It’s the third week of June so you know what that means, MLS RIVALRY WEEK IS UPON US! If there’s one thing people in the South know about, it’s rivals. We invented feudin’, had a hilariously machismo dueling culture in the 19th century, and now direct our rage at people who bought college football t-shirts from a different Wal-Mart than us.
There’s no way MLS is going to step away from something this inherent in sports culture and even though Atlanta United has played less than 15 MLS games, the team has been assigned a rivalry - possibly through some allocation order or other obscure ritual intended to ensure parity. Perhaps it isn’t official, but MLS put both Eastern Conference Uniteds facing each other this week while there are other rivalry games happening - ipsofacto it’s clear what’s going on here.
Presumably because they are also called United and the other United was meant to come into the league under a different name so when the schedule was made the blind lemurs who make it assumed this would settle once and for all who was most deserving of the title King United. So mount your dragons, it’s time to take the Iron Throne.
Atlanta United Football Club has mad history with District of Columbia United. Who could forget the first match between these two teams when the visitors looked like they would let Atlanta fill their goal with so much Beltway pork that Washington is so fond of only to win 3-1. Or the time that these two teams played and the Five Stripes gave up an own goal after taking an early lead. Then there was the time that ATLUTD let Luciano Acosta run past the entire defense to take a 2-1 lead. Nobody will ever forget the match that Sebastian Le Toux found himself running with the ball past the Atlanta defense to put the game away at 3-1.
Yeah, that was just one game... they’re the rivals of an expansion team...
Anyway, here’s what to watch for:
Atlanta United defenders vs. concentration
Can anyone tell me the last time D.C. United scored a goal from open play in MLS? I’ll wait - go look it up, think back, when could it have possibly have been and why would I bring it up here? Give up? By kick off on Wednesday, it will have been 52 days since D.C. scored from a non-set piece or penalty - it will also have been 52 days since they played Atlanta United. Still with me? Yeah, the last time D.C. got a goal in open play was against Atlanta and they got two of them; that was on April 30th.
After both the 3-1 loss to D.C. United and the 3-1 loss to Vancouver, Atlanta United defenders spoke about losing concentration. It can be boring to play against sides like these who want to be stout defensively, absorb pressure, not play soccer, and then be opportunistic when the ball ends up at the feet of a player whose job it is to do anything other than blast it 80 yards in the opposite direction of their net. In both of those matches, the Five Stripes gave up goals when defenders either didn’t cover their marks or simply didn’t step to an attacker with the ball. DCU maybe a “fountain of sadness” but if Atlanta falls asleep on them again it will be the Five Stripes breaking out the tissues on the plane home.
Atlanta United vs. intensity
It bears repeating that D.C. United is bad at soccer. Not even their hotshot Argentine midfielder can save them. Arguably, their best player is Bill Hamid and he’s not a soccer player, he’s a goalkeeper. There may be no better example in the entire soccer, football, futbol, whatever other languages call it, playing world of a player that masks his coach’s deficiencies more than Bill Hamid does for Ben Olsen. If it wasn’t for Hamid, DCU would not have beat Atlanta or Vancouver and could be facing having two or fewer wins on the season. D.C. is last in the East for a reason.
That isn’t to say that they won’t win this game, we’re talking about MLS after all. In addition to losing concentration, Atlanta United players talked about not having intensity against opponents like DC United and Vancouver. In a troubling trend, United has tended to play down to opponents like these. Both DCU and the Whitecaps found that even if they are losing, getting a goal and then being tough to breakdown is a way to get a result against the Five Stripes.
More intensity: Josef Martinez and squad rotation
This time things will be different, the Five Stripes have Josef Martinez back. The man oozes intensity, just look at it dripping out of his every pore:
That’s his happy face.
Josef Martinez doesn’t use hair dye to get his lettuce that color, he intimidates his hair into changing its hue. Last time against D.C. United, Atlanta nearly had three goals before giving up an own goal and changing the face of the game in the 25th minute. Despite dominating possession, the team couldn’t play well or finish chances. Josef just finishes his chances, he will round goal keepers, as Zach Steffen nearly learned Saturday night, and if the ball is half an inch in play he will find an angle to put it into the back of the net, as Zach Steffen did learn on Saturday night.
Atlanta may have another thing going for it Wednesday night: squad rotation. It may seem counter intuitive that starting guys who may normally be on the bench or off of the 18 all together would make the team stronger, but players who are hungry for time on the field and are out to impress their coach may not be as apt to lose concentration as those who know their starting jobs are secure. At the very least, Tata will have to make one change with Carlos Carmona suspended.
Atlanta playing without its holding midfielder against a team that likes to clog up the midfield is less than ideal, but odds are he’d be rested sometime in the next three weeks anyway. Plus, as the team showed last Wednesday when players like Kevin Kratz and Mark Bloom had standout performances in what was otherwise an uneven performance for the team, midweek games are an opportunity for players to be noticed by their coach in a good way.
I want to win this game:
I still have a bad taste in my mouth about the last time these two teams played. Atlanta United beat themselves in the match and everyone except for the DCU coaching staff knows it. The idea that the team was “extremely efficient with how we countered in the first half and got back in the game” as Olsen said is a joke when the team scored on an own goal and a lapse in judgement from the Atlanta backline. If he asked his team to equalize on an own goal I’ll eat the computer I’m tying this on. What’s more is that the last six weeks since then has borne that out, DCU has no goals from open play since playing Atlanta last April.
Ben Olsen’s tactics resemble the Ludovico Treatment more so than any kind of attempt to play soccer. What’s more, the setting for the match on Wednesday is a more than appropriate venue for DC’s soccer stylings. RFK Stadium is a trash can - it’s 50 years younger than Bobby Dodd and yet manages to have all of the charm and functionality of a shopping cart missing a wheel. There are more modern amenities in the thousand year old decaying ruins of the Grand Ball Court in Chichen Itza. A lot of people don’t know this but RFK Stadium was rejected as a filming location for the bleak post-apocalyptic movie The Road because it was too depressing and looks like it inspired all of the music written by Robert Smith in the last 30 years.
Their new stadium is at a place named Buzzard Point (I don’t have to point out how ironic it is that it’s being put on a location named for a bird that eats the rotten carcasses of road kill do I?), is designed to look like a prison, and has been named for a car company that rigged its automobiles to mask how badly they pollute the Earth.
What I’m trying to say is I hope the defense plays more cohesively and on attack Atlanta United hangs a bunch of goals on Bill Hamid and 10 other guys.