Well here we are again, another extended break and another home opener. For their part, Atlanta United will look to reverse the trend of struggling in matches after time off. The team has one win, a draw, and two losses against Orlando City, Seattle, Chicago, and DC United respectively in the four games following extended layoffs. Those games all had one thing in common though, they were all on the road. This weekend the players will have 40,000 plus screaming Atlanta United fans supporting them in what is effectively a second opening game.
The Five Stripes will have their work cut out for them having won just one of its last five matches. In that time, the team has only one loss, but if the games had ended at the 75th minute things would be a lot worse. Their opponents have similarly struggled as of late having not won in seven games. In that time, FC Dallas has slid ever lower in the standings clinging to the sixth and final playoff place in the Western Conference (sound familiar?).
Dallas showed that they might be ready to turn things around just in time though. Last weekend, they went down a man against the New York Red Bulls and managed to battle back twice to draw the game at 2-2. For United to come away with all three points, they will have to bottle up the FCD attack and find ways to generate chances on what can be one of the best backlines in the league.
Anyway, here’s what to watch for...
What version of FC Dallas will show up?
FC Dallas and Atlanta United are nearly mirror images of each other. Both teams can claim to be the most exciting side in MLS one match and fail to come close to playing up to their potential the next. Things may be turning though for FC Dallas. Last weekend the team went down to the New York Red Bulls and did Atlanta a playoff favor by coming back twice in the match to draw the game at two despite being down a man.
Despite that, this team is struggling and is winless in their last seven matches. Dallas began the year featuring a miserly defense while the attack struggled to find its way in the absence of Mauro Diaz who was recovering from an Achilles injury. They muddled on to begin the year but perhaps the underlying stats caught up to them during this extended time without a win.
That might be changing. Last weekend against New York, Diaz helped a 10 man Dallas side come back twice in the match to draw the Red Bulls. In that match the defense did allow two goals, but they were playing a man down and were missing starting center back Matt Hedges. If Diaz can show the kind of form he did last weekend and the defense can show that it can play cohesively, beating Dallas may be a tall order for Atlanta United.
A tale of two wings
Dallas will have some interesting tactical choices to make in deciding how to contain the Atlanta attack while also making the most of their opportunities going forward. By now it is clear that the left side of the Atlanta attack has been vital to the success of the team, when United is at its best they dominate that side of the field to create scoring opportunities.
For Dallas the same is true of the right side of their attack where right back Hernan Grana and right winger Michael Barrios create their chances. Barrios has 13 assists, best in the Western Conference, and is a dangerous player that Greg Garza will need to keep contained for Atlanta to come away with all three points. The other side of that is that the potent left side of the Five Stripes’ attack could find space behind the backline in transition if Grana is pushed too far forward for Dallas.
On the other side of the pitch, Roland Lamah has been a pleasant surprise for FCD. The winger has eight goals on the year and a crucial matchup will be between him and Anton Walkes. The Atlanta right back has been a serviceable fill-in this year, but he was a partly at fault for the second goal in the last match against Philadelphia. He will need to avoid mistakes or Lamah will be there to punish him for any errors.
This match will be won or lost in central midfield
One reason that FC Dallas has struggled this year is that the central midfield has sometimes failed to establish possession in matches. Diaz may be a wizard when he gets the ball at his feet, but getting the ball rests on the central midfield pairing of Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa. Acosta has shown that he is extremely talented, but is still a work in progress. That said, the team showed what it can do with a solid presence in midfield last weekend when Javier Morales stepped in at the half in central mid. He helped keep possession allowing Diaz to make a difference against New York, who again looked to be sorely missing Dax McCarty, as they failed to take three points to 10 man Dallas.
Atlanta should have an edge here, Carlos Carmona and Jeff Larentowicz are both savvy veterans who help United keep and win possession. The Peachtree Press could also cause problems for Acosta and Ulloa and keep the ball away from Diaz. If Atlanta dominates the central midfield, it could cause the kinds of breaks in transition that United has shown it can turn into goals time and again this season.
For all that’s been said here and everywhere else, this is an important game for Atlanta United win. Getting a win at the first match in the new stadium will continue the continuity of United’s home dominance and set the tone for the five straight home games to follow during this critical stretch.