It’s that time of year again. Major League Soccer’s two southeastern franchises will meet for the first time in 2018 on Sunday as Atlanta United travels south to take on Orlando City. The three matches between these two sides during Atlanta’s expansion season were tightly contested affairs. United led for just four minutes total over the three games but still managed to walk away with five of the nine available points.
Both teams have spent a good deal of money inside and outside the league trying to build on last year, trading millions in allocation money and spending millions in South America — which means this season’s showdowns have even more weight to them.
This week we have Haris Kruskic, editor of SB Nation’s Dirty South Soccer, who has dropped by to give us some insight into the Five Stripes as they roll into town this weekend. I also answered some of his questions and you can find those over at their place.
Atlanta had a rough start to the year with a rout in Houston but has turned it around with an impressive run of form. What’s been the biggest reason for the strong performances of late?
Haris Kruskic: I would say two things. First, Atlanta has gotten progressively healthier throughout the season. Although he came on after Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’s red card against Houston, Michael Parkhurst wasn’t 100% healthy and ready to return. However, since then he’s been tremendous and the team has only given up six goals in the last eight matches. It also helps to have a $15 million signing in Ezequiel Barco fit again.
The second thing is Tata Martino’s switch from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2. It’s given the team much more defensive stability when needed, even if it has meant allowing the opposing team more possession than Martino would normally like to.
Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco were two of the highest profile signings of the off-season. How have they adapted to Atlanta thus far?
HK: Barco definitely showed flashes of his quality over the past few matches. It’s clear that he’s good on the ball, rarely turns it over, is unafraid to take on opposing defenders, and can finish as well as any player on the team after his preseason goal against Minnesota.
With Nagbe, he’s being asked to drop back and defend far more often than he ever was with Portland and be an outlet in midfield for defenders that are being pressed. This was the biggest cause for concern when his signing was announced. Could he adjust to this extent? So far, he’s done that.
What is the one key match-up in this game that could decide the outcome?
HK: It’s not a specific match-up per se, but if Orlando attempts to attack Atlanta, I think AU could have a field day. City’s back line has been shaky even during the team’s success and their best bet to grab a result is to defend as often as possible while looking for their counterattacking opportunities.
What injuries/suspensions will keep players out this weekend and what is your projected lineup and predicted final score?
HK: Injuries: Brad Guzan is obviously suspended. Alec Kann and Mitch Hildebrandt are both questionable to play on Sunday as they’re both dealing with knee injuries. If neither of them are available on Sunday, Atlanta will likely rely on both of their reserve team keepers in Paul Christensen and Nico Caraux to step up in a major way and travel for a huge match-up. Franco Escobar and Chris McCann are listed as questionable.
Lineup (3-5-2): Paul Christensen, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Miles Robinson, Greg Garza, Julian Gressel, Jeff Larentowicz, Darlington Nagbe, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Josef Martinez.
Thanks again to Haris for taking the time to answer some questions about this week’s away side.