Something that has always struck me about sports writing is how often writers are wrong and how there isn’t much acknowledgement of it or an effort to hold them accountable for being wildly inaccurate. With the available information, it isn’t always clear what is going to happen in a game or even how a team might lineup. Still, how and why that happens is often the fault of whoever is covering a team and their assumptions as it is having bad information, myself included.
Going into last week, there was no way I thought that what Tata Martino put on the field was all that probable. Chris McCann seemed out matched in preseason against opposition as deficient as Minnesota United, Andrew Carleton lit up the Charleston Battery with excellent playmaking, and Michael Parkhurst was healthy. None of that seemed to factor into Martino’s lineup decisions. The result was that the bad breaks the Houston Dynamo got in Atlanta last year went their way in week 1 and this is the summary of the table so far:
MLS - Post Week 1:— Bruce McGuire (@dunord) March 5, 2018
Houston - 1st Place
Minnesota - 16th Place
Atlanta - 23rd Place
8 teams won
4 teams tied
8 teams lost
3 teams did not play
This probably isn’t the first time I’ve let my preferences as an armchair trequartista get the better of me and no doubt it won’t be the last.
Anyway, onto the Prekrap...
Not the same DC United, they actually have good players now
Last year DC United’s owners seemed hellbent on putting a deficient product on the field while they focused their resources on building a new stadium - and it worked, they finished last in the East. In mid season they did bring in winger Paul Arriola and central midfielder Zoltan Stieber to join playmaker Luciano Acosta. Their big moves for 2018 were parting ways with Bill Hamid, replacing him with David Ousted - a player looking to get his career back on track, and adding Yamil Asad.
Last week, the Black and Red went to a glorified penal colony in Central Florida and came away with their lives - and a draw despite leading for most of the match.
Side note - this is what
Billy Ray Cyrus “the Virus” Grissom Joe Bednik’s hair looks like right now:
There's a perfectly good explanation for this..— Chris (@OrlandoCountySC) January 23, 2018
They are going to auction the honor of cutting Bendik's mullet for thousands in charity..
Or maybe just maybe make the cutting of it the most costly Lion Nation point item ever..
Something's gotta give here. pic.twitter.com/UZtwuyldt3
DC can’t really blame anyone but themselves for the result. Yamil Asad scored a goal yet again on opening day but that was only after Darren Mattocks missed a penalty earlier in the game - illustrating one weakness on their roster: a decent striker. Minutes before halftime Asad then drew a foul on Orlando Penitentiary defender PC who was shown a red card. Somehow Orlando came to life after the player left the field and the team drew even at the death.
Expect Asad to do his regular thing of drawing fouls, being a nuisance, winning the ball in dangerous areas, turning the ball over in the final third, and probably making Atlanta sorry that they couldn’t find a way to re-sign him. Playing in front of rejected extras from Sons of Anarchy in Orlando will have DCU ready for a loud atmosphere this weekend. Not only that, but the team did come away with a win at Bobby Dodd Stadium in their visit to Atlanta last year, so Ben Olsen may have figured out how to get his team in the right mindset for the support Atlanta United gets form its fans.
Asad and Paul Arriola will also try and catch Atlanta’s outside defenders too far up the pitch and exploit chances to counter on the wings. In addition, Acosta should be back after missing last week and be buoyant at the chance to run through Atlanta’s midfield un-encumbered unless the team manages to work out the issues from last week in the center of the field.
Not everything is coming up raccoons for DC though. At striker they have journeyman Darren Mattocks who can use his excellent speed to get past defenders, but does not seem poised to be a reliable source of goals in MLS. Olsen could also turn to the oft injured though promising Patrick Mullins at striker in his first start of the year. Add to it that in the 4-1-4-1 formation they trot out, lone defensive midfielder Junior Moreno will have a lot on his plate in locking down central midfield should Atlanta find any rhythm this weekend. DC also hasn’t quite addressed their defensive issues with newcomers Ousted, center back Frederic Brillant, and left back Oniel Fisher failing to shut down a 10 man Orlando side, resulting in DC dropping two points on the road.
Atlanta United: Life’s a garden, dig it?
I might have been a bit off base about my lineup assumptions going into last week, but I do think that Tata Martino showed his aversion to risk on the pitch against Houston. He played a shaky Julian Gressel in central midfield leaving Miguel Almiron to fend for himself on the left wing. Meanwhile, Darlington Nagbe and Chris McCann managed to do this in central midfield:
Look how Carmona and Larentowicz put the area in front of the CB’s on lockdown last season against Houston. Yesterday, Nagbe and McCann didn’t do the same. (Obviously this is skewed a bit because #ATLUTD was chasing goals, but still.) pic.twitter.com/5k7o0KosFu— Paysoninho (@pschwin) March 4, 2018
That’s a big ugly hole on the right side of the field with Nagbe and McCann trying to get things back on track with the left side of the attack. Regardless of who Tata pairs with Nagbe, the new Atlanta midfielder will need to find better balance with his central pitch partner, while whoever starts in defensive midfield actually manages to defend the midfield. Give credit to the Dynamo though, they showed that the performance last year where the team got dominated in Atlanta really wasn’t their best effort.
That said, Tata may have seen enough to decide that a new formation is in order and he could line up his squad in a 3-5-2. That would neatly add more defensive cover for the backline by adding a center back with Franco Escobar potentially sliding over along with Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Michael Parkhurst. With Greg Garza at left wingback and Julian Gressel on the right, Jeff Larentowicz could pair with Nagbe in central midfield with Miguel Almiron free to focus on playing attacking midfield to put Tito Villalba and Josef Martinez through on goal against a still gelling DC backline.
The formation would play to the preferences that Tata has as far as personnel with Gressel starting but playing on the right, as opposed to him playing further up the field than he looked comfortable with in Houston.
Whatever lineup Tata puts out, this game will be an interesting test for the Five Stripes. Despite not playing particularly poorly, controlling possession, and having leads in two of the three meetings last season versus DC, Atlanta United lost all of those games. Of course, DC had the advantage of an own goal and keeper howler to gift them two scores, but losing to the worst team in the conference three times is something between - “it’s soccer, these things happen; DCU is magic and Ben Olsen is actually a good coach; and, Atlanta has no excuse for this - What is the team doing? How did this happen? They better not lose concentration and intensity like that again - for a fourth time.”
A few things will be different this time around. For one thing, Atlanta will have a big wide pitch to play on at Mercedes Benz Stadium. So far the Five Stripes haven’t faced an opponent at MBS that has had the ability to effectively park the bus - DCU tried that all last year and it didn’t go well, but perhaps that will be different in 2018 - though that will depend on the new pieces in defense playing effectively. In the past against DC, Atlanta dominated possession but did little with their time on the ball. DC also ceded nearly 60% of possession to Orlando despite being up a player for 50 plus minutes so if week 1 is any indication, the ball is clearly something they are not interested in again this season. Nagbe will be a key player to watch in the match as he was brought in to help unlock defenses that try to sit back and absorb pressure. If the Five Stripes are going to come away with a win on Sunday, he will have to show his ability to do just that.
In case you’re wondering what Atlanta United legend Bobby Boswell thinks about our chances -
As Joe Dirt would say, "yeah, I got a couple of places."— Bobby Boswell (@bobbyboswell) March 9, 2018
So there you go.
Watching the Zebras
For an idea of what to expect from el arbitro this week, take a look.