After a tense final few minutes last week, FC Dallas pocketed three points against Portland and now head east to the ATL. Defending MLS Champion Atlanta United finally picked up a win, their first on the season, against New England last week. Atlanta is now in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, tied with New York Red Bull and New York City FC (?!?!?!?) with five points on the season. Dallas held steady at fifth place in the Western Conference, tied with Houston on 13 points.
What a start it has been for Atlanta. After winning the MLS Cup in only their second season, most everyone figured they would be the team to beat this season. Their roster barely changed apart from selling Miguel Almiron and bringing in Pity Martinez. Sure, they had to replace Tata Martino after he left for the Mexican National Team job, but head coach Frank de Boer is arguably the second most pedigreed coach to ever take charge of a MLS team (the first being Martino, of course).
So what’s been the problem for Atlanta? Singularly, de Boer’s system. After a dive down the rabbit hole into the type of system de Boer is trying to employ and the tactics that it requires, it’s clear that the changes he is striving for have not suited his personnel. Or more truthfully, it’s that de Boer’s decisions haven’t suited his personnel. I’ll let Dirty South Soccer explain more here and here.
But make no mistake, this is still and incredibly dangerous team. Josef Martinez still leads the line, albeit with only one goal this season. He is flanked on either wing by Hector Villalba and incoming MLS transfer record holder Pity Martinez. We all know what Josef brings to the table – speed, strength, and clinical finishing. Villalba is a burner down the wings and he and Pity are asked to cut inside (both being inverted wingers) to create for themselves and others. In the midfield we have Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel, Jeff Larentowicz and Eric Remedi. With Remedi doubtful due to a concussion last week, Larentowicz will be the central defensive midfielder. Of late, Nagbe and Gressel have played the box to box roles, even moving out wide when the wingers cut inside. Nagbe is the pseudo no. 10 in this formation, a role that he hasn’t really taken to. That brings us to the man in form for Atlanta – Ezequiel Barco. Barco’s been used as a super sub most of the season, but an early injury last week brought him on after just 15 minutes. The 4-3-3 Atlanta has started to run out is more akin to a 4-2-3-1 in that the midfielder’s shape is more like a triangle, with a double pivot and a central attacking mid playing higher and in the middle of the field. When Barco comes on, he shifts Nagbe from the top of the triangle to one of the base roles. And just like that, the player Atlanta bought last season to replace Miguel Almiron slots in to replace him almost perfectly. Barco plays higher up the field, almost like a second striker, moving in and out of the space Josef Martinez creates. He makes runs out to the wings when the wingers cut inside, or bursts through the backline, past Martinez, to latch onto through balls. He brings a certain magic with him in the attack and it sparks life into Atlanta every single time. He is the most dangerous player going right now for United and FC Dallas will have to mark him at all times to keep from getting crushed.
Atlanta’s back line is made up of a combination of players. Earlier in the season when they were playing with a back three, you had Michael Parkhurst, Miles Robinson, and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez flanked by the likes of Brek Shea, Franco Escobar, and Mikey Ambrose. But now that they’ve moved to a back four, it seams de Boer is leaving Gonzalez Pirez and Robinson in the middle and pushing Parkhurst out wide with Shea on the opposite side. Robinson, Atlanta’s first pick in the draft last year (no. 2 overall) has blossomed this season and according to most of the writers at Dirty South Soccer is the best defender on the team. Backing up everyone is former/current (?) USMNT starting keeper Brad Guzan.
What can Dallas do to attack Atlanta you ask? Well for starters, we will have to wait to find out which team we are up against. If de Boer sticks with the 4-3-3 of the past two weeks, Atlanta will be a tough out. Another change we haven’t discussed between last year’s team and this one is that de Boer has them playing with much more possession. According to Whoscored they lead the league at 56.9% per game, but Dallas is right behind them in second with 55.4 %. Does Dallas feel comfortable sitting back and counter attacking Atlanta? I don’t think they do. If Atlanta backs off the press and cedes possession to Dallas it will be a miracle. But even when pressured, Dallas has shown glimpses of working the ball around the formation and finding a new avenue to attack. Michael Barrios should be able to take advantage of Parkhurst’s lack of athleticism at outside back and overlapping Reggie Cannon runs could further free him. Brek Shea isn’t the most natural full back either. Attacking down the wings seems like the best way to transition quickly into the attack. But if Atlanta comes out in their previous 3-4-3 formation that de Boer started the season with, then getting the ball down the middle will be the choicest way to go. That puts the impetus on Nagbe and Larentowicz to stop Paxton Pomykal and Bryan Acosta from breaking through to make runs at the back line. Judging by the start of the season, I’m not banking on Dallas being so lucky.
Key Matchup: Midfield vs Midfield
It’s a bit of a cop out, I know, but the way to slow Atlanta down is to isolate Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco and cut-off their supply, and thus their influence. That’s going to start with Carlos Gruezo controlling the middle of the field – the space where the wingers like to cut in to and where Barco will most likely be stationed. But it can’t stop there; Paxton must not give Nagbe time to pick out passes either. And Acosta or Edwin Cerrillo or whoever else is in the midfield will need to lock down Pity and Villalba or stay central when Gruezo pushes out to those two players.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Comfortably Uncomfortable – Dallas has not looked great whenever a team really puts a press on them. No one is decisive in possession, players move into the wrong areas to help, and passes get too rushed or sent off target. Dallas will have to work through those issues this week in a hostile environment to come away with any points.
2. Find the Flow – No, not your insurance agent, but the flow or rhythm or tempo of the game that allows them to keep possession and still move forward in control. Too often our attacks are either break neck/desperate pass types or useless possession with no creative way to break through an opponent. Finding that ideal offensive flow, that passing rhythm to work around a press and into the attacking third is the way forward and will ultimately lead to better results as the season progresses.
3. Don’t Get Caught – Caught out in possession that is. If Dallas turns the ball over, it can’t be with too many men forward. This isn’t just making sure we have enough for 3v3 or 2v3. Dallas must make sure the numbers and the defensive shape can hold up because Atlanta has the speed and pieces to punish teams from all over the field.
In the end, I’m neither here nor there, up nor down, about how this game turns out. Atlanta’s brief history this season is all over the map. They have looked awful, they have looked great. Last week’s win could be just as much a turning point as a happy accident. Yes, they still have all the pieces to devastate most of the teams in the league. Sure, they are going through the growing pains of a new coach. But said coach has yet to even hit the right starting eleven or starting formation. Through circumstance de Boer has found success this season, in a desperate times kind of thing. I’m not confident Dallas will win this week, any more than I’m confident Atlanta will win. Let’s split the difference – a 1-1 draw on the road. As El Chico Carmona likes to say – any points picked up on the road equals a good result.