Well on Thursday night Herediano proved once again that 3-1 is the most dangerous lead in sports. Atlanta United scored two goals in 10 minutes and the inconsistency that seemed to mark Herediano going into the first leg showed up finally. Whatever gameplan the visitors had was totally thrown off and Atlanta had a superlative performance both in the attack and in frustrating the visitors once they had to adjust their gameplan. The team showed that not only had Frank de Boer’s system sunk in, but it could work when Darlington Nagbe has an off night and that Brek Shea was potentially a sneaky good signing in the off season.
With the team advancing in Concacaf Champions League as an appetizer, the main course is already upon us as Atlanta United sets out to defend its MLS Championship.
Maybe bad is the new good
Atlanta United really showed what they were capable of under de Boer on Thursday. The attack was high flying, the defense solid, and the opposition seemed overwhelmed. That said, Atlanta will be on the road, on short rest, and playing in typical early March cold rainy Mid-Atlantic weather against a team that’s had their number. The match on Wednesday in Monterrey also throws a complicating factor into FdB’s gameplan.
What will we see in this game? It is difficult to say how the match might go without seeing a lineup first. One option is resting the starters ahead of a trip to Mexico for a game on Wednesday. The other is having them play a huge number of minutes early in the season and trying to get a jump on what might be a close competitor for the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Atlanta’s roster is deep and talented and several key players did not start on Thursday night. The squad can put together a lineup that would compete in MLS even with several star players resting or possibly not even making the trip to Washington.
Not only that, but DC United has been more successful against Atlanta than just about any other team in MLS. This is the case nearly regardless of what the talent on DCU has been. In 2017, Atlanta gave the Red and Black 33% of their wins on the way to finishing last in the East. 2018 was different with Atlanta taking two wins against DCU while the team was building its stadium and the ownership was waiting to filed a competitive team until that was complete. Once Wayne Rooney showed up, so did the form the team had against Atlanta in the past.
This time though, if the Five Stripes rest the starters, DC might be the more obviously talented team on the field and, strangely, that may play into Atlanta’s hands. The visitors will obviously need to contain Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta and be mentally prepared for the typical DCU physical style that has at times thrown off Atlanta’s game. But maybe going with a “B” lineup will help address that. At times the team has eschewed pragmatic play in favor of beautiful soccer and the times when that has gone wrong have been particularly disastrous. A lineup with backups getting the bulk of the playing time might bring Atlanta down to DC’s level. Indeed, being so bad that they’re good might flip the script on DCU and resolve the problem of the Five Stripes losing games for being too good for their opposition at times in the club’s history.
Out with the Villa in with the Rooney
One way to look at the DC United turn around last year is that Ben Olsen’s system only needed an effective attacking player to finally work. Another is that Wayne Rooney is a singular talent and made up for all of the shortcomings Olsen has as a manager. That with Bill Hamid playing the soccer of his life made DC look like a different team half way through last season. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but no doubt Rooney and Hamid carried the team into the playoffs.
DC has a little bit of a different look this year. They’ve carried on the practice of signing a player that Atlanta didn’t keep around and added a wrinkle that they brought in a player that the Five Stripes have been heavily linked to. Chris McCann and Lucas Rodriguez may not start, LucRod is still getting fit after a preseason injury, but DC will have plenty of options to try to get all three points at home. Luciano Acosta has long been able to take advantage of Atlanta’s defensive disorganization and Wayne Rooney is WAYNE ROONEY - the talisman can create chances for teammates and score them himself. Meanwhile, Paul Arriola is coming off of 7 goal/8 assist season, and from the right wing his matchup with whoever starts at left back will be critical for Atlanta United defensively.
While Rooney got the headlines last year, a player flew under the radar while DC was charging into the post-season - Russell Canouse. The defensive midfielder was truly a revelation once he returned from injury for the final half of the 2018 season. While the Red and Black was decent in midfield with 18 year-old Chris Durkin starting, they were dominant with Canouse breaking up attacks, helping keep possession, and using his vision and accurate long passing to get the DCU attackers into dangerous positions. Expect to see him do everything he can to make life difficult for Atlanta United as the team tries to build possession and organize attacks.
As the teams line up on what should be a cold and rainy night on the banks of the Anacosita River, the Five Stripes will have a difficult task in front of them to start the MLS season, but a win, even if it’s not strictly speaking beautiful soccer, would go a long way in stating their intentions in 2019.