Preview: Atlanta United (h).
Updated: Apr 16
When? Saturday April 17, 12 p.m. PT, 3 p.m. ET & 8 p.m. BST.
Where? Exploria Stadium, Orlando, FL.
How can I catch the action? UniMas for residents of the United States. FreeSports (FreeView channel 64, and via the FreeSports app). The game is also available via radio, locally on 104.1 Real Radio, Accion 97.9 FM, 810 AM and TUDN Radio.
It's been a long winter. The MLS season is finally upon us, and there could be no more enticing a curtain raiser than this. Atlanta United are the inaugural 2021 visitors to Exploria Stadium. So, without further ado, let's get right into it...
The 'daddy' conundrum
This Atlanta United squad aren't going to be the pushovers they were at times last season. This club will be desperate to improve on last season's insipid showing. A season where they had all the bite and tenacity of that one Porg that randomly befriended Chewbacca in The Last Jedi. In Gabriel Heinze they have a more than capable coach. Heinze, a former Argentine international, is the latest to try and get the 5 stripes firing again. Time will only tell, if he is able to achieve just that.
Many will have seen that I came under a fair bit of fire, on social media, from the Plastic army a few weeks back. After I dared to suggest the return of the precociously self-titled 'daddy' wouldn't be the miraculous answer to all of Atlanta's problems. If you ask anyone of an Atlanta persuasion, that's a nonsensical argument; dripping in stupidity. The very epitomy of reductio ad absurdum. It really isn't. And let me tell you why I believe that to be the case.
Obviously, the threat of Josef Martinez is considerable. On his day he's one of the best out-and-out strikers in MLS. But therein lies my point. He's a goal scorer. He's the proverbial fox in the box. Is he capable of occasional moments of magic from outside the 18, and flashes of creativity? Sure. But is that his role, or indeed his greatest strength? Is his job sole creator and scorer in chief? Of course not. Is he going to improve their team? Of course. Is he going to turn them into MLS Cup and Supporters Shield contenders, by himself? Of course not. It would be simultaneously erroneous and unfair on him to expect otherwise. Am I going to airily ask anymore open-ended questions? No.
As I mentioned previously, this Atlanta team is going to provide us with a much sterner test than they did last season. But that won't be all 'daddy's' doing. He could have a much tougher time of things, on the scoring front, if his teammates don't improve on their productivity in 2021. Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention the solid off-season that Atlanta has had. Alan Franco, Franco Ibarra and Lisandro Lopez (to name a few, see team news) have all checked in whilst Marcelino Moreno returns. Atlanta hould have a more solid spine this year. Josef is going to need productivity from the likes of Moreno, if he is to return to the heights of 2018 and 2019.
During a tumultuous 2020 season (for obvious reasons), this Atlanta squad struggled to create chances. The 5 stripes averaged 6.6 key passes per game and only one player created more than 3 big chances on the season, on their way to scoring an uninspiring 23 goals from 23 games in the East. By comparison Eastern Conference leadiers Philadelphia Union played 9.9 key passes per game, scoring 44 times. Philadelphia had multiple players create 5 or more big chances. These stats (as far as Philly are concerned) are impressive, most impressive. Atlanta's meanwhile...poo-doo. Obligituary Star Wars references. Thought I'd stopped those? Well, you were wrong.
It's clear to see that creating chances was a massive issue for Atlanta in 2020. It's not like they were creating an abundance of chances, and just didn't have 'daddy' to put them away. They just weren't creating any. And that's what Martinez feeds off of. He's a striker, they're his bread and butter. Without a supply line, it's reasonable to surmise he won't score a goal a game as he has done in the past. The statistics certainly back this up.
If you look through figures 1-4 (below), there is a huge discrepancy between 2019 and 2020 in terms of assists, chance creation and key passes. Obviously, they played 13 fewer games in 2020. That has to be noted. That being said, a rate of 5 big chances in 23 games (Brooks Lennon, 2020) is not comparable to a rate of 22 big chances created across 36 games in 2019 (Julian Gressel). I'd also be hesitant not to point out that 2 of Lennon's big chance creations came in the same match, against a hapless D.C. United defence. Context.
Atlanta lost a lot of attacking quality during the off-season between 2019 and 2020. And it showed. The questionable tactics of messrs, De Boer and Glass doubtless had an impact. We also don't know what impact Gabriel Heinze is going to have on this club. He's not picking it up in the best shape, although his off-season moves have been reasonably impressive. There are tentative signs of improvement in Georgia. But that's all they are, at this point.
Josef isn't walking back into 2019's squad. It's a whole new ball game.
Figure 1 shows Atlanta's leaders in big chance creation, during the 2019 season.
Figure 2 shows Atlanta' leaders in big chance creation, during the 2020 season. There's a big drop off.
Figure 3 shows the statistics posted by Atlanta's most creative players during 2019, in terms of key passes and assists.
Figure 4 shows the statistics posted by Atlanta's most creative players during 2020, in terms of key passes and assists. Again, huge drop-off.
From analysing those stats, it's easy to see why I don't think 'daddy' is going to surreptitiously make things OK again. At least not all on his own. Whilst this squad has the potential to improve on last season, there are no certainties. It certainly doesn't hold up to their 2018 or 2019 rosters. The loss of Julian Gressel, particularly off the back of Miguel Almiron's move to Newcastle in 2019, was a huge loss for them heading into 2020. His direct dribbling, and his keen eye for a pass were integral to Atlanta's offence. A player who was no less important, but probably isn't mentioned as much is Darlington Nagbe. His ability to break up play, and help retain possession was essential. There's little evidence to suggest either of these two players have been appropriately replaced. As yet. Only time will tell if messrs Ibarra and Moreno are able to supersede likes of Gressel and Nagbe, around 2 years after their departures.
Fewer chances created, fewer goal scoring opportunities for Josef. That's it. That's the argument. He needs a strong supporting cast. If his teammates don't provide him with the opportunities, he won't score as many goals. It really is, that simple. I'm not saying he isn't going to score any goals; he's a good player. As such he undoubtedly will score some vital goals. But minus his 2019 supporting cast, and the sort of figures they put up, it's difficult to argue he's going to single-handedly drag them to MLS Cup. As many of Atlanta's supporters would have you believe. Can the 2021 crop produce said number? We'll have to wait and see. The jury is out.
We don't know, for sure, what we're going to get from Gabriel Heinze's squad just yet. The addition of Marcelino Moreno is doubtless a step in the right direction. The Argentine impressed during his 6 MLS appearances last season, scoring twice and assisting on one. But he's no sure thing. There are just no guarantees. There never are in this sport. All of that being said, when you consider all of the variables, and the team's chance creation statistics in 2020, to argue that Josef will instantly go back to putting up 2019's numbers as a dead cert... Well it's a foolhardy argument to say the least. At least at this stage.
Atlanta have injury concerns over Nottingham born midfielder, Mo Adams as well as Alec Kann. Both not medically cleared. Those two aside, it's a clean bill of health for Gabriel Heinze as he looks to get his tenure off to a decent start. This game might come a little too soon for new signing Alan Franco; Erik Lopez, Lisandro Lopez and Santiago Sosa could be involved though. Former Lion, Alex DeJohn could also feature.
As for Oscar Pareja's Lions, their only real injury concern is that of Joao Moutinho who continues to be absent. Orlando will also be without the suspended Mauricio Pereyra. The likes of Alexandre Pato and Sylvester Van De Water, to name a few, could be in line for their debuts.
EDIT: Uri Rosell and Robin Jansson are both listed as 'questionable' on the official MLS injury report.
Atlanta's style and possible starting XI
It will be interesting to see how Atlanta lines up in this game. We know that they've favoured a 4-2-3-1 in the past. However, new coach; new philosophy. Maybe. New head coach Gabriel Heinze did a more than credible job in his previous role at Velez Sarsfield. In just 18 months, he took the club from the bottom of the league to a 3rd place finish. A student of Marcelo Bielsa, Heinze favours a more expansive and attack minded approach to the game. At Velez, he favoured a 3-4-3 system. However I'm not convinced he has the players to suit that system in Atlanta. Here's why...
Atlanta have the defenders to operate a 3-back system effectively, but in doing so they negate the effectiveness of the likes of George Bello, who is most effective when running from deep. They'd have to use him as a left-sided midfielder, or a left-sided centre back. Neither position particularly suits him. He's a full-back at heart, one who's used to making overlapping runs. Something that anyone who ever saw Heinze play, can understand he might have an appreciation for such a trait. He wouldn't have as much chance to do that on the left-hand side of a 4 man midfield. As for the idea of him playing as a left-sided centre-back, it just wouldn't make any sense when you consider the centre-back options they possess.
It's also unclear how players like Barco, Moreno and Hyndman fit into such a system as the 3-4-3. As a result, I have a feeling that they'll stick to a more familiar system such as the 4-2-3-1. Which can easily morph into a 4-3-3 during transition moments, something which was key component of his time at Velez.
I realise this is all hyperbolic, at this stage of the season with a new coach, but this is how I see Atlanta lining up in Orlando come April 17:
Perhaps one of the most admired finishers in MLS. His 72 club goals, in 81 appearances tell their own story. In 2019 the Venezuelan international averaged 4 shots per game, and bagged an eye-catching 28 goals from 29 games. I've no love for Martinez as a personality, but his goal record has to be respected. Whilst he may not be the answer to all of Plastic FC's problems, they're certainly a better team when he plays.
There's a certain amount of irony in the fact that, Atlanta's only success at Exploria Stadium in 2020, came in a game that Orlando didn't feature in. The 5 stripes bested Mexican giants, Club América, 1-0 in Orlando, but still bowed out of the CONCACAF Champions League semi-finals 1-3 on aggregate. The defeat closed out Atlanta's 2020 season.
I always think there's only a certain amount of stock that you can put into pre-season results. That being said, Atlanta has had no trouble so far in pre-season. Successive wins over FC Tormenta, Charleston Battery and Chattanooga yielded 12 goals, before the Birmingham Legion halted that streak with a 0-0 draw,
Atlanta are in Champions League action again this season. Why? I think we all know why. Regardless, their games against L.D Alajuelense will serve as pertinent preparation for the 2021 MLS season. Atlanta took the first leg 1-0 in Costa Rica, despite playing the entire second-half with 10 men. An Ezequiel Barco penalty sealed the win, despite the best protestations of the Costa Rican club. The home-side mounted a late salvo, but stand-in keeper Rios Novo kept them at bay.**
Orlando, meanwhile, have faced primarily MLS opposition as head coach, Oscar Pareja prepares an assault on the 2021 MLS season. A 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union was followed up by a 3-2 reversal at the hands of NYCFC. Orlando then faced off against the Union again, topping the Union 3-1. A 2-2 draw against Chicago Fire, followed an abandoned tie with the Columbus Crew. City were up 1-0 thanks to a Michael Halliday goal, before inclement weather put an end to proceedings. Orlando then closed out their pre-season with a 3-2 win over Minnesota United. Urso, Pato and Van de Water with the goals.
**This report was completed and published, prior to the commencement of the second leg.