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The Tactics Board: How Does Pineda Keep Atlanta United’s Momentum Through the International Window?

Key players will be repping their national teams, but the away match in Columbus presents possibilities

MLS: Portland Timbers at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The international window has arrived. For Atlanta United fans it’s a bit of a blessing and a curse; a sense of pride watching player after player get called up to represent their national teams is something few clubs can offer, but the memories of losing so many starting players in 2022 - whether by injury or any other reason - is still very fresh.

Atlanta United are off to the greatest start in franchise history, tacking on another three points to sit alone at the top of the Eastern Conference after they sent Portland back to the shadow realm on Saturday night. The 5-1 win was convincing proof of what Gonzalo Pineda is creating from the top down, and it continued to show how the squad is buying into his ideas. The combined might of Thiago Almada, Luiz Araujo, and Giorgos Giakoumakis; the blossoming of young Caleb Wiley; the confidence of the defense bolstered by the return of Miles Robinson and Brad Guzan; the incredibly high work-rate and efficiency of the midfield and wing backs (all of them); and the timely use of effective subs have all contributed to a delightful product on the pitch.

And now the international window threatens to throw it all out of order, or that’s the vocal concern, at least. Atlanta United will be missing a multitude of players, listed below, during this coming weekend’s match against Columbus Crew.

  • Giorgos Giakoumakis (Greece)
  • Thiago Almada (Argentina)
  • Derrick Etienne, Jr. (Haiti)
  • Miles Robinson (USA)
  • Luis Abram (Peru)
  • Machop Chol (South Sudan)
  • Ronald Hernandez (Venezuela)

So, is it time to worry yet? No, not at all. First, one of Columbus Crew’s most influential players will also miss the clash. Lucas Zelarayan will be joining Armenia to play Turkey on March 25th. While the Crew has plenty of other steady pieces, including our old friend Darlington Nagbe and Cucho Hernandez (who is in a bit of a slump currently), they’re still clearly trying to settle in to new manager Wilfried Nancy’s style.

Let’s take a look at how Gonzalo Pineda could potentially line up the Five Stripes in Columbus to keep the momentum rolling.

Change Nothing Other Than Names

The simplest solution here is to just rely on the depth of the squad to make as close to like-for-like swaps as possible. Let’s face it: no one is replacing Thiago Almada, and the center back depth is stretched with two of the four being called up, one of those being Miles Robinson. But the team does have the personnel available to essentially enter this match in the same formation they’ve used the entire year. This option would be the closest Pineda has to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” with the obvious caveat isn’t even close to the same product from the first four matches.

The line up would look something like the graphic below. Miguel Berry would take back over up top at the striker position, Caleb Wiley (who the team thankfully held back from the U.S. U-20 camp) would stay on the left wing with Luiz Araujo on the right. The number ten spot would be taken by Tyler Wolff or Ajani Fortune, backed up by a duo of Amar Sejdic/Matheus Rossetto (if healthy) and Franco Ibarra/Santiago Sosa. Andrew Gutman and Brooks Lennon keep their spots at the wing back positions, with Noah Cobb filling in for Miles Robinson alongside Juanjo Purata. Guzan would continue to keep them organized at the back.

Let Luiz Araujo Roam Free

Luiz Araujo swapped over to the 10 jersey in the offseason, and this formation would offer him the chance to fully pull the strings in the attack. It also creates a few other potential conundrums, but having the energetic Brazilian running wild through the middle of the pitch could help break up Columbus’ midfield solidity. His spot would then be filled by Aiden McFadden, who performed admirably in the first team during a stretch last season. Perhaps one of the benefits of this setup would be giving Araujo the keys to be creative and have more of a voice up top, which he seemed to cherish in the preseason.

Formational Change to a Back Three

While the first two options require mostly personnel changes but no true “formational” alterations, this one would be a shift in the overall chess board for Pineda. Who knows, perhaps this exists as an option as a second-half shift to throw a wrench in any scouting Columbus thinks they’ve performed. It would drop Andrew Gutman back as a traditional center back alongside Juanjo Purata and Noah Cobb to shore up any lingering concerns that may exist about throwing Noah into the fire (not that he can’t handle himself).

This would leave Lennon in his right back spot with Araujo ahead on the wing, with McFadden moving over to the left back spot slightly in front of Gutman, and Wiley in his normal spot on the left wing. The midfield would be of some concern here in the attack, though, because there would be no truly creative number 10. The wings would become the main attacking channels and late runs by the number 8, Rossetto or Sejdic, would be crucial to force Columbus to think twice about clogging up the box around Miguel Berry.

Full disclosure: this whole formation doesn’t seem to really fit into Pineda’s mindset, but if things get dicey and Atlanta needs to hold on to a late lead it might be the change needed to see out the match. It is inherently defensive-oriented, but could be useful in the right situation.

Use The Depth That’s Available

The midfield has been stoic in the four matches of the 2023 campaign, and short of Almada at the number 10 spot the midfield is essentially free to use. Fair warning, this particular option would be...experimental, to say the least, but it uses the available talent simultaneously in a variety of the 3-1-4-2.

The back three would consist of Gutman, Purata, and Cobb again, but ahead of them is where it gets funky. Franco Ibarra or Santiago Sosa would be the main defensive midfielder, as usual, and consist of the bottom of the midfield diamond. Wiley would stick to his left wing spot and Lennon would remain on the right, but in between the two would be Rossetto or Ajani Fortune and Sejdic. Luiz Araujo would then stay more central at the top of the diamond with freedom to roam and work as a 10 while Berry would stick as the loan striker.

Pineda’s midfield guys are making it awfully difficult to choose, so this option heavily clogs the center of the pitch with players comfortable playing through tight spaces. The main stipulation here (and in the previous option) is that one of the central midfielders has to find a way to get involved in the attack. If Rossetto is healthy it’ll be great to see him continue his forward (literal) momentum to create another option in the attack, and Sejdic already has no issues taking the occasional shot from distance to keep opposition honest.

While the likelihood of each of these options being utilized drops pretty drastically the further down the page you read, never underestimate the power of a well-timed curve ball. Does Pineda stick with the balanced formation to keep extra thought out of the match and have everyone revert to muscle memory? It’s worked well so far, and nobody would place blame on him for just making the like-for-like switches to keep it simple. Or does he rely more on the wings to take a guy like Darlington Nagbe out of the match, or overwhelm that midfield with a group of guys who are all playing very well? The options are aplenty, and the team is working with an entirely fresh level of confidence, so don’t chalk up this match as one where the Five Stripes have to settle for a road point or worse.

Be sure to leave us your comments below to let us know your thoughts!