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Prekrap: Atlanta United at CF Monterrey Concacaf Champions League

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A showdown of the stripes

I know what you’re thinking: “WE’RE GOING TO LOSE FOREVER AND NOTHING WILL EVER BE GOOD AGAIN, WHY DID DARREN EALES HIRE THE FORMER MANAGER OF A MIDDLING EPL TEAM?” Well, don’t think that, I’m not thinking that. Why are you telling me you know what I think?

Atlanta United had another rough opening to the MLS season as the team lost its opening match of the year once again. In general things have worked out pretty well when that’s happened. It’s obviously not a good thing, but the season is long and won’t be won or lost in the first week of the year.

Just remember, the real loser is Bill Hamid who decided to tell everyone that as a player who didn’t get a call up to January camp that he’s better than the goalkeepers who did get a call up to January camp and Brad Guzan. The Polar Bear had twice as many saves as Hamid did in the game, so at least Atlanta dominated in one statistical category in the match. Guzan also basically told Hamid he was no longer welcome in the Goalkeepers’ Union anymore, so the game wasn’t a complete loss.

Surprises or not in store for Atlanta United

Many fans, proper journos, and improper journos alike were surprised by Frank de Boer’s lineup choice in the MLS opener. Rather than rest his starters, FdB went full bore (sorry) with an XI that wouldn’t be out of place after a full week of match preparation. This is something that has been consistent with both of Atlanta’s managers, at least in a small sample from de Boer. In contrast, the Houston Dynamo rested their starters in leg two of their Concacaf Champions League match while the New York Red Bulls put the fate of their opening MLS match in the hands of Kyle Duncan and Florian Valot.

It seems like, at least with Tata and de Boer, that their experience in continental competition has led them to rely on the best players on the roster game in and game out - so much as fitness, and as we saw at times under Tata, injuries allow. Though Pity Martinez did get a break, Atlanta United seems to be set to put both the MLS and CCL on equal footing in 2019. Keeping this in mind and perhaps learning something about how FdB sees the team and options he has, it seems like the star players won’t be in for a rest for awhile. With an international break looming, that could indeed be quite some time.

As far as what Atlanta can do against Monterrey, it’s going to be a tough game for the Five Stripes. Rayados have 22 goals and eight allowed in nine Liga MX games and in two CCL games this year advanced on a 1-0 aggregate to Alianza FC. In the two games Atlanta has lost in 2019, the team has had a difficult time balancing attacking and defending responsibilities. That has shown up in the way the team allowed space between the holding midfielders and center backs in Costa Rica and in the way the left side of the defense played against DC United. Brek Shea had a difficult game and put the center backs on their heels throughout the match. Should the Monterrey attack key on him on Wednesday night, if he starts, the problems for the defense will persist and Atlanta may again be facing a challenging come back in leg two.

As Rob noted in his three thoughts, the defense wasn’t the only problem. Atlanta’s attack looked terrible in Washington. It was cold, it was rainy, and it’ll be nicer weather-wise in Monterrey but those factors didn’t stop DC United from executing and shouldn’t be an excuse for Atlanta. The team looked to lack chemistry and even when Julian Gressel and Pity Martinez joined the fray, the attack wasn’t much more dangerous while trying to claw back into the match. With Monterrey a well drilled and team that’s allowed just four goals in five home matches, the time for the attack to gel is upon the Five Stripes.

A CCL Champion looms

Monterrey is a less than ideal opponent for Atlanta United’s fourth competitive match of 2019. The team has won CCL three times in a row, ending in 2013, reached the Apertura semi-finals in 2018, and sits in second in the LigaMX table following a 2-0 win at Chivas over the weekend. That came despite playing a man down because left winger Rodolfo Pizarro got a red card in the 80th minute. On top of that, they rested the good Funes Mori, Rogelio, wanting the striker to be fresh for Wednesday. The team also plays in one of the best LigaMX arenas usually selling out the 50,000 seat stadium to a raucous home crowd.

Monterrey features a fearsome attack with the aforementioned Funes Mori and Pizarro joined on the right by Dorlan Pabon. The central midfield underscores that the team is deep enough to rotate Jonathan Gonzalez, of El Tri and not the USMNT, and relies on Argentina National Team central attacking midfielder Maximiliano Meza to set the tempo.

If Funes Mori can get good chances in the game it could be another long evening for the Atlanta United backline, but that’s just the beginning of the problems in the match for Atlanta. Once again, the left side of the defense will be critical. Pabon has hit double digit assists, real assists, not MLS ones, in his last few seasons with Monterrey. Right back and El Tri regular Miguel Layun is also adept at getting forward. Whoever is tasked with defending their side of the field cannot give them space to send crosses into the box if Atlanta wants to keep the game manageable heading back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the second leg.

Not only that, but the team did little to win the ball, get meaningful possession, or shots on goal inside of the 18 against DCU. A similar performance in Mexico will leave the Five Stripes needing another big result at home in leg two. Rather than a struggling team from Costa Rica, it will come against possibly the best team Atlanta has faced in its history.