Atlanta United had a textbook preseason. They sold and then didn’t replace a key central midfielder, the team scored five goals in four preseason games, and didn’t once put the expected starting 11 on the field at the same time before kicking a ball in anger. To top it all off - their fancy new winger got hurt in training.
Everything is bad.
No it isn’t! Atlanta United is going to have some different and new challenges in the up coming season, but the team has a chance to be one of the most fun teams in the league for 2018. There might be games in which Atlanta struggles to break down broken down, bus-parking, anti-soccer teams, but the match up against Houston isn’t one of them. There may be the kind of embarrassing comedy goals described in the SB Nation season preview for Atlanta on Saturday, but that just means more joyful heart attacks as the season goes on. For now, Atlanta is focused on getting a result in week one, so without further introduction - onto the Prekrap...
New dynamics for the Dynamo
The Houston Dynamo made some interesting offseason moves leading up to the start of 2018. The team said good bye to Cubo Torres after the striker bounced back in 2017 and got rid of attacking midfielder Alex. It seems like an interesting decision to overhaul the roster after making the Western Conference final, but the team has a new look in 2018. In particular, Tomas Martinez pulling the strings in attacking midfield should also make the Dynamo more dangerous going forward.
<puts on backwards ball cap - sits backwards in chair> Real talk for a minute [puts on a Wale song]: one of Atlanta United’s best games last year was against the Houston Dynamo... only it was against their ‘B’ team. Do not expect the Five Stripes to walk all over the Dynamo like they did last year at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Houston didn’t do anything particularly well in that game and were especially a non-factor in attack until about the 60th minute when the starters began getting subbed in. Don’t be fooled, Houston is a good team with some good attacking options and will give Atlanta trouble on the counter.
That said, they do have Andrew Wenger and he may very well start for them. Here is Wenger cutting into the box in a threatening attack to the goal if it was in the 25th row:
Sometimes I need a 'lil pick-me-up so I'll just watch this .gif of Andrew Wenger dribbling a ball out over the end line for no good reason. pic.twitter.com/mAKNt0ogB9— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) May 12, 2017
As far as how they will line up, based on the last preseason game they played against the New England Revolution, I think we could see the Dynamo in a 4-3-3. Wilmer Cabrera is an attack minded coach and he’ll have his sights on getting his team coming at Atlanta to try and play for possession. They problem the Dynamo will have is that only relying on Juan David Cabezas to shield the backline and not playing with two holding midfield options will invite Atlanta to press them into orange juice, disrupting their attack, and giving the Five Stripes dangerous chances in transition. In addition, 27 year-old USL fodder Kevin Garcia will be moving over to right back from his usual center back position, with the strength of the Atlanta attack on the left side of the field, usually at least, expect the Five Stripes to come charging at his side of the field.
Atlanta’s strengths could also tempt Cabrera to keep either Romell Quioto or Alberth Elis on the bench in favor of a more defensive or possession minded player to help out in defense and buildup play. Cabrera was, depending on your outlook, either pragmatic or maddeningly inconsistent in his starting lineups last year - cycling through Quioto, Torres, Manotas, and Elis in various configurations throughout the season.
The problem for Houston in this game is that they really doesn’t have the players to bunker and aren’t very tall on set-pieces, but they could still hurt Atlanta with the long ball if their attempts to build though possession don’t work out. Mauro Manotas is a striker who could have a massive year in Houston as the main guy up top with Torres out of the picture for the Dynamo. Along with Elis and Quioto on the wings, hitting Atlanta on the counter and trying to play to Manotas could steal a result for the Dynamo.
Frosted Orange or Pizza Julian?
[sits back down facing backwards on chair] More real talk. The center of the midfield is going to be a problem this week against Houston. They Dynamo will look to counter and either Chris McCann or Jeff Larentowicz are going to have a difficult time keeping up with their fast players through the center of the pitch. There isn’t much good to say about this situation, it is what it is, the main hope is that it doesn’t cost Atlanta too dearly against this quick countering team.
In addition to central midfield, replacing Barco on the left wing is also going to be a challenge for the Five Stripes. For all of the risks that Atlanta United takes off the field, Tata Martino is fairly conservative when it comes to embracing new things on it. Last year he very quickly fell into a pattern of keeping certain players in familiar roles with the odd exception here and there. In preseason, Martino seemed to be content to play role players and new additions to the club to see what they had to offer rather than trying to build chemistry with what will presumably be the first choice 11 as he had prior to the 2017 season.
That said, the new pieces, who are healthy, should have a significant impact on the play of the team. Last season the left side of the attack was the focal point for Atlanta United going forward. Franco Escobar has the potential to bring that same kind of relationship to the right side of the attack if he and Tito Villalba have had time to learn the other’s tendencies in preseason. Their relationship may elevate Villalba after he had an outstanding 2017 season with Tito potentially proving to be the best non-DP in MLS in 2018.
Speaking of the left side of the attack, the question on everyone’s mind will be how is Tata going to replace Ezequiel Barco in the lineup. There are a few options the manager will have. He can take Darlington Nagbe, who has been everything promised as a ball nurturing center midfielder with great distribution, dribbling, and possession skills, and put him out wide left - creating further problems in central midfield and making him answer another question - who would start in Nagbe’s usual spot? Julian Gressel is another possibility as the German midfielder has typically been an asset as a wide player when Villalba was starting at striker last year in Josef Martinez’s absence.
The option that makes the most sense is to start Andrew Carleton - an option that maddeningly may not happen. The youngster is a like for like replacement for Barco in as far as being an attack minded winger who plays best out wide and has a penchant for trying creative and potentially game breaking moves.
wut. he tried to rabona nutmeg the Battery's #25, then nutmegged him pic.twitter.com/I9LudsRCIg— Scuffed (@zlebmada) February 25, 2018
While he put together some amazing highlights as a central attacker in preseason, thinking of him on the wing, combining and switching off with Almiron, should have Martino not even thinking twice about playing the 17 year-old against Houston.
so much I love about this clip. Does enough with this difficult, bouncing ball to play it out to his winger, then shows, plays a quick one-time return pass and immediately makes a decisive run into the box. This stuff builds rhythm. pic.twitter.com/aqCRUGndeg— Scuffed (@zlebmada) February 25, 2018
Barco was brought in to do exactly this for Atlanta United, Andrew Carleton has shown that he is also up for the task in Martino’s system. Still, with Martino’s seemingly conservative tendencies when it comes to roster selection and taking risks, Frosted Orange may find himself on ice despite having an obvious chance to get significant minutes to begin the year.
Finally, here’s the referee assignment for the match: