Red Bulls fans (and the league office) couldn’t have dreamed up a more enticing opening matchup for the MLS is Back Tournament opener than Atlanta United. The Five Stripes have quickly established themselves as one of the league’s glamour clubs over the last few seasons, with RBNY as their chief long-term rivals for primacy in the Eastern Conference.
Ahead of tonight’s match, we spoke with Sydney Hunte (@SHWrites) of our sister site Dirty South Soccer to check the pulse of all things Atlanta United.
With Josef Martinez out, what changes both in personnel and tactics could we see for the Atlanta attack?
Sydney Hunte: That’s the big question, isn’t it? Atlanta signed both JJ Williams and Adam Jahn who can both play in the striker role, but they were never meant to fill Martinez’s spot completely. That shifts the focus on to Matheus Rossetto and what his precise duties will be in the Atlanta lineup. Frank de Boer has attempted to import to Atlanta the style of play that he employed at Ajax with mixed results - and it’s no surprise that the Five Stripes began playing better once they shifted to a more familiar 4-3-3 formation with Martinez at the top. Problem is, Martinez is out due to his leg injury, so there’s thoughts that de Boer could utilize Rossetto as a false 9 in a more 3-5-2-ish look, allowing him to play deeper toward the midfield while giving him creative freedom to provide chances for the DP pairing of Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez. All in all, I imagine with the club not having played for several months that there will be some wrinkles to iron out and plenty of rust that will be evident in the first couple of matches, if not the entire group stage.
Defensively, in a 4-man backline you could pencil in Franco Escobar, Fernando Meza, Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes, but I feel it will be a 3-man set with Meza, Robinson and Walkes in the back and players on either side on the wings.
Obviously Atlanta has built up a demanding reputation for winning, what are the expectations for the team going into the MLS is Back tournament and a potential 2020 season?
SH: This club has said from day one that it is out to get trophies, and this is another chance to add another one to the case. But I feel that the expectations are a little varied thanks in part not having Josef in the lineup and, as mentioned earlier, the long layoff. I think fans will be realistic going in: Atlanta won’t be playing gangbusters from the opening whistle and winning matches 2-0 or 3-0, and will likely need to gut out a few results in order to position itself into the top 2 of the group (which, in all honesty, it should do, while to me RBNY stand the best chance of winning the group overall). Once things shift to the knockout stage, those competitive juices will have kicked in fully and anything can happen.
Will Atlanta win? I really don’t see it happening, especially if it does finish second in the group and draws an LAFC side that even without Carlos Vela should be favored to lift the trophy on August 11 and punch its ticket to Champions League. The big key, especially with Atlanta’s primary target out, is defense and how that backline pans out, as well as chance creation, whether that’s from Rossetto or primarily from the wings. As for the remainder of the season (if it’s played), getting Josef back in the lineup will obviously be the priority, and once he’s healthy, you’ll start to see those results start to stack up.
Atlanta has recently signed many younger domestic players. Who are some that could see a visible role in this month’s tournament?
SH: Brooks Lennon, of course, was acquired via trade from Salt Lake and then signed to a long-term deal, while Jake Mulraney was brought in from top-flight Scottish side Hearts. How they’ll fit in is a little bit still in the works as we’ve only seen them in action for a handful of actual matches, but Mulraney’s known for his pace while Lennon provides versatility to play further up the pitch or in a more defensive role. Walkes, who I also mentioned, was brought in on loan from Spurs in 2017 before returning home to the UK but was signed to a permanent deal prior to this season, and as I said earlier, I expect to see him in a three-man backline alongside Meza and Robinson, with Escobar and Lennon on either wing and Mulraney available as a primary substitute if needed.
While you said recent signings, I’ll add Emerson Hyndman to the mix even though he’s entering his second season in Atlanta but his first since having his loan spell from Bournemouth converted to a permanent deal. He scored a terrific (if controversial) goal in the MLS opener at Nashville SC and has settled in as a rather serviceable center midfielder, and could be a good x-factor to keep tabs on throughout these next few weeks.