To put things lightly, today’s game is an absolute whale of a match-up. Not only is Orlando City playing Atlanta United — a team most Lions fans are less than fond of — but the game comes at a time when Orlando could scarcely need three points more. Were it not for a frustratingly placed varsity football game that needs medical coverage, I would 100% be in the stands tonight for this one.
Even though I won’t be in The Wall this evening, I still did my pregame duty by sitting down with Sydney Hunte from SBNation’s Dirty South Soccer. As always, Sydney was gracious enough to give me an excellent update on how life has been treating Atlanta United. You can read my answers to their questions over at their place.
Atlanta certainly seems to be back to its MLS Cup-winning form with five wins in its last six league matches. What do you think has been the biggest reason for Atlanta being back to the team we’re used to seeing?
Sydney Hunte: I think it’s really a couple of things: A) a result of going back to what’s worked in the past for Atlanta — free-flowing, attacking football, and B) the presence of Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez, and Ezequiel Barco being on the field at the same time.
I do think that it’s more of the former since this team is simply not used to playing any other way. Frank de Boer tried to overplay his hand when he first came in and attempted to impose a more possession-based, slower version of what Atlanta players and fans were used to. There was a good bit of push-back because of it (including a publicized rift between de Boer and Pity Martinez), as well as some pointed comments from players to the media criticizing the change in tactics from what Tata Martino rolled out in 2017 and 2018.
I think credit is due to de Boer because rather than succumb to the stubbornness that cost him his job at Inter and Crystal Palace, he was willing to adapt and return to the tactical style that Atlanta was famous for in its first two years. Part of that was a switch to a 3-5-2 that favors play alongside the outside wings and depends on well-placed crosses into the box to create opportunities for players like Josef Martinez to score goals, and it’s no surprise that he’s looked better than he’s looked all season over this past chunk of matches. At times, the wings are able to work up the field and look for diagonal balls to break through the defense, which is what you saw with Julian Gressel on Josef’s goal in Portland.
The three DPs playing together and building chemistry certainly helps as well. Pity Martinez has slowly been acclimating himself into the forward corps and is hopefully set for a strong back end of the season going into the playoffs. Barco hasn’t quite found his form yet after a long absence but should return to it sooner rather than later. I think that once those two can put the pieces together, they — coupled with Josef Martinez — will make Atlanta tough to beat down the stretch.
One of those wins came in the Campeones Cup final over Club America. I’m curious to get an Atlanta fan’s perspective on the competition. Was it a trophy that most fans were super invested in winning or was it viewed as simply another distraction in a season where Atlanta already competed in the Concacaf Champions League and has advanced to the U.S. Open Cup final?
SH: I’ll be completely honest: I wasn’t too high on Campeones Cup, even with Atlanta having made it. However, after watching what turned out to be an emotional, competitive match against one of the big clubs in Liga MX, I came away with a greater appreciation of it and certainly will be watching in the future. I think that Atlanta fans will certainly pay more attention to it down the road whether they shared my sentiment coming into the match or were already amped up to see it play out.
I will say that Atlanta players were completely all-in on the competition, with even Pity Martinez guaranteeing a victory beforehand and Josef Martinez saying afterward that he would look back on beating Las Aguilas as a highlight of his career when he retired. You could certainly see what it meant to América players during the match as well. I think that in a sense, a team like Atlanta (or any other MLS side, for that matter) was really the best-case scenario for the organizers of the tournament as you’d like to see MLS grow more competitive with Liga MX sides — especially with this era of collaboration they’re in right now — which hopefully carries over to CCL.
What do you see as a match-up that Atlanta needs to win in order to make it three wins out of three against Orlando this season?
SH: I think it really rests on Orlando’s outside backs to neutralize the threat that both Justin Meram and Julian Gressel pose along the edges of the pitch. Obviously there’s no love lost between Meram and Orlando City fans, but he’s looked terrific in his tenure with Atlanta and has fit right into that 3-5-2 formation since both he and Gressel have the pace to work the ball upfield rather than it being forced through the middle — which really was a source of frustration for the team this season, especially without a player like Miguel Almiron, who really thrived on making those pretty runs through the center of the field.
Obviously, the health of João Moutinho and Ruan may be in question, but whoever is on either side of Orlando’s defense on Friday night will have their hands full.
Are there any injuries, suspensions, or call-ups that will keep players unavailable for selection on Friday? What is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
SH: As I write this (on Tuesday evening), I’m not sure of the status of Franco Escobar and Eric Remedi as they both missed Campeones Cup last Wednesday and the Portland Timbers game on Sunday night with separate injuries. Brek Shea is done for the year with a knee injury. Mikey Ambrose, who was questionable for Portland, should crack the 18 but probably won’t see any time, but outside of that, it’s a largely clean bill of health.
Lineup-wise, de Boer has to toe the line of ensuring Atlanta is able to come away from Orlando with a result (especially on the road, and especially in a rivalry match) while having an eye toward a U.S. Open Cup final on Tuesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Minnesota United. That said, it should still be close to a first-team XI as possible, especially with the match in Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend being the last before the international break. Here’s how I think it will look if Remedi and Escobar are both fit (3-5-2):
Forwards: Josef Martinez-Pity Martinez.
Midfield: Justin Meram-Ezequiel Barco-Eric Remedi-Darlington Nagbe-Julian Gressel.
Defense: Franco Escobar-Leandro Gonzalez Pirez-Miles Robinson.
If Remedi and Escobar can’t go, look for Jeff Larentowicz and Florentin Pogba to take their places in the lineup, respectively.
As for a scoreline prediction? Atlanta does come into Exploria Stadium riding that wave of momentum after a Campeones Cup victory at home and a key away win at the Timbers, giving it back-to-back away wins across all competitions after four straight losses away from Mercedes-Benz. I feel that they’ll be able to ride that to a victory, although I think Orlando makes it a little interesting and puts pressure on the visitors early on before allowing a pair of second-half goals. Let’s go with 2-0 Atlanta with Josef Martinez extending his MLS-record scoring streak to 12 and Ezequiel Barco finding the net for his first goal in a while.
Big thanks to Sydney for the excellent info on Atlanta.