The World Cup will start on Thursday, but before that MLS will show the world what it can do on Wednesday night. Atlanta United will again be on the road for the second match in a row as they look to... not get out shot 19-2 like they were in New York City on Saturday. The team had a difficult time basically doing everything that they usually do well in the 1-1 draw. The departure of Miguel Almiron at half-time left Atlanta without its most effective attacking player and most creative midfielder. With him off the field, the team lacked the ability to find space behind the NYCFC defense or take lots of shots from impossible angles when a pass might be a better choice. Still, they managed to score a goal just after the half began and limited the Pigeons to just one goal to escape from New York with a draw. Atlanta will take on another difficult opponent on the road, on short rest, and possibly without Almiron once again as they visit Columbus.
Anyway, onto the Prekrap...
Meet the new and improved... Gyasi Zardes?
The best American striker will take on Atlanta United on Wednesday night as Gyasi Zardes and his second in the MLS golden boot race 10 goals looks to gain ground on the Five Stripes in the table. Zardes has gone from a player who featured on an anti-And1 Mixtape to a player that seems to have exposed Bruce Arena for a manager who didn’t know what he was doing with a player that it turns out is much better than the former USMNT and LA Galaxy manager knew what to do with.
The main things that Zardes is doing differently this year is playing centrally and playing simply. On the wing he lacked the creativity to effectively be a threat out wide and his touch often times failed him. Behold, the greatest Zardes touch of all time.
Those days are seemingly gone. Zardes is now occupying space in the box as a center forward in the hopes that something good happens, and it has! 10 times in fact. His transformation into a poacher who is on track to score 20+ goals, 20+ goals - Gyasi Zardes - imagine it - this year has been a surprise, one that Atlanta hopes it can be prepared for to get a result in Ohio.
In addition to Gyasinho, the Crew have Federico Higuain pulling the strings in attacking midfield and Zack Steffen in goal. That’s it, that’s the whole team. Zardes has 10 goals and Higuain has four with seven assists, no other player on the roster has more than a single goal. Aside from those three players, the team manages to get results by more or less pressing whenever the ball is in their defensive half, otherwise they are unconcerned with disrupting build up, though Zardes does put in work to pressure the ball at times. Somehow, they have managed to go unbeaten in their last nine games in a row despite just having three players.
Everyone is hurt
I’m not saying that Miguel Almiron is everyone, but not having him on Wednesday night could be a problem for the Five Stripes. For now he’s questionable with a shoulder injury and unless he recovers Atlanta will need to find a way to replace the player who the attack largely goes through. Luckily, they will have had longer than a few minutes at halftime to figure that out, but it will still be a challenge against the Crew. Luckily, according to the injury report, Tito Villalba will be available to play, just like he was on Saturday when he didn’t make the bench.
As far as how the team could deal with Almiron’s absence, one option would be playing Ezequiel Barco more centrally and starting Romario Williams or the available for selection Tito Villalba at second striker in the 3-5-2. Julian Gressel or Kevin Kratz could also move in the the central attacking midfield role possibly with Villalba or Brandon Vazquez playing on the wing which may necessitate a switch to a four back formation. Yet, another option would be (say it with me everyone) STARTING ANDREW CARLETON. The youngster showed that he has a good connection with Barco in the US Open Cup game versus Charleston and has played across the midfield. That doesn’t mean he’s going to add to his 14 MLS minutes this year though and Kevin Kratz could start in midfield with the best Atlanta United attacking option Barco drawing a foul from 25 yards out and Kratz raining free kicks on Zack Steffen all night. One thing is for sure, Germany will regret snubbing him for the World Cup.
Luckily, these are decent options and Atlanta’s improved depth will be an asset should the team need to rely on it in Ohio. Whatever option Tata Martino goes with, or is left with, Atlanta will need to make the most of their chances and hope they can get back to creating them after a poor showing in New York.