Seven goal outbursts, Tata Martino departing, buying the best player in South America, breaking the record for a transfer fee paid for an MLS player, nine stripes, Brek Shea - 2019 will be a year of change, but in some ways it will also be the same as it ever was for Atlanta United. We’ll get our first look at the Star and Stripes in a competitive match as the reigning MLS Champions embark on their quest to add to their trophy cabinet as the year gets underway.
Atlanta United will tread a well worn path by MLS teams in the Concacaf Champions League as they head to Central America and face Club Sport Herediano in Heredia, Costa Rica. El Team comes into the match sitting 9th of 12 teams in the Clausura of the Costa Rica Primera Division following their 4th place finish in the Apertura. In the opening half of the season, that was good enough to qualify for the playoffs where the team beat Costa Rica giants Saprissa 5-4 on aggregate to win the Primera Division Final last December. The second leg featured a stunning come from behind win for the underdogs in a thrilling extra-time game.
The team has struggled since then scoring just 11 goals, though only allowing 11, through nine games. That said, and if this is any indication of them finding some sense of form, Herediano has had it’s best run of games in the Clausura over their past four matches with two draws and two wins. That has come while the team runs through a packed schedule which has included playing midweek since the start of February and a friendly against the Portland Timbers on February 7th that featured the Costa Rican side playing mostly reserves in a 3-1 loss.
As far as what to expect out of Atlanta’s opponents, it’s difficult to say. The team was really like a donkey in a boat to begin the year but with eight points through their last four games, they seem to have found a firmer footing. In their last match, a 1-1 draw that TeleTica called “un partido con pocas emociones,” Herediano fielded a 4-4-2. Going with cohesive banks of four and two strikers, avoiding risk, and trying to be difficult to breakdown would make sense with Los Florenses trying to climb back up the table.
El Team is still a talented squad that beat the best team in its league two short months ago by coming from behind twice in the final. The club has never lost at home in CCL and the team seems focused on turning around their season and continuing to bring prestige to their club in the tournament. The roster features six players that have recently appeared for the Costa Rica national team, including Randall Azofeifa who made the 2018 World Cup roster. In addition, a pair of strikers on loan from LigaMX, Aldo Magana of Club Leon and Omar Arellano from Monterrey, add some attacking punch to the mix.
What about Atlanta United? Surely after a handful of friendlies we have a great idea of what the Nine Stripes will do. Perhaps, but there is still a lot up in the air with a shortened preseason ahead of opening the international competition, a manager adjusting to life coaching in a new confederation, new tactics, roster flux and, at least in one position.... let’s say not unrest.
As Frank de Boer noted, he hopes the team can win the CCL and will focus on playing younger players. It’s expected that he will play in a 3-4-3 formation with two of the four midfielders essentially playing as wingbacks. That lineup will also put to the test reports that Miles Robinson has improved his game as Franco Escobar is expected to miss the match due to injury. Should the young center back put in a performance like he did against NYCFC in the playoffs, the backline shouldn’t be an issue.
Another thing to watch will be how Atlanta United adjusts to de Boer’s tactics. While Tata Martino was comfortable in possession, the team didn’t base its attacks on keeping the ball and creating chances through buildup play. That should be different with the Dutchman given how his teams have played in the past. As Chris Burton noted when de Boer was hired, “You can expect de Boer’s team to press, albeit differently, but he will prioritize possession over attack. This does not necessarily mean that you will see a more complacent offense — de Boer’s teams averaged more than two goals a game at Ajax after all — but you may potentially see a more conservative attack.” That may be all the more true with the team headed to Costa Rica, a cautious approach would help put Atlanta in control of advancing in their home game in leg two next week.
If we can draw much of anything from the closed door friendlies or streams from sideline cameras, it seems like Tito Villalba will be coming off of the bench, that both Brek Shea and George Bello might start at left back (if I were to be so bold as to make a prediction, I’d expect Shea to start away in a tough away fixture in Central America). While he wasn’t traded, though he missed the preseason friendlies after being sent home and training with the reserves after reportedly demanding a move, Darlington Nagbe is traveling but who knows if de Boer thinks he’s ready to play after essentially missing the preseason with his teammates. It also seems like that bench role that Villalba occupies means that Andrew Carleton is going to see the 18, but might be behind the Argentine when FdB goes to the bench.
Soccer is hard and the CCL is where MLS teams’ dreams go to die, but Atlanta United is talented enough to win the tournament. The team has depth, is relatively healthy, and aside from whatever may linger from the “nothing to see here folks” Nagbe situation, everyone seems to be ready to face 2019 together. Frank de Boer has experience winning championships and while Concacaf is known for bumpy fields, unruly fans, and distant travel, his Ajax teams were familiar with those elements in the rigor of European soccer trips to Romania, Ukraine, Cyprus, and other sundry locales. Chapter III starts tomorrow and I can’t wait to see how the story unfolds.