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Atlanta United at Vancouver Whitecaps: What to watch for

The Five Stripes look to shred gnar pow in Salmonland

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United are riding high after putting up seven goals in their past two games. Their form as of late has the team sitting in 7th in the MLS table with one, two, or three games in hand over the teams above them in the Eastern Conference. The Five Stripes will travel to Canada for a third time this season looking to keep their dominant form.

United faces a Vancouver Whitecaps side that has been somewhat surprising through their first dozen games. There’s no getting around it, the team was awful last year after making the Western Conference semi-finals in 2015. This season they are better, the additions of Fredy Montero and Tony Tchani have added a proven MLS goal scorer and stabilized the midfield, even Brek Shea has looked rejuvenated since he moved to British (Columbian) soil. Last week Bill Hamid and the post prevented what should have been a rout when DC United visited Vancouver, but still this is a team with some issues.

A bigger mystery than the Salish Sea human foot discoveries

Who are the real Vancouver Whitecaps? At times they disappear like a mysteriously amputated foot and lose to Real Salt Lake in the snow, which should really be their domain, 3-0 only to wash up on shore and tally some impressive looking wins when it’s least expected. The LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, and Sporting Kansas City have all traveled to BC Place and failed to reach the mountain top in Vancouver.

Put simply, the Whitecaps struggle with consistency and haven’t established an identity either as a strong defensive team with a lethal counterattack the way they played in 2015 or as a team that can buildup possession and cut through defenses to create chances. Partly that is explained by a midfield that lacks cohesion without a playmaker and has had difficulty shuttling the ball from their defense, which is much improved over last year, to Fredy Montero. That said, when they can stay close in games this team can win ugly.

A decent defense

In the last two matches Atlanta faced Houston, who tried to clog up the midfield and bunker their defense to absorb pressure, and NYCFC who tried to disrupt United’s build up play. Houston failed and the Five Stripes jumped all over them for 90 minutes and NYCFC couldn’t pin United back in their own defensive third and were down by three goals before they knew they were actually playing on a regulation size pitch.

Vancouver will probably look like a more competent version of Houston from two weeks ago and will try to absorb pressure and gum up the midfield. Aside from letting in three goals in a blizzard, a game that RSL manager Mike Petke said game plans go out the window during, the team has allowed more than two goals in a match just once and in five of their 12 matches has allowed just one or less. They are decent but not great defensively.

One player who has stepped up on the back line is Kendall Waston who went from a frustrating red card magnet and suspension collecting liability to a team leader. Give coach Carl Robinson credit, he gave Waston the captain’s armband and the Costa Rican international has stepped up to the responsibility. While Waston is a sound defender, physicality and aerial ability are more his strengths. He is not the fleetest of foot and Atlanta’s speedy attackers could give him fits in the final third.

Atlanta going for three in a row

This match sets up pretty well for Atlanta. They are playing their best soccer of the season, coming off of two straight matches where they crushed their opponents and never allowed them to get into the game, and lead the league in goals per game. Even short handed, Vancouver is not better than Houston and they are not even in the same conversation as NYCFC. But that doesn’t mean the Whitecaps won’t surprise the Five Stripes. Against DC United, Atlanta lost focus and didn’t maintain their intensity for the entire match letting the visitors score two goals before halftime and then park the bus for the remainder of the match.

Speaking of a game DC United didn’t deserve to win, the Whitecaps are coming off of two straight losses. They dropped their weekend match to DC and lost to the Montreal Impact on Tuesday in the Canadian Championship. While they may have been hard luck losers to DC, their impressive looking wins aren’t that impressive. They beat a LA team still adjusting to a new coach, took out Seattle who couldn’t convert their chances, and their win against Sporting KC came with the visitors missing key playmaker Benny Feilhaber, defender Ike Opara, and striker Dom Dwyer.

This is a team that falls apart without Matias Laba, relies on Stoke washout Brek Shea for a boost off the bench, and the only thing it does consistently is look like a team that’s holding on until they get a lucky break. Atlanta needs to beat teams like Vancouver on the road to make the playoffs and the team is doing everything it can to get three points. United chartered a flight for the long trip to Canada and like a bear awakening after a long hibernation to fatten up for the winter on a diet of goals, Josef Martinez will be in Vancouver where we all hope he will get back to making MLS goals look twice as big as they actually are.