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Atlanta United vs. Colorado Rapids: What to watch for

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The Five Stripes welcome a nominal soccer team to Bobby Dodd

MLS: Atlanta United FC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I could be diplomatic, I could say “well Wednesday was a real let down, there’s no getting around it. Atlanta United wasn’t particularly bad but the team wasn’t all that good either. Going on the road in MLS is hard. Parity. Perhaps it was due to fatigue from playing their third game in 14 days or maybe the unrelenting fear for their lives based on playing in a condemned stadium shook their confidence, but the Five Stripes lost to the better team that night. Give credit where it’s due, DC United came out and actually played soccer and was just better.”

I REFUSE.

OPEN WIDE FOR SOME HOT TAKES.

This is the second game this year DC United has won because of an error by Atlanta’s defense and the second that they benefited from massively by the absence or limited availability of Josef Martinez. To be sure, Atlanta has to finish their chances, looking at you Tito, and had chances at the end to draw the game even at two, but if Alec Kann doesn’t turn the ball over in his own box we’re talking about a 1-1 game and I’d be pontificating about how Atlanta got a point on short rest away from home (and if that were the case it would be thanks to some amazing saves that Kann had in the match so back off him).

Luckily Atlanta can redeem themselves against teams named after alpine geographic features as they take on the Colorado Rapids this weekend.

Here’s what to watch for...

Rocky Mountain Low (goal totals)

The Rapids have some decent pieces in their attack. Striker Dominique Badji is a work in progress but has qualities to make him a threat in the box. He’s a strong forward who occasionally has a decent touch, sometimes can hold up the ball well, and can muscle off defenders to create chances that he rarely finishes. Fellow forward and designated player Kevin Doyle has put up a staggering 14 goals and six assists in 60 MLS matches.

Marlon Hairston is a speedy wingback who can bomb down the right flank and send crosses to the undersized Badji. In midfield the team relies on the wasted talent and unrealized potential of 2013 MLS Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers, who inspired the Katy Perry song Firework, to turn potentially dangerous attacking opportunities into turnovers.

In case you haven’t seen where this is going: the Rapids are bad on the attack. They have 15 goals in 15 games, they’re on pace to score 34 goals this year in MLS. That isn’t good. None of that is to say that the team doesn’t have players who can score that one goal a game as the Portland Timbers learned last weekend. United and the Timbers are fairly similar teams in terms of wanting possession and being inconsistent on defense. If the Five Stripes are going to win, they will have to somehow keep the worst attack in MLS from scoring on them while turning having the ball into putting the ball in the net.

Rocky Mountain High (number of goals allowed)

In his first two years as manager, Pablo Masteroni’s team allowed 62 and then 43 goals, which is really bad. Last season the Rapids turned it around and allowed 32 goals in 34 games, which is a staggering achievement, and the manager looked like he had found a successful formula in MLS nearly winning the Supporters’ Shield. This season has been a return to the form of the ugly 2014 and 2015 team. In 15 games the Rapids have allowed 22 goals overall and 12 in their six road matches.

Atlanta should be able to break through against Colorado. The team’s best player, center back Axel Sjoberg, missed a month due to injury but will be available on Saturday. While he was certainly missed in the Rocky Mountains, the team didn’t exactly thrive with him in the lineup and is 2-4-0 with him starting. Sjoberg looks less like the Paul Bunion like revelation in central defense he was last year chopping down crosses and being physically dominant and more like a lost boy in the woods who ate all of his cookies rather than making a crumb trail to find his way home.

In goal the team has Tim Howard who has certainly lost a step since his superlative performance in the 2014 World Cup. The club’s captain and on field leader (who says xenophobic and racist things, laid hands on a fan in Kansas City and somehow manages to be the face of the ‘Don’t Cross The Line’ campaign despite being a habitual line crosser) lost his job in Everton and came to MLS.

He’s also the highest paid goalkeeper in the league, taking the starting job in Colorado from a player who was on track to be on the MLS Best 11 for 2016, and is now the keeper on the worst team in the Western Conference. Pay no mind to this, he’s the face of the marketing around the Rapids, the USMNT and MLS. He will probably be on the All-Star Team.

In central midfield the team has Michael Azira who is a more than capable holding mid but he’s paired with Mohammed Saeid, a player that wasn’t good enough to keep a roster spot on Minnesota United. Saeid will be out for Saturday, but whoever backs him up isn’t good enough to take a starting spot from a player who couldn’t start for Minnesota United.

In short, Colorado will deploy a revolutionary defensive tactic know as ‘Kick Almiron’ in midfield and will do something known as ‘Elbowing Josef’ in the final third. Atlanta has struggled against teams who have resorted to physical tactics, or lashed out inappropriately when facing them, and will need to maintain their composure if things get corporeal against Colorado if they want to get all three points.

A class five problem

For Atlanta’s part, the Five Stripes need to be able to breakdown a side with the obvious deficiencies and struggles that the Rapids have. Colorado lost 3-1 to the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday night which is kind of incredible. The Galaxy started a ‘B’ roster in the Denver suburbs (Jose Villarreal alert) against a full strength Colorado Rapids team and came away with solid road points. Normally mountains and airplanes cause LA to die of embarrassment and be so exhausted that they play like a hibernating bear but this week they got over themselves for the win.

Speaking of hibernating, Atlanta looked gassed on Wednesday night. Tyrone Mears looked every bit of his 34 years of age and played his second full match with just three days rest. With the exception of Carlos Carmona, the entire squad Wednesday remained the same from the game against Columbus on Saturday. With midweek game the next two weeks, coach Tata Martino will need to figure out how to keep his team fresh if United isn’t going to slip further down the MLS table.

How Martino manages the game will be important if United is going to win, he’s been hesitant to make substitutions at times this year and hasn’t made many changes to his starting day 11 unless there has been an injury, player on international duty, or suspension. Tyrone Mears for example had a difficult game against DC and yet played a full 90 minutes. The team is 15 games into the season, at this point Martino should have an idea of what his players are capable of and manage the team accordingly.

The Rapids are 0-6-0 on the road, Atlanta United has no excuse for not hanging several goals on a team that lets in two goals a game on the road, is ineffective at counter attacking, consistently loses areal duels, and that should have the Peachtree Press pinning them so far back that by the end of the game their team bus is parked at Sun Trust Park. As long as they do those things and convert their chances, Saturday should be a good day to bounce back after the loss Wednesday.

I want to win this game...

But I want to really get into it so that’s going to drop tomorrow.