all the credit Caleb Porter gets for his tactics, he made no adjustments to break the Atlanta press and his team could not effectively counter. In the end, it was spotty defending, or a missed offside call, that drew the Timbers even on the day.

This week is a great opportunity for Atlanta to really implement their tactics and play a cohesive game against an opponent who struggles on the road. Houston have been one of the most pleasant surprises to begin the season in MLS. Coach Wilmer Cabrera took a team that finished 19th in the table last year and quickly turned it into an exciting club to watch that can beat any team it plays. Any team at home that is, Houston is 6-1-0 at BBVA Compass Stadium but on the road they look like a different group of players amassing a 0-0-4 record with only two goals scored. That form was on display Wednesday as they came out flat against the Philadelphia Union and lost 2-0.

Here’s what to watch for.

A full 90

Whether it was the effect of a long cross country flight, the bleak and depressing Portland weather, or a devious barista covered in ironic tattoos serving them decaf at once of the city’s renowned Dunkin Donuts, but Atlanta looked a little gassed in the last ten minutes last week and it almost cost them the match. Perhaps coach Martino needs to be a touch quicker when making his substitutions but the team needs to put in a full and focused 90 minutes of soccer. The last 600 seconds of the game against the Timbers were pure haphazard MLS madcap soccer and by the grace of a crossbar Atlanta came away with a draw.

Houston is coming to town from the City of Brotherly Love where they played the majority of their starters on Wednesday night aside from Alberth Elis who was injured. The Dynamo may elect to rotate players ahead of their conference game against FC Dallas next weekend playing the likes of Andrew Wenger who is capable of unexplained feats on the field like this:

Whatever the case, Atlanta should have the advantage in this match no matter what lineup the Dynamo puts out because either their players will be gassed from Wednesday night and traveling to two cities in five days or someone like Andrew Wenger will be on the field. However, managing the game will still be key if the Five Stripes are to come away with three points.

Pace yourself

One aspect that was a welcome departure for Atlanta against Portland was that they didn’t come out and play full speed for 25 minutes and then let the other team back in the game. United controlled possession and tried to pass the Timbers to death rather than run past them all game and it worked. The possession also meant that the Peachtree Press was more effective and the defense and midfield was able to snuff out attacks before they developed.

Atlanta has come out very fast in the games they’ve played at home so far this year. If they can focus on possession and avoid the frenetic pace displayed in earlier games they should be able to put together another performance in which they dominate a weaker opponent. Houston is an improved team but with the home field advantage that United has the Five Stripes should be able to find more space behind the less than stellar Dynamo defense and get good chances once again this weekend.

Houston’s speed on the counter vs. Atlanta’s backline

Last week Atlanta came out looking to possess the ball and step on their opponents throats with a press. Portland responded by obliging Atlanta by trying to play out of the back and not try to beat the team with long balls to break on the counter. Houston will be more adaptable and opportunistic.

For example, they won’t come into the game looking to possess the ball. Houston is a team that looks to exploit route 1 and use the pace of wingers Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto to cut through opposing midfields and disembowel defenses. Striker Cubo Torres again looks like the promising young talent and a future star in MLS or elsewhere and young Designated Player Mauro Manotas is an exciting player with a lot to offer going forward.

Atlanta has a different task on their hands than they did last week. Possession and a high press make the Houston counter more effective. Last week, United came out in a 4-3-3 that effectively pushed upfield forming a 3-1-5-1, proving the point that formation and positions aren’t all that important, with Jeff Larentowicz dropping to play as a third centerback, Carlos Carmona shielding the back three, and the wingbacks doing their best to cause problems for Portland.

Going forward this is great, especially if Greg Garza is back because he and Yamil Asad will be an absolute nightmare on the left side for Houston, but it leaves a lot of room behind the midfield and defenders for counter attacks. Elis, Quioto, and Manotas can change the course of a game in a heartbeat and Atlanta’s back three and Carmona will need to be on their toes to break up counters, just ask the Orlando City Soccer Club who were thrashed 4-0 by Houston two weeks ago.

As long as we’re talking about the ways that Houston can score, let’s talk about set pieces. The Dynamo lead the league in goals from dead ball situations with seven and can add four penalties to that tally as well. Atlanta has only allowed two goals from set pieces all year and will have to avoid the kind of defensive lapse that allowed Liam “The Strangler” Ridgewell to score an equalizer. Houston really knows what they’re doing on set pieces and Atlanta will have to not miss their marks if they want the full three points this weekend.