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Prekrap: Atlanta United at Minnesota United

Gray Ducks fly together

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Minnesota United FC Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t do what J. Sam Jones does, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.

Atlanta United Football Club will take on Minnesota United Football Club in the first 2018 United Football Club derby. Atlanta beat one United and is looking for a second win against United this year. This comes after each team took divergent paths in 2017. Atlanta built a team around three young talented designated players using a strategy of possibly eventually selling them on to build for the future success of the club. It’s not something MLS has been known for or good at with aging DPs usually being signed with marketing in mind from European or Mexican teams. That changed some when Toronto signed Giovinco and Seattle signed Nicolas Lodeiro, but Atlanta went all in on investing in players like Miguel Almiron, Tito Villalba, and Josef Martinez.

Those players aren’t Marco Etcheverry playing for DC United for seven seasons, it’s something new that helped lead MLS teams bring 26 South Americans, including Ezequiel Barco, to the league this past off-season.

Minnesota, on the other hand, spent the lead up to 2017 trying to jam a year and a half team building job into a 4 month window - they’ve had an extra year and are still playing catch up. The results were to be expected and the team finished 9th in the West much to the delight of their fans because they managed to win more than the 5 games that Grant Wahl predicted they would in pre-season. They are built around an odd mix of MLS castoffs, AAAA players (to borrow a term from baseball) from NASL, draft picks, and are coached by a manager who was so awful at his profession that he lost his job to Jason Kreis. The team did sign Darwin Quintero this week, so they could have a good squad if this was 2012. The Loons were successful in not finishing last in the West while giving up 70 goals and in no way inspired Anthony Precourt to move the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas. In short, last year Minnesota proved it exists as an MLS team, but it doesn’t go much beyond that outside of a fanbase that is extremely dedicated, creative, and even cleverly ironic in their support of the team.

Of course, there is history - sorta - between the two Uniteds. The 6-1 snow game helped put an end to the Vadim Demidov era for the Loons era while the weird 3-2 win in Atlanta for Minnesota can both be read as anomalies for the teams. The conditions and awful center back play really sank the Loons last March while Atlanta moving a game to an international break on short rest because of the construction of our flashy-gaudy-beautiful-monstrosity of a stadium pitted a Five Stripes ‘B’ team against Minnesota’s best 11. The result is a 1-1 regular season record against Minnesota with both teams claiming a rare MLS away win in their meetings. Saturday night could put one over the top, or you know, be a draw because it’s soccer.

Anyway, onto the Prekrap...

Quack - clap - Quack - clap - Quack - clap - Quack - clap - Quack - clap - Quack

The Loons sit in 4th place in the Western Conference with 6 points thanks to an 2-0-1 record and negative 2 goal differential. This follows a season in which the Loons looked at a very potent attack, awful defense, and poor central midfield and for 2018 decided to add a bunch of wingers, sign some depth players to compliment their roster full of depth players, and build though the draft - a strategy absolutely no successful MLS team uses. Last week they faced the New York Red Bulls who were without their fancy new DP Kaku, Tyler Adams, and featured a cobbled together backline. For their part Minnesota was missing Francisco Calvo who was with Costa Rica and Tyrone Mears had the night off due to injury, forcing the team to go with rookie Carter Manley at right back. The result was Alex Muyl looking like he was headed to Barcelona to replace Iniesta.

The game also featured a Minnesota attack that looked like it was being led by Hearts of Midlothian castoff Sam Nicholson, reclamation project Ethan Finlay looking like 2016 Ethan Finlay and less like the player who was starting to look like the player he was in 2015, Miguel Ibarra showing why he was a star in NASL but a washout in LigaMX, Ibson displaying the skills that no MLS team wanted when he was out of contract during the Loons’ transition to MLS, and Christian Ramirez looking less like the player who was pushing for a national team call-up in 2017 and more the striker who was talented enough to dominate the second division but was overlooked by manager Adrian Heath to begin the season last year. There have even been well thought out calls to trade Ramirez based on deep understanding of his talents and he might even be benched for Abu Danladi on Saturday.

Still, Minnesota could end up taking advantage of the awful weather that the state’s residents mis-identify as a point of pride and worship at the altar of mediocrity and sing Wonderwall at the end of the match. The Loons are built to counter, they have 37 wingers on the roster, and in the off chance that Ibson, Nicholson, and Ibarra get some kind of rhythm going in the middle of the field, the team has players that are capable of stringing together some passes if they get enough time on the ball. But that brings up their most glaring weakness, outside of their defense, which was on full display in New Jersey. They don’t seem to be able to handle being pressed and Heath thinks that he should have his team trying to build from the back and try to keep possession even though they are built to counter. Beating an oddly assembled Chicago Fire team and a still awful Orlando Penitentiary side is great, but it doesn’t say much for their ability to play the ball out of the back and if Atlanta is going to be successful at containing the Minnesota attack, the Peachtree Press will need to be in full force.

Popped collar, sweater tied around neck, driving Daddy’s Corvette to visit the University of Minnesota

Atlanta United will go into this game needing to deal with a couple of uncontrollable issues. First is the weather. It’s spring up north so it will be below 0 degrees Celsius and raining or snowing or some other charming thing that hearty Midwesterners use as an excuse to spend the winter camped out in pancakes house instead of moving somewhere where 12 feet of snow isn’t a feature of summertime. In fact, a lot of people don’t know this but the weather is so bad in Minnesota that it is too inhospitable for penguins to live there and they choose to live in the Arctic instead.

The weather point seems fairly easy to answer - Atlanta will hopefully do what it did last year and press while trying to play short quick passes in transition to set up another Josef Martinez hat trick. The other issue is the injuries to Ezequiel Barco and Franco Escobar who are seemingly set to miss the game.

No, this does not mean that Atlanta will bench Darlington Nagbe or keep starting Julian Gressel and sit Villalba, that is something that will effectively never happen if they are healthy and available.

What it does mean is that Tata Martino has to answer some questions as he decides what to do against the Loons without Escobar. Does he repeat the disastrous decision of having Chris McCann play defensive midfield and Jeff Larentowicz start at center back in a 3-5-2? Will he be going back to the 4-2-3-1 with Sal Zizzo or another of the depth players at right back, keeping Larry at his usual crucial spot in central midfield? Can Zizzo play right center back in a 3-5-2? Is Tata going to go low-key galaxy brain and put Gressel or McCann at right - or left center back? Will Greg Garza be back in the starting lineup? Is three days rest enough for Nagbe and Almiron to recover to start the match?

Whatever lineup is put on the field. The King Peaches will have their work cut out for them. If Atlanta presses Minnesota when they have the ball, breaks on transition, and watches the counter then it should be another good trip up north. I don’t care what TiotalFootball says, soccer is easy (it’s not and this is going to be harder than it looks and Minnesota can beat us by countering all day on a slippery field ((even thought I made fun of the weather yesterday)) if Atlanta can’t work the press out - but if the press works it should be a good day for the King Peaches).

Finally, here’s how the refs will line up against both teams: