For the first time in more than two weeks Atlanta United will play a soccer game. Stadium tours are great, gender reveals are fun, eclipses are glorious reminders of how Orlando City isn’t going to make the playoffs, but it’s about time to get back to business.
Atlanta will travel to the nation’s capital for its third and final meeting of the season with District of Columbia United. The real United is riding a six match unbeaten streak heading into the match including two wins and a draw away from home. This compares starkly with the way the team went to DC back in June. The 2-1 loss to the Black and Red, thanks in part to an Alec Kann error, capped a stretch of road games where Atlanta took just nine of a possible 24 points.
For their part, DC United has been so bad this year that they won a game this weekend and were still eliminated from the playoffs. That game was their first victory in two months, the last one coming against Atlanta United. DC is still a team that hasn’t scored a goal since August 5th and is working some new pieces into their lineup as they neglected their their roster for five months and are just now trying to get fans to pay attention to them before moving into a new stadium next season.
Anyway, here’s what to watch for...
Healthy and well rested vs. new, sort of healthy, and still uninspiring
DC United made headlines in the transfer window by bringing in a new central midfielder and flashy young winger with the additions of Russell Canouse and Paul Arriola, respectively. Canouse seems like he should be an improvement for the team in central midfield but has had little time to gel with his teammates. Arriola is a talented winger, though he has only produced four shots in 180 minutes since joining the team and DC is yet to produce a goal with him on the field.
Though forward Patrick Mullins, who can be explosive but has had a mostly quite and injury filled season, is back healthy, the team has some injuries it is contending with. Add to it that DC may be missing center back Steve Birnbaum, who came out with a head injury last weekend, while Ian Harkes, Taylor Kemp, Patrick Nyarko, and Deshorn Brown have all missed time recently.
Contrast that to Atlanta United who haven’t played up to their potential in the last three matches while Josef Martinez has been injured. Three late, somewhat miraculous, goals have kept them afloat, but their talisman is what makes everything work for the Five Stripes as Christian Candler pointed out. La Pantera’s paw seems to be all healed up and he will get his first start as Atlanta looks to get their revenge against the Black and Red.
Add to it that Anton Walkes has been a welcome change in place of Tyrone Mears at right back. The last time we saw Mears, he was getting smoked by second rate winger Patrick Nyarko as Atlanta lost their second meeting with DCU. The 20 and a half year old hasn’t been perfect, but he also isn’t going to be out played by whatever MLS cast off he lines up against at RFK Stadium.
Will DC try and play soccer?
It’s been a long time, but think back to late April and mid-June. The games against DCU are two that I’ve tried to block out, but DC’s play against Atlanta helped with that. The Five Stripes’ opponents got goals in both games from freakish plays and once they had the lead they completely stopped trying to play soccer.
Frankly, Atlanta United should welcome this if DCU tries it again. The team is more disciplined, patient, and has had two weeks to prepare for these tactics than they were even just eight weeks ago. If DC comes out with the same turgid style of anti-soccer with 10 men behind the ball, Atlanta will break them down like they did the Colorado Rapids a few weeks ago.
On the other hand, DCU manager Ben Olsen managed to get his team to play exciting soccer in their run to the playoffs last year. After getting bounced by a Montreal Impact side that backed into the post-season, DC began this season unable to re-capture their late 2016 form. Worse still, they largely failed to revert to their bus parking selves this year.
Tactically, DC is in a tough spot. Either they hang back and wait for Atlanta to break them down and hope for a lucky break (again), or they try to open the game up and give fans a reason to buy season tickets for next year and open themselves up to getting ripped apart by Atlanta’s attack.
Bill Hamid: The ice to Atlanta’s fire
DC United has been a bad team, there are no two ways about it. In the matches before overhauling their roster at the end of the transfer window, the best player on their roster was Bill Hamid. Obviously, the top player on the team not being a field player is a big problem, but Hamid could be even more effective with the new additions to the team.
A strong central midfield could cause problems for Atlanta’s attack and Hamid is capable of keeping a patched together defense on the same page. He single handedly kept Atlanta from jumping all over the Black and Red back in April and made some key saves in the re-match in June. Bill Hamid is essentially the Night King of DC United, figuring out how to beat him means the whole thing will fall apart.
As strange as it is to say, the matchup to watch in this game is the one between Hamid and Josef Martinez. The Atlanta striker just needs one touch on the ball to make magic happen and any space at all to find a chance to bury one in the back of the net. As was on display against the Colorado Tim Howards, he can beat even the best goalkeeper with the slightest opportunity.