It sure looked like Atlanta United dominated a disinterested Orlando City team that hardly tried to do anything resembling playing soccer on Saturday. Miguel Almiron scored a goal on that impossible angle he’d been shooting from all year finally, Josef Martinez probably won’t be criticized for being offside too much in the game, and Mikey Ambrose looked like he was being fueled by the heat of 1,000 suns against his former team.
FC Dallas, the surprising team climbing in the West
Once upon a time, there was a team. They were led by a manager that many thought should be the next in line to take over the USMNT job when the time came. They played exciting, fun soccer that nobody in their hometown watched because they didn’t wear helmets with stars on them. But they didn’t care, they were a damn good soccer team. They had a Argentine attacking midfielder that would dance the ball past the Chad Marshalls of the league and a young American center midfielder they made play left back as a practical joke or something. But they were still really good, and scored good and fun goals even though their stadium was covered with blue tarps.
Then the Argentine got hurt, luckily he came back and looked awesome again, but now he’s getting sold. The young American was given a chance to play central midfield, he was so good that even Deadspin said he didn’t suck. Sadly, he got hurt last year and since coming back he hasn’t quite looked right. This year hasn’t been much better and he even got in a fight with the coach after getting subbed in the first half of a game two weeks ago. It’s a real bummer.
Despite all of that, Dallas sits in second place in the Western Conference, tied on points with Sporting Kansas City - but they have a game in hand. Not only that, but FCD has two games in hand on Atlanta and is just five points behind the Five Stripes in the Supporters’ Shield race. Despite the drama and potential loss of Mauro Diaz, Dallas has quietly become one of the best teams in the league.
One of the features of the team has been playing their yoots. Midfielders Paxton Pomykal and Jacori Hayes have filled in for Acosta and even Diaz when they have missed time this season. Reggie Cannon has stepped up and claimed a starting right back role and Jesse Gonzalez has once again claimed the starting keeper gloves after taking something of a step back last year.
As far as their playing style, Dallas doesn’t particularly look to possess the ball and the team is clearly trying to figure out what they are and who they will be with Diaz gone, but they do like to play direct and go at the goal. Oscar Pareja has been fairly agnostic when it comes to a specific playing style and will change his formation, personnel, and tactics against different opponents. It’s hard to say what he will do against Atlanta, but countering may be a strategy that is successful for them this weekend.
Back on the road for the Five Stripes
None of that is to say that Atlanta United doesn’t have a chance in this game. In recent matches, there’s been a fairly clear path to victory against Dallas that both SKC and the New York Red Bulls have shown - get ready for it, are you ready? - pressing. This was more so on display from the match the Red Bulls completely dominated Dallas in despite playing with a man down for over an hour. Dallas couldn’t break the Red Bulls press or generate anything going long. With Atlanta recently switching back to a 4-2-3-1, the formation that gave birth to the Peachtree Press, Tata Martino may opt for a more aggressive approach and pin Dallas back while trying to generate chances in transition.
That observation made, it doesn’t seem like it is in Atlanta’s DNA to press this year the way they did last season, gloruios 4-2-3-1 or not. Ezequiel Barco is not, we’ve established, Yamil Asad and the team has been really, really successful without the Peachtree Press.
So, as far as what Atlanta might try and do, let’s look back to the game against the Columbus Crew. They’re another team that generally plays fun, attacking soccer, but that doesn’t quite stick to one overall philosophy. In that game Atlanta scored on a classic ‘nothing is going to stop him’ Josef Martinez header and then sealed the game with a flying Tito Villalba breakaway. Josh Bagriansky went into the tactics of the game once Tito was subbed in, but these similar lessons could be applied to Dallas.
His point about Julian Gressel shifting to the center of the formation may also be useful with the German replacing the injured Darlington Nagbe against Orlando. Gressel had struggled last season playing centrally, but he seems to have settled into the role more this year. He will be tested against FC Dallas who will probably try to actually get the ball away from him unlike O-Town, who really didn’t look interested in playing soccer at all over the weekend.
In the end, this will be a great test for Atlanta United. FC Dallas are a good team, they’re well coached, and have five wins in their last six league games. Atlanta has just one loss on the road this year and is undefeated since their last trip to Texas for the first match of the year against Houston. Continuing their unbeaten form on the road would also give the team momentum as they look ahead to the weekend where they will travel to Philadelphia and take on the Union.