At long last, Atlanta United finally kick off the Gabriel Heinze era with a CONCACAF Champions League tie against Costa Rican giants, Liga Deportiva Alajuelense.
One of the traditional powerhouses of their home nation, alongside Saprissa and Herediano, Alajuelense currently sit top of the Liga de Fútbol de Primera División, unbeaten after 16 games with a league-high 31 goals scored, and a league-low nine conceded.
Los Leones are sure to provide a stern early test of Atlanta’s mettle under Heinze. One man who could play a bigger role than most is newly-arrived central midfielder, Santiago Sosa.
Acquired from River Plate for a reported $6m, it’s hoped Sosa will finally fill the gaping hole in Atlanta’s midfield that has crippled the team since the departure of Darlington Nagbe at the end of the 2019 season.
Though inexperienced, Sosa already displays an impressive reading of the game, calmness under pressure and a wide range of passing. What’s more, the 21-year-old has performed at a high level defensively across his limited minutes at senior level with River Plate. These will all be important traits against a formidable foe on Tuesday night.
After pouring over clips of Alajuelense’s attacking play this season, it’s clear they love to hurt the opposition in very specific ways:
- Andrés Carevic’s men press very effectively, preying on loose touches from the opposition and using that as a trigger to close in.
- Once they regain possession, Alajuelense get the ball forward quickly, with the man in possession spoilt for choice with a number of his teammates making direct runs beyond the opposition backline. A style not too dissimilar to the Red Bull clubs in Europe, Leipzig and Salzburg.
- When building from the back, Alajuelense appear very strong at progressing the ball through the middle. The likes of Bryan Ruiz and Alonso Martinez will get in close, looking to combine quickly with one and two-touch passing or, if necessary, win first and second balls. One will occupy the center-backs, the other drops between the lines, while they’re complemented by attacking runs from midfielders and wingers.
This is where Sosa comes in. The Argentina youth international needs to be a figure of calm amid a Costa Rican storm on Tuesday, taking the ball bravely under pressure and distributing it quickly to evade the Alajuelense press, while picking up the right spots to protect his center-backs when Los Leones force turnovers.
“On top of how well he uses the ball and retains possession, what I think fans should be very encouraged by is the versatility he has also shown in the last 12 months,” Argentine football expert Tom Robinson (Golazo, World Football Index) told DSS shortly after Sosa arrived in Atlanta.
“We’ve always known he’s a good defensive midfielder who can get stuck in as well as dictate the play but he’s shown his ability to be more of a box-to-box player who can contribute further forward, and he’s also dropped into the defense and performed admirably.”
At times, Sosa had to fill in at center-back for River Plate. During that time, he scored 89/99 for defending quality and 84/99 for defending quantity according to Smarterscout’s style ratings system*.
*Smarterscout uses algorithms and mathematical models developed by North Yard Analytics (NYA) to assess different aspects of players’ performances and styles. These aspects are divided into overall performance, skills in duels, skills in shooting or saving, and playing style. NYA uses event data collected in the same format across dozens of leagues to create the metrics presented by Smarterscout.
When playing as a defensive midfielder, Sosa scored 99 for disrupting the opposition and recovering possession.
At times, the Argentine will have to drop into his defense, regardless of whether Heinze plays back-three or two center-backs, in order to stop that ferocious Alajuelense transition. Other times, he may need to step onto the Costa Ricans in order to stop them turning and running at the Five Stripes’ backline. In possession, he cannot be afraid to take the ball under pressure. In fact, he should be encouraged to do so.
These are the exact reasons why Sosa was brought to Atlanta in the first place and on Tuesday, we might see those skills put to a very early and rigorous test. If he rises to the occasion, Sosa might just hold the key to negotiating the Five Stripes through to the next round of the CONCACAF Champions League.