Update (March 1, 3:05)
Atlanta United confirmed on Tuesday that Luiz Araújo is set to miss four weeks with a hamstring injury, which would have the Brazilian scheduled to return the week of March 28. Atlanta United is scheduled to play the Colorado Rapids, Charlotte FC and Montreal during that time frame. If all goes well, Araújo could return for Atlanta’s road trip to D.C. United on April 2.
Atlanta United kicked off the 2022 Major League Soccer on Sunday with a secure and entertaining win over Sporting Kansas City, one of the best teams in the Western Conference (which you can read about here).
On a night with so many storylines and positive takeaways, one of those storylines has already been disrupted and placed on a different trajectory. As he was executing the motion to scoop the ball over a rushing Tim Melia and into the back of the net, Luiz Araújo appeared to pull his hamstring. He had to be helped off the field by the medical staff and the beginning of what many hope can be an MVP-caliber season has come to a halt, at least for now.
Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said in the post-match press conference the team hasn't made a prognosis regarding the potential amount of time the Brazilian would miss. Let’s not overreact or jump to conclusions, but there's a real possibility that Araújo will be unavailable for at least a few games. Before we talk about how Atlanta United will deal with his absence, let’s talk about what he brings to the table.
There’s something Araújo brings to the team that no one else does. For one, he’s really, really fast and physical. He can blow by you when he has the ball or he can body you and take the ball off your foot when he’s trying to win the ball. He’s a player who can go both ways, and he can press for days. His ability to press and his importance to Pineda’s system became even more apparent after he was forced off.
Araújo’s early departure from the game resulted in Atlanta United losing a great deal of possession. Below is a screenshot from MLSsoccer.com’s game page for the Atlanta United - Sporting KC match. Each column represents 5 minute intervals.
As soon as Araújo sustained his injury, Sporting KC began keeping better possession of the ball throughout the rest of the match. The final possession numbers were 56% to SKC and 44% for Atlanta.
Atlanta dealt with that change by absorbing pressure and hitting on the counterattack. That plan resulted in Dom Dwyer scoring an important goal on the stroke of halftime.
But now Araújo is injured.
What does that mean for Pineda and how he wants the team to play? Pineda gave some thoughts on just that after the game.
Q: Are you already thinking about what this team could look like without Luiz in the short term? And the long term? Is the two-striker system something you’ve worked on?
A: “Well, first of all, we will go game by game. I cannot think in the long term because you never know what’s going to happen. So, to replace Luiz (Araujo), if he´s out for sure, for the next game, we have some options I think. So, you saw that Brooks (Lennon) is coming back from his injury and the ankle and then, you know, obviously Marcelino (Moreno), you saw a little bit of that with that assist. So, he´s kind of back. There might be some players from the visas process coming back. So, we’re regrouping and we will have alternatives. Now, the two strikers to be honest tactically is not my preference just because against back fours, you lose the numerical advantage in other parts of the field, but some version of that I can see working - where, maybe, you know Dom Dwyer runs around Josef (Martinez), and Josef just picked the right passes in between the lines or the opposite if they alternate, but not because you see Dom and Josef on the field is because we´re playing two forwards. Dom can also play a bit on the side, on the flank as we just saw today.
Atlanta United wasn’t at full strength even heading into this match. Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra, and Thiago Almada are all working to acquire visas but you have to think that those guys will be back with the team relatively soon. Brooks Lennon and Marcelino Moreno, as Pineda stated, came back into the picture today but had previously been dealing with injuries. We will see if they can build enough to fitness during the week to contribute more minutes against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday.
So while Atlanta United is slowly regrouping, Atlanta will have different options to deal with Araújo’s absence. Based on what happened in the opener against SKC, Dom Dwyer could very well factor into that solution. Pineda said he doesn’t like a two striker system, which was apparent on Sunday with Dwyer played on the right wing as a like-for-like sub, even scoring a winger-esque goal to open his Atlanta United account. He did pop up in the middle of the penalty area at times, and had a big chance in the second half that he didn’t put on target.
We don’t know how Pineda will deal with this loss. He doesn’t even know. The team is in flux and a lot of players are at different points in the recovery/fitness process. It's early days in the new MLS season, and a lot can and will change for every team in the league. Pineda has until Saturday to work with his team and come up with a tactical plan to take on the Colorado Rapids that doesn't include the talented Luiz Araújo. Hopefully, Pineda won’t need to come up with a long term plan for the season.