We’ve gone into it, but my goodness - last Wednesday was a frustrating night. Atlanta played arguably their best 34 minutes of soccer against the best team in the Western Conference with a near first choice 11 in Tata Martino’s preferred formation. At times there was excellent interchange between Ezequiel Barco and Greg Garza - leaving many to say Chris McWho? At other points Miguel Almiron cut through two and three defenders while Josef Martinez made himself a nuisance as the SKC strategy seemed to be, surely Tim Melia will bail us out all night and maybe Michael Parkhurst will fall down on one of our counters and Brad Guzan will get a red card - and hey look, it worked.
Atlanta wasn’t even terrible with 10 men and managed 7 shots despite taking Tito Villalba off after Guzan’s red card. The defense held fairly firm allowing a goal when one of Sporting’s long range efforts finally worked against a 10th string keeper and the team got a second goal after Atlanta sent extra defenders forward looking for an equalizer late. The Five Stripes even managed to make SKC’s new designated player do this:
This weekend, Atlanta will look to start another streak in a game they will surely miss their stalwart starting keeper.
Anyway, onto the Prekrap...
An improved Orlando looks for its first rivalry win
This weekend it seems clear that the main match up to watch will be whoever starts in goal for Atlanta United against Orlando City’s attack and Atlanta United’s attack against what has been a fractured defense so far in 2018 from Orlando City. To be fair they are a much improved team over the club that was old, slow, and extremely unbalanced from last year. After making improvements by getting rid of several Orlando City players, the team has a solid central midfield and an attack that has as many goals for as NYCFC.
Indeed, OCSC has transformed into a team that was embarrassing going forward and a complete mess in defense into one that is now better in both of those facets of the game. The addition of Sacha Kljestan has added a new attacking element that allows the team to be that much better at getting fake assists and being detestable. In addition, Dom Dwyer seems to have regained his form and in addition to being a master of the dark arts, he has 6 goals in 6 games this season. All of the new faces have not quite clicked though with Justin Meram struggling to settle into form in Florida, but rookie Chris Mueller has made up for his shortcomings with three goals and an assist.
In addition to Meram, there’s another aspect to the Orlando re-vamp that hasn’t quite fit together yet, the defense. While the team hasn’t been bad in the back, the 14 goals allowed in 9 games isn’t all that impressive. OCSC has even resorted to playing central midfielder Will Johnson at right back where he will surely be tested throughout the match by Ezequiel Barco, Greg Garza, and Miguel Almiron. Add to it that the robust teams Orlando has beaten this season include such MLS heavyweights as NYRB II, San Jose, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Philadelphia, and Portland and it would seem that the team hasn’t passed a real test in 2018. Still, winning is winning and Orlando is just three points behind Atlanta in the standings in the East with a game in hand and will be eager to get their first win, and possibly claim first place, against their rivals.
A visit from an old friend
It’s back? Tata Martino is just messing with us. After weeks of predicting that it would come back, analyzing why it would be better, and then presuming that there was no way a formation change would happen in the middle of an unbeaten streak on short rest no less, the 4-3-3 came back on Wednesday. And what a comeback it was. Atlanta looked very promising in possession, creating 10 chances before Guzan was sent off with Sporting Kansas City looking tentative in defense with the Five Stripes taking full advantage of their indecision.
In addition, the aforementioned left side of the attack looked as it did when the team was at its best last year, Miguel Almiron was dribbling through players like they weren’t even there, and the defense was holding Sporting’s attack at bay with Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez back to his attacking center back role that he excelled in last season. Tito Villalba, the original Lion Tamer, also looked to be back to his 13 goal, 11 assist self on the wing. With Orlando seeming to not exactly be built to sit back and defend, this has the trappings of an open and exciting game. There should be plenty of opportunities for Atlanta to break in transition and the team has shown that it can at least create chances when it controls possession.
Tata made a surprising decision on Wednesday playing Sal Zizzo at right back who with Julian Gressel kept on the bench. Though presumably Gressel could start at right back himself, he has never started as an out and out right back and would be lacking the support from a third center back he does as a wingback. At least for now, it seems like the 2017 Rookie of the Year is slated to serve as a sub with Atlanta possibly changing tactics.
In fact, Tata Martino discussed the decision to go with Zizzo over Gressel at right back when talking to reporters this week saying, “Playing as a wingback in a 5-man backline and and as a right back in a 4-man backline are two different things. In the 4-man backline, that position has a lot more defensive responsibilities.” Though Gressel offers more in terms of attacking potential right back is a primarily defensive position and Martino noted that on Wednesday, “We thought Sal would be better off for that challenge.”
Should Zizzo again be asked to start, he will have to contend with Justin Meram along with Yoshi Yotun and Mohamed El-Munir on the right side of the field when OCSC push forward. However, if there is one thing Tata has shown this year it is that he can be unpredictable in his roster decisions. With Zizzo going a full 90 in a physically demanding game, Tata may decide to revert back tot he 3-5-2 again tomorrow. It would allow Gressel to get back on the field but would most likely see Miles Robinson starting in the third center back spot with Chris McCann and Franco Escobar unavailable for the match. At the very least, one of Alec Kann or Mitch Hildebrandt will be able to play in the match so Atlanta will be relying on its second or third string keeper for the game.
Whatever lineup Atlanta plays, if the Five Stripes can manage to put the loss behind them from mid-week and contain the Orlando attack, the team could continue its unbeaten streak against Orlando and begin a new one in 2018.