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What does Atlanta United need to kickstart the season?

Besides a magical injury fairy and a tube of spare ligaments

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, this could be considered a bit of a loaded question. From this extensive break in the season, what does Atlanta United need to do to not only live up to their potential in 2022, but to simply salvage the potential for a home playoff match? At this point, the Five Stripes sit at 11th in the Eastern Conference, ten points from first, three points from the playoff line, and five points from the bottom. Before we start examining answers and playing Football Manager, let’s take a quick snapshot of the current iteration of Atlanta United.

Let’s start with the good news: there is still a lot of football left to be played in this season. The parity in MLS has kept virtually every team in the running, and what we see currently will likely be drastically different come September and October. Furthermore, a run of solid form could propel any team rather quickly into that aforementioned home playoff territory; just look at how rapidly NYCFC have shot up the standings, and they now sit at first in the East (2nd overall). Atlanta also has an incredibly potent attack, and one that still feels as if they have another gear or two ready to be unlocked. This is especially true now that Thiago Almada, Luiz Araujo, and Marcelino Moreno are developing some chemistry and Josef Martinez is back in the fold.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Nashville SC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As for the bad news, where do we start? The injuries this season have been nothing short of spectacularly ridiculous, and they further place manager Gonzalo Pineda in a bind when trying to string together a consistent starting crew. An entire article series could be written on the injury crisis, but suffice to say that there isn’t a sports team worldwide as unlucky as Atlanta United has been in 2022 in dealing with injuries. Additionally, while the attack may be developing into something very stout, the defense has quickly devolved into a disaster. The season has been marred by the queasy feeling every supporter gets when Atlanta has to defend a set piece, or when there is a mental lapse that inevitably turns into a goal conceded. With that being said, let’s now take a look at some potential personnel changes and formation options that the team could rollout coming out of the international break and through the summer transfer window.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Personnel

Not much can be done about the injuries, but in terms of personnel, rest, time to reevaluate, and an upcoming transfer window, what can Pineda, Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and the rest of the staff do to right the ship? We’ll examine a few options here, but one of the current common themes amongst both the fanbase and media is that of an impact signing for a direly needed position during the summer window; one that would be more than a body to replace the growing injury list, and a player who can elevate those around him. Think here the likes of Osvaldo Alonso, Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst, and Greg Garza. I asked the world of Twitter the following to determine what folks think the most necessary position would be to target during the window, and out of 434 votes here are the results:

The results here indicate, at least amongst fans, how much faith they have in the attack and how desperate they are to see something, anything, change defensively. With the rumors floating of center back Juan Jose Sanchez Purata and goalkeeper Raúl Gudiño incoming, it appears the front office may be in the same boat. Granted, neither of those names have been made official (as of this writing), but it signals that Eales and Bocanegra (and if the influx of Mexican talent is any indication, Pineda) are poking around the market for exactly the positions that most fans think they should be inquiring about.

Soccer: International Champions Cup-Guadalajara at Atletico de Madrid Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

What’s missing in the two aforementioned rumors is the “impact” portion of what Atlanta’s defense desperately needs. Of course, there is always the potential that Purata and/or Gudiño could arrive in Atlanta and be exactly the missing piece the team has been searching for, but the same could be said for giving Noah Cobb or Efrain Morales from Atlanta United 2 some minutes. Those names don’t conjure the same confidence that, say, an Ethan Horvath would if we’re going on the weight of the name alone, though Gudiño does have some Mexican national team apps and would definitely be looking to fight his way back into Tata Martino’s good graces. Additionally, he’s played some minutes in both the UEFA Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup.

Ultimately, that particular style of player may be just who the front office is looking for: a player with promise, someone who has exhibited talent before, and a guy who has something to fight for, whether that’s first team playtime or the desire to keep representing his country. Financially, these are also players that Atlanta can target for relatively cheap, with the potential for a high upside. Ronaldo Cisneros is a perfect example of this caliber of player, and while it’s unknown if his purchase option will be triggered, he’s definitely taken advantage of the time he’s been given. Perhaps these hidden gems will be the secret to battling the injury crisis through 2022.

Weigh in down in the comments if any names pop up that you think would be a good fit for Atlanta to target during the international break; this article was never meant to be a “scouting report,” per se, but we’d love to hear what y’all think. Horvath would definitely be a goalkeeper worth reasonably investigating, and Gudiño is definitely promising. In terms of center backs there is a tried and true Englishman sitting on the bench for Charlotte F.C. right now...just sayin’.

Formations

Polls are fun, so I actually did two. Granted, this one was from my account so there were nowhere near the same amount of responses, but I wanted to get ideas from the fans on the formation and setup Pineda could use after having a long break to fine tune his philosophy.

Interestingly, the option of switching to a back three won out over sticking with a 4-2-3-1. Of the back three styles, a 3-5-2 has been mentioned somewhat prevalently with a lineup consisting of something like the following:

This lineup pulls at my chaotic nature, and the more I stare at it the more it seems to fit. But not like the square peg/round hole fit; this lineup could play to player’s strengths more than it probably appears at first glance. For example, the most obvious need here is to have that back three to shore up the defense, but every center back in the lineup loves to move the ball up the pitch when they get the opportunity. This allows Rossetto to not necessarily be the lone midfielder as one of the backs would inevitably drop into a central defensive midfielder role when playing out of the back, while Moreno or Almada would provide the forward movement and extra midfield control. Araujo and Wiley have no problem tracking back to defend, and they both provide an obvious attacking presence coming off the wings. Meanwhile, Josef and Cisneros would be opening up even more space for each other, and the attack could be even more potent than it is currently.

Of course, the obvious omissions for this lineup would be Brooks Lennon, who is performing well in chances created, Franco Ibarra, who is playing the role of the Hulk in the midfield admirably, and both Santiago Sosa and Emerson Hyndman, who should just about be back to match fitness. Sosa would be the easiest to swap in here, as he can play both as the lone midfielder and as a center back. Lennon could slot in for Araujo, albeit as a slightly different role, especially since they don’t quite have any notable chemistry when they’re both on the pitch simultaneously. Hyndman can handle himself well as a like for like lone midfielder, and Ibarra would potentially just have to come on as a marauder to help control games when needed.

While this is another back-4 lineup, it’s rather different from what we’ve seen most of the season. The 4-3-1-2 has only been experimented with during late game sub scenarios, so it’s a roll of the dice as to whether we see it or not. The reason I throw it out there is because of PRO’s wonderful decision to extend Thiago Almada’s red card suspension to three matches instead of one. Since he’ll be a non-factor for the next few matches, the concept here is to hold down the midfield and allow Moreno to be creative and look for outlets to Josef and Araujo closer to the box. This would also allow Caleb Wiley and Brooks Lennon some freedom to get forward on the wings, since Sosa would immediately drop back as a psuedo-third center back when the ball is moving forward.

While this particular setup isn’t sustainable with the starting XI Atlanta United wants to field, it could be a stopgap solution while Andrew Gutman and Ronald Hernandez heal and Almada serves his suspension.

Both of these lineups have one common theme, however, which is helping out the back line. This team isn’t going to be able to handle set pieces until they come up with a strategy for their lack of height to win aerial duels, so they absolutely can’t give away the silly open play goals, as well. These formations should, in theory, help out with the latter, though the jury is still out on what will help the set piece conundrum other than hiring a legitimate set piece coach.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There are a ton of possibilities and even more uncertainty heading into Atlanta United’s friendly against C.F. Pachuca and the following match against Inter Miami in a week. Pineda has mentioned in multiple press conferences that one of the themes necessary for his team to succeed is to stay “switched on” for a full 90 minutes. That’s a tough thing to coach, but here’s hoping the international break has allowed the lineup inconsistency to settle and the guys to gel, regardless of which formation is indicated on paper. There’s sure to be some personnel shakeups happening soon, as well, and while those are always a gamble it’s hard to perform worse than allowing the types of goals that the Five Stripes have allowed over the past few matches.

We’d love to hear y’all’s thoughts down below in the comments; this is the time of year when almost nothing is too crazy to hope for.