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Prekrap: Atlanta United vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

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A classic matchup of varying proportions

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday was a nice palate cleanser for Atlanta United. The team bounced back after a bad performance in the opener and got the DC United raccoon off their backs. Atlanta will try to do it again when the Vancouver Whitecaps come to town on Saturday evening. The Five Stripes will look to build on their fluid performance against DC while taking on another defensively focused team. Vancouver has a few twists and other traps they can set for Atlanta that will be different from DCU, so while the team may be similar, another dominant 3-1 thrashing may not exactly be in order.

Anyway, onto the Prekrap

A Poem, an existential verse: Vancouver is tall, but is that all they are?

Yes.

OK, no - they’re also a counter attacking team with a new forward, but let’s start with their defining characteristic.

The Whitecaps tower over Atlanta United, they could almost be a very short basketball team. This is the lineup they trotted out against Houston once Brek Shea came in for an injured Marcel de Jong. On average they are 72.9 inches tall, if all of them stood on each other’s shoulders they would be 66.08 feet tall - if they were a building, they would be the tallest structure in Atlanta standing in 1890 (probably).

Contrast that with Atlanta’s 70.4 average inches tall. Our tallest player is 6-1, or 94% as tall as Kendall Waston and our striker who will be coming back to help defend corners is 77% as tall as Waston. With Kei Kamara, there are effectively two of them.

Of course there are things that Atlanta can do to mitigate that advantage. Kevin Kratz talked about defending set pieces and crosses by making sure to make contact and disrupt the attacker. The biggest thing is just not to switch off when Vancouver has a dead ball situation or a cross is bombed into Kamara - the types of mental mistakes that doomed the team last year at BC Place. Crosses and corners are dangerous, but they are also low percentage chances and Atlanta needs to stay focused in order to make sure the Whitecaps don’t look like they’ve “figured out” the Five Stripes.

In addition to the success they had at scoring, last year in Vancouver the Whitecaps managed to completely bottle up the Atlanta attack after giving up an early goal. They had a few breaks go their way, exploited terrible - lazy defending on set pieces, and clogged the midfield and 18 yard box. Atlanta totally failed to respond - it was worrying. But Vancouver is a lot more than a tall team - they’re also a tall team that bunkers and counters.

Here’s a look at Brek Shea showing that “His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines”* and get on the end of a pass that cuts the entire Houston defense apart to send home a vintage 2011 Brek Shea finish that shows all the haters why he was on a DP contract last year:

Even if he doesn’t start, Shea may come off the bench and the thought of him running at tired defenders late in the game could make Atlanta United fans feel like they are in “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.”**

The former Next Big Thing (TM) isn’t the only attacking threat for the Caps. Yordy Reyna and play yer kids poster kid Alphonso Davies will use their speed to try and cut in from the wings. Davies will have the added benefit of his size to throw himself around and find space to be dangerous against Atlanta. Reyna is a bit more of a creative winger and Greg Garza will need to be fully aware of where he is when Vancouver breaks on transition. Meanwhile Kei Kamara scored his 100th goal in MLS last weekend on a penalty and Kendall Waston is vertically gifted on set pieces.

Defensively, the Whitecaps sent Tim Parker to New York in exchange for perpetual pest and great free kick taker Felipe who will look to pair with Russell Teibert to clog up the midfield against Atlanta. At left back, Marcel de Jong came off with an injury with Shea filling in for him - de Jong is definitely a defensive upgrade over Shea, but he won’t be able to keep up with Tito Villalba as well as the big Texan so manager Karl Robinson will have to weigh those attributes when selecting his lineup if de Jong is healthy. Waston will lock down the central defense alongside either Aaron Maund or Jose Aja. Rounding out the defense is Jakob Nerwinski, an unremarkable and acceptable MLS right back.

Expect Vancouver to try and hold on for dear life in this game. Atlanta will have the space at MBS to get wide and give the outside defenders a lot of problems, but the comedy goals that Atlanta gave up to Vancouver last year could be repeated and that might just be enough to give the Caps a result.

3-5-2-Fun, Atlanta should see lots of the ball, and be able to do something with it

Are you worried about Atlanta and being not so tall? Are you tired of hearing about it? Good, because I’m done talking about it.

Did you see the lineup graphic above? It should look familiar, here is what DC United put on the field last weekend:

It is the same formation that ceded possession to Atlanta and completely failed to do much of anything except for a 10 minute stretch in the second half against the Five Stripes and get a lucky goal. We’ve been filling your face with breakdowns of the 3-5-2 and last week I mentioned that is a lineup that trades a defender for an attacker - effectively letting Greg Garza and Julian Gressel run rampant on the wings.

Atlanta should expect to find similar success against the Whitecaps. The Canadian club doesn’t press and isn’t that interested in building possession. The Whitecaps will rely on playing the ball long and hoping it finds Davies, Reyna, or Kamara, this will give them the advantage of not having to worry about the press and giving the ball up in dangerous areas to Atlanta. As a result, the main challenge for United will be breaking the Vancouver defense down and making the most out of their possession.

Darlington Nagbe should again be a key player in doing that by helping Atlanta keep possession while the goal scorers try to find space behind the Vancouver defense. On the vaunted left side of the Atlanta United attack, it seems like the 3-5-2 worked to perfection last weekend. Miguel Almiron was allowed to drift left and combine with Garza and Tito Villalba would move to the no. 10 role to create through the middle. The formation also saw Josef Martinez at times playing behind Villalba, giving Atlanta the ability to truly exploit their team versatility.

So long as Atlanta is able to contain Vancouver on the counter and on set pieces or crosses, the Five Stripes should be able to get a result against the Whitecaps. Then again, that was the consensus last year and the team failed to execute to a fatal degree.

*You didn’t know you came here for quotes from Neuromancer did you?

** You do now.

Finally, here’s how the ref will lineup against both teams