Atlanta United will get the engine revved up again as the season restarts Saturday night against New York Red Bulls (FOX, 8 p.m. ET) for what is sure to be an entertaining game between two Eastern conference rivals. Who will Frank de Boer use in his starting XI? What kind of Red Bulls team are we likely to see? Let’s dive in.
A new New York Red Bulls
Chris Armas’s side is sure to have a different look this season as major personnel changes have taken place at the club over the offseason. Gone are the likes of club linchpins Victor Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Also gone are the pair of athletic, attacking fullbacks Michael Murillo and Kemar Lawrence, both now plying their trades in Belgium at Anderlecht. Add these departures to the loss of Tyler Adams the year prior, and Atlanta United will be seeing a much different team than the one they defeated on their way to an MLS Cup title in 2018.
Manager Chris Armas has long intended to play a similar style to what was originally implemented by Jesse Marsch in the mid 2010s, a trademark high press that is ugly if not effective. But it’s a style of play that requires an extremely high level of fitness, and Chris Armas might try to dial the pressure down a bit in an effort to not only keep his team fresh come the 80th minute Saturday, but to keep them in decent shape for further games in the tournament.
Atlanta United fans know all too well how this can go awry for Armas. Red Bulls’ manager notoriously tried to play a mid-block instead of the typical high press at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2018, resulting in a 3-0 loss. But outside of that time when Armas blew it, Red Bulls have consistently been able to frustrate Atlanta and grind out results — including a 1-0 win last year at Red Bull Arena while scoring the winner with only 10 men on the pitch.
Prior to the MLS is Back tournament, Red Bulls started well enough — winning against FC Cincinnati (as did Atlanta) and grinding out a 1-1 draw on a long road trip to Salt Lake City. The team remains anchored by two internationally-capped American center backs in Aaron Long and Tim Parker. Sean Davis has since replaced the departed Tyler Adams as the high-energy, do-everything midfielder, while Kaku will be relied upon up front to create most of the chances on goal.
How will Atlanta deal without Josef Martinez?
This was obviously the question on everyone’s mind after the Venezuelan fell in a heap on the field in Nissan Stadium with a torn ACL. In the immediate aftermath, Adam Jahn filled the void as a big-bodied No. 9 that Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez played off of. But now that the team has had time to train extensively during the hiatus, will de Boer go with something different?
I asked de Boer what he was thinking about his striker options last week, and he rattled off seemingly every possible option. The team signed striker J.J. Williams just prior to the break in action, so he could, in theory, get a start. De Boer spoke at most length about Estudiantes loanee Manuel Castro — noting that he’s an unselfish runner that will look to get vertical and push back the opposing back line with the threat of his pace. In a similar situation last year vs. Orlando in a U.S. Open Cup semi-final, de Boer paired Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco up top as “strikers,” though both are obviously more creative players than finishers. Still, at the MLS level, both have the quality to score goals and giving them free roles up top could be an effective option. I’ve written about Pity Martinez potentially playing as a more traditional “false nine” in which he plays as a central striker, but drops off into midfield as his teammates attempt to exploit the space in behind.
There’s also a question at left back. Early in the season, offseason signing Edgar Castillo and George Bello were both injured and unavailable, so de Boer opted to play with a back 3 and Irishman Jake Mulraney as a left wingback. Mulraney is naturally a more attacking player, and we’re yet to see de Boer deploy him as a pure left back in a back four. Between Castillo and Bello, we’re in the dark as to de Boer’s preference. And then there’s Anton Walkes, a highly-versatile defender that FdB used at left back in preseason. Walkes is technical and strong and likely capable of playing as a defensive, possession-oriented inverted fullback.
Here’s what I’m going with for Saturday.
This would be my best guess (4-3-3). LB is a total toss-up considering both Bello and Castillo were injured to start the season and we really don't know who the preference is there. Could look 4-4-2-ish with Barco/Pity being free up top https://t.co/zGiYKFXMYQ pic.twitter.com/Fp1BUSgoIO— Joe Patrick (@japatrick200) July 10, 2020