It’s the end of another work week which means I’m back with the Intelligence Report on Orlando City’s next opponents. This week sees the Lions hit the road and travel to Atlanta, where they will try to pick up the club’s first-ever win against their Southeastern rivals.
In order to get up to date on Atlanta United, I spoke to Sydney Hunte, from SB Nation’s Dirty South Soccer, and he was kind enough to bring me up to speed on the defending MLS Cup champions. I also answered their questions and you can find those over at their place.
Atlanta’s form to start the season has been well documented. I’m sure you’re sick to death of answering this question, but I hope you’ll humor me nonetheless: in your opinion, what’s the biggest difference between this year and last year — why the sluggish start to the season?
Sydney Hunte: I think it’s two things: Tata Martino and Miguel Almiron leaving the team. Atlanta were already poised late in the 2018 season for change with Martino’s pending departure for the Mexican national team and with the expectation that Almiron would head somewhere to Europe — of course, Newcastle picked him up in January. Martino faced some heat for Atlanta’s inability to win the Supporters Shield last year, but his tactical adjustments in the playoffs saw United end up hosting MLS Cup in December. As for Almiron, we’re all familiar with what he brought to the table — he was truly the team’s talisman with the ability to change the face of a match in seconds.
When Frank de Boer came on board, he promised an “evolution, not revolution” to Atlanta’s style. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, the team looked badly out of form to start MLS play, but, as I’ll mention in a moment, they appear to be back to the Atlanta United of 2017 and 2018.
For all of the difficulties Atlanta had at the beginning of the season, the team has 14 points (two more than Orlando) and has won four of its last five games, including a convincing win on the road against Sporting Kansas City and a first-ever victory over Toronto FC on Wednesday. What has changed for the team?
SH: I think that they’ve grown more comfortable with de Boer and his style of coaching. On the other side of the coin, you’re starting to see de Boer himself slowly grow more comfortable with the pieces he has at his disposal. He come in with a bit of a scarlet letter after being sacked at Inter and Crystal Palace, and to be honest, part of that was a tendency to be stubborn (especially at Palace) and push his philosophy rather than try to work with what he had in the first place. We saw shades of that here, and I think he’s beginning to really trust his players’ abilities.
Concacaf Champions League played a part in that as well. Few MLS teams have been able to navigate both that and the start of the league season, so I’d take that into account in Atlanta’s case.
One of the biggest stories in MLS this off-season was Pity Martinez, the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year, going to Atlanta United promptly after winning the Copa Libertadores with River Plate. What have you made of him so far and how is he settling in to MLS?
SH: So far, for the most part, it’s been frustrating. It’s interesting because some of the discussion surrounding Alejandro Pozuelo, who didn’t get as many headlines as Pity Martinez did when he came into the league, has been able to make an immediate impact for Toronto FC (Wednesday night notwithstanding, when Pozuelo was a non-factor in TFC’s loss to Atlanta) while Martinez has yet to do so. The good news is that Martinez looked very comfortable during Wednesday night’s game and was as involved in the attack as he’s been all season, including nearly scoring a great free-kick goal in the second half. I’d expect that to continue and for him to eventually put it all together before it’s all said and done.
Are there any injuries or suspensions that will keep players unavailable, and what is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
SH: It’s neither an injury or suspension, but Ezequiel Barco is on national team duty with Argentina at the U-20 World Cup and could be gone as long as six or seven weeks. Tito Villalba took his place in the lineup and made an immediate impact, scoring a goal and probably could have scored one or two more during Atlanta’s win over TFC.
On the injury front, the major one is probably left back George Bello, who is out for two to three months with an injury to his right adductor. Some depth pieces will also be out for Atlanta, including Kevin Kratz, Brandon Vazquez, and Mikey Ambrose. I do expect Justin Meram — ironically — to be in the 18 and potentially be subbed on later in the match on Sunday.
Projected starting lineup (4-3-3/4-2-3-1)
Brek Shea-Leandro Gonzalez Pirez-Miles Robinson-Franco Escobar (RB)
Darlington Nagbe-Pity Martinez-Jeff Larentowicz
Tito Villalba-Josef Martinez-Julian Gressel
Prediction: With 70K+ expected to be attendance, I think Atlanta keeps it going against a full house at Mercedez-Benz Stadium. Atlanta United 2-0 Orlando City.
A big thank you to Sydney for the insight into Atlanta United.