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Does Atlanta United have the midfield to win MLS Cup?

We will soon understand how effectively Atlanta has replaced Darlington Nagbe

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

With his recent quotes surrounding the need to find a new right winger and Atlanta United reportedly being “one step away” from landing Estudiantes de la Plata winger Manuel Castro, it seems that Frank de Boer will not be pushing for any more signings this window. However, after Darlington Nagbe’s departure, Atlanta United needed to strengthen its depth in the middle of the park for the 2020 season. It partly addressed this by signing Matheus Rossetto from Club Athletico Paranaense last week. I’m going to go ahead and say this right now: Rossetto is NOT a Nagbe replacement. Let’s be realistic, there are few players who could do such a thing, none of whom play in this hemisphere, and trying to place that label on a player doesn’t do them any good.

Nagbe was superb in his two seasons for Atlanta United and it is now Frank de Boer’s job to figure out a way to play without him. How the team does that is still very much up in the air. Emerson Hyndman’s loan from Bournemouth was made permanent this offseason, but both he and Rossetto appear more comfortable operating in attacking roles in and around the box. As far as attacking goes, this should hopefully signal more goals and assists from midfield for the Five Stripes.

So far for those who have been able to watch the team in training and in their pre-season friendlies, it has seemed that Hyndman has been playing slightly deeper than he was last season for Atlanta United. His quality on the ball as well as his tactical awareness is something that de Boer values and he will most likely occupy one starting midfield position. It will be very curious to see where and how Rossetto fits into de Boer’s system. From where he has played so far in his career, one would expect him to be very attack oriented and be pushed higher up the pitch to directly support the attack. Add to that his wages and you can almost bet that once he gets settled in he will also occupy a starting role.

The main question is less about what happens on the attacking end of things in midfield than on the defensive side. Atlanta United currently has few options who can operate as a holding midfielder. Although the stats may not show it, Nagbe played a vital role in the amount of ground he covered to get back and defend when United lost possession last season. Regardless of whether United plays with a midfield two or three, the anchor of midfield will be a key position; it helps break up counter attacks and is vital in recycling possession.

Toward the end of the season, that role was occupied by Jeff Larentowicz. But he will be turning 37 this year in what could possibly be his final professional season. Relying on the veteran to start week in and week out is unwise and doesn’t put him in the best position to succeed. Alternatively, for all of his qualities, Eric Remedi is ill suited to being deployed in the role on a weekly basis. At his best he is a combative box to box player who can get up and down the pitch all match, but more often than not he is drawn out of position and leaves space in behind when he needs to maintain his positional discipline. It is for that reason why he most likely dropped towards the end of the 2019 season in favor of Larentowicz as United looked for more balance in midfield.

Who else can play that position? Mo Adams is not believed to have the technical quality to play a key role in de Boer’s system. Anton Walkes could play there but he is still expected to have at least a slight readjustment period after arriving back to preseason later than the rest of the squad after being resigned from Portsmouth in England. The options are not ideal for a role that will be vital for the Five Stripes.

Although the attacking quality of the team may be good enough to see it finish near the top of the table the ability to remain solid and not overly vulnerable to counter attacks will be paramount come the postseason. As both Atlanta United and LAFC learned in the playoffs last year, attacking quality is great but if you come up against a team that sits deep and can catch you on the counter you can easily find yourself watching MLS Cup from the couch. Does Atlanta United have the quality to win MLS Cup? I think that they are close but still need one more vital piece to complete the puzzle.