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lethalweapon3

Same Ole Atlanta United 2018

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If we’re fortunate to be around long enough, there may come a season when Atlanta United FC becomes just another run-of-the-mill Major League Soccer franchise, just another sports club going through the motions in this championship-starved town.

We are nowhere near having one of those seasons. Following up on a near-magical debut as an expansion franchise, Atlanta United is going full-bore after the MLS Cup in 2018.

In 2017, skeptical local fans dipped their toes into the pro soccer scene. They found the water to be quite warm, especially when the goals started coming in bunches. Now, scores of thousands are ready to dive in headfirst for Season #2 at Mercedes Benz Stadium, and Atlanta’s winning water is now at full simmer. Confirmed by near-historic offseason activity under the direction of reigning MLS Executive of the Year Darren Eales, Atlanta United is pulling out all the stops to ensure there will be no sophomore jinx.

One of ATLUTD’s first preseason shots across the bow came in December, when they dished out over a million dollars in allocation money, an MLS record, to Western Conference regular-season leader Portland in exchange for their heart-and-soul midfielder, Darlington Nagbe (above).

Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra noted that Nagbe statistically ranked first in the MLS for “ball retention rate of possession.” While that’s a mouthful, the takeaway is that Atlanta has the potential to dominate offensive play, with the athletic 27-year-old former All-Star keying the attack with his creative dribbling.

Nagbe’s play was integral to the Timbers winning the 2015 MLS Cup, as well as the top seed in a hyper-competitive Western Conference last season. He’s a clean player as well. Nagbe has twice won the MLS Fair Play Award, last receiving the honor in 2015. The last MLS player to have won three in his career? Nagbe’s new teammate, midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, the 34-year-old vet who re-upped with Atlanta during free agency. Cutting down on red and yellow cards can further help ATLUTD control the play on the pitch.

 

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Nagbe has never been a big goal-scorer, but he should be able to help pile on the points with the array of offensive threats manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino can place on the field around him. Josef Martinez (team-high 19 goals) and Miguel Almiron (team-high 13 assists) turned themselves into rock stars in mere months with their thrilling tactics and goal-scoring flair.

Meanwhile, there are the looming, booming legs of new green-card recipient Tito Villalba (team-highs of 44 shots on goal and 4 game-winners), winner of MLS’ 2017 Goal of the Year and one of the league’s speediest attackers. Having finished 2017 just two games behind the 2nd-seed in the MLS East, who knows how much farther ATLUTD could have climbed with Designated Players Josef and Miggy (both members of the All-MLS “Best XI” team for 2017) healthy for the full season alongside Tito?

 

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Atlanta wasn’t done breaking new ground in this league. For the price of an MLS-record $15 million transfer fee to Buenos Aires’ Independiente, young Argentine star Ezequiel Barco (above) gets to don the Five Stripes. By comparison, that amount blew away the old record, a $10 million fee that reigning MLS champion Toronto FC paid to pry free Michael Bradley from Rome back in 2014.

Part of the mindset behind paying such a high price, for Atlanta United, is to elevate the value of its most successful stars, specifically when higher-stature international clubs come calling in attempts to poach the talent off its roster. The football club already spurned eight-figure offers for both Almiron and Martinez in the offseason. Another reason is the Atlanta’s fervent belief that Barco has already proven he’ll be worth the investment.

Touted as one of soccer’s finest South American prospects, Barco shined as a teenaged attacking midfielder in the Copa Sudamericana final, and was elated about the mere prospect of coming to America and becoming a star in Atlanta black-and-red. His flexibility to thrive as either an attacker or a winger gives Coach Tata plenty of formidable frontline options to match up with opponents.

Has it been mentioned, yet, that the Starting XI for Atlanta United might not have room for the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year? Julian Gressel reportedly struggled throughout the preseason for Atlanta, but to have the young German in a reserve right-winger role would be a luxury any club would be thrilled to have at its disposal.

When subbed in, Gressel can form a strong pairing with his fellow German, veteran set-piece specialist Kevin Kratz. Other young prospects, like Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin, Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu and Miles Robinson will have their chances to shine, but it’s more likely those opportunities will occur with Atlanta United 2, our new USL outfit.

Atlanta had to part ways with a couple key contributors from last season. Yamil Asad was arguably Atlanta’s top set-up man, and his rights were sold to nemesis D.C. United, undoubtedly sparking what was one of the league’s worst offensive outfits. The Five Stripes also bid adieu to its top defensive midfielder, as Carlos Carmona was transferred to a club in his native Chile, allowing him to attend to pressing family health matters. While both will be sorely missed, the newcomers are expected to have a greater impact on the Atlanta offensive attack.

 

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You can’t forget about defense, though, and Atlanta made waves on that end of the pitch as well. Franco Escobar (above) played for one of Coach Tata’s former clubs, Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, and now he will play in Martino’s key defensive unit. Bocanegra described the 22-year old Escobar as a “physical and versatile defender, capable of playing anywhere along the back line.”

Franco’s inclusion solidifies the line of defenders among Atlanta’s Starting XI, led by the talented Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, 2017 All-Star Greg Garza (re-signed to a multi-year deal), and steady team captain Michael Parkhurst. Bolstering the defensive bench is longtime MLS vet Sal Zizzo, whose assist carried the New York Red Bulls into the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, and young Venezuelan transfer Jose Hernandez, who also appeared in the Copa Sudamericana and helped lead his Caracas FC side to the Torneo Apertura final.

Having a healthy Almiron, Martinez, and Garza all season long could have made a big difference in 2017, as would Atlanta gaining a steady familiarity with its home pitch. But perhaps nothing could have been more impactful than having its starting goalkeeper available for a full season.

 

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Alec Kann filled in admirably for 18 games from March through June of last season at the net, and the Decatur native returns in a reserve role along with newcomer Mitch Hildebrandt, the 2016 USL Goalkeeper of the Year who starred during the 2017 US Open Cup for FC Cincinnati. But it was the arrival of “Mr. Clean Sheet”, Brad Guzan (above), from international Premier League and USMNT duties last summer, that vaulted Atlanta from a mere offensive novelty to a leaguewide championship-contending threat.

At the 6-foot-4 Guzan’s peak, Atlanta rocked and rolled into September with six shutouts in seven matches, not allowing a single goal for 541 minutes, the sixth-longest scoreless stretch for a keeper in MLS history. Guzan serves beyond miraculous net-minding to quarterback both his team’s defensive positioning and its transition attack. In 2018, his ability to focus fully on his MLS club from the jump should only further calcify the resistance around Atlanta’s 18-yard box.

 

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Sure, 2017 concluded with a disappointing playoff loss, as anyone can succumb to a red-hot goalkeeper in an elimination game. But Atlanta turns into 2018 not only as a MLS Cup favorite, but as marked men. Having seen this team pull record-breaking crowds while making record-breaking moves, the rest of MLS would add a streak of Envy Green to their team colors, if they could.

No one outside of the 404 (or the offices of MLS’ financiers) wants to see Atlanta impose a 1960s-70s Dallas Cowboys effect on the rest of the league. Newer MLS clubs have struggled to make splashes immediately out of the gate, while the more historic teams don’t want to be supplanted as a flagship franchise in the space of just two years.

Defending champion Toronto FC, coming off a historically successful season that followed a dozen years of hard knocks, doesn’t want to find itself sharing the media spotlight with an upbeat, upstart rival threatening to become a cult phenomenon not seen since the New York Cosmos of the 1970s.

Reaching the MLS Playoffs, and then shedding Atlanta’s longstanding sports postseason hex, is paramount. But maybe the bigger picture is, in every game, Atlanta United must remind everyone why, in town, they should be the team to cheer and, everywhere else, why they should be the team to fear.

 

~lw3

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The write-ups are always appreciated, but especially here. I didn't know about anything that happened this offseason. I was just hoping Josef Martinez was still around. Having better, more prestigious leagues out there to take your top talent is a big reason I find it hard to get invested. But between the fat cash and crazy fan support I guess we have a better shot than every other team to keep those players around. 

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Gameday! Atlanta United will try to get the 2018 season going on the good foot in Houston against the Dynamo (3:30 PM Eastern, Univision, 92.9 FM in ATL).

The Five Stripes do have a setback, as Ezequiel Barco's MLS debut will be delayed for a month or so to heal a strained quad. But they still should have enough offensive firepower to put some goals in the net today.

Houston made a nice run in the Western Conference playoffs last season. Wilmer Cabrera's club knocked off Sporting KC in the Knockout Round, off an extra time goal from star forward Alberth Ellis. They tied Portland 0-0 in the opening leg of the conference semis. But then, goalkeeper Tyler Deric, October's MLS Player of the Month, was suspended by the league after getting arrested on domestic violence related assault charges. While they managed to beat Portland, the wheels came off in the Western finals, as Seattle outscored Houston 5-0 in two games.

The Dynamo enters 2017 without Deric, who is suspended by MLS pending the outcome of the legal proceedings, and without 2017's top scorer, Cubo Torres, who signed with a club in Mexico. They'll look for Ellis to take it up a notch, and get some help from Houston-native midfielder Arturo Alvarez, who joined the Dynamo after playing with Chicago last season.

ATLUTD has the bigger scoring threats and a more stable roster. But they are playing on the road, so we'll have to see if they can get into their comfort zone without a crowd of 70,000 cheering them on today.

Let's Go United!

~lw3

 

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Hooray, it's the season debut for Atlanta United! Wait, what? You're saying that awful 4-0 washout in Houston actually counted? Oh, well! They've had plenty of time to lick their wounds and put that loss on the back burner because, in front of a national audience and scores of thousands of screaming fans, it's time to get that first-ever win versus DC United (3:00 PM Eastern, ESPN)!

Yes, it's only their second MLS campaign, yet it's amazing that, for all their success in 2017's regular season, they handed DC United three of their opponent's measly nine victories. Atlanta's last loss to DC was back in August, a 1-0 finish courtesy of a deflection-turned-own-goal by Michael Parkhurst.

After finishing last in the MLS East in 2017 and scoring just 31 goals (less than half of Atlanta's 70), the original Black-and-Red have done an offseason makeover. And today, the Five Stripes will be tasked with thwarting the man who scored the very first official goal in their franchise's history.

Beyond a mere scoring threat, as he demonstrated in last week's 1-1 draw at Orlando City SC, Yamil Asad was perhaps Atlanta's best place-setter (13 assists, 7th in MLS 2017 and one behind Atlanta's Miguel Almiron). Last week, Houston exposed Atlanta's defenders and midfielders on counter-attacks, and that happens to be Coach Ben Olsen's prime strategy versus ATLUTD, a riddle we'll have to wait and see if Atlanta can solve.

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez struggled mightily last week but hopes to have shaken off a mid-game injury. He and Greg Garza seek to bounce back strong to keep the pressure off goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who was forced to do too much last Saturday. DC United has Luciano Acosta back from a suspension to form a vastly improved attacking front alongside Asad and mighty-mouse Paul Arriola.

Thanks in part to new midfielder Darlington Nagbe, Atlanta did manage to control possessions against the Dynamo, but they were unsuccessful in setting up decent goal-scoring opportunities. Longtime DC goalkeeper Bill Hamid departed for Denmark, so the club is coincidentally turning to a Dane, longtime Vancouver Whitecaps keeper David Ousted, to shield the net from the Peachtree Press, a midfielder-forward line that will likely be reformulated today by Atlanta coach Tata Martino in hopes of more assertive play around the offensive box.

DC is looking to bond on the road, with 12 of their first 14 games away from home as they put the finishing touches on their new Audi Field. They're hoping for the same success the last visitors, the Columbus Crew, had in raucous Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It's up to Atlanta United players to get their opponents unglued from the jump, so they don't find themselves in a sticky situation late.

Let's Go United!

~lw3

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Another Soccer Saturday at the Benz! Atlanta United hopes to follow up on a mostly smashing home debut by handing the Vancouver Whitecaps (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports SOUTH, as Hawks will be on FS Southeast, and 1380 AM in ATL, TSN2 in VAN) their first L of the young MLS season.

The Caps (2-0-0 W-L-T) bolstered their offense by trading for forward Kei Kamara, 2015’s leading MLS scorer, from New England to replace the Euro-departed Fredy Montero. Kamara, who scored his 100th career goal last week off a penalty, is enjoying better setups for scores in the Pacific Northwest, thanks largely to winger Alphonso Davies.

Dirty South Soccer’s preview noted the superior height of many Vancouver players relative to Atlanta (and most MLS clubs, probably), and the Five Stripes’ defense must be mindful of the potential for header attempts from the 6-foot-3 Kamara, being especially disruptive on set pieces.

Also towering over everybody is Kendall Waston, the 6-foot-5 defender who was on the MLS Best XI roster for the second time in three seasons. It’s not quite the Steel Curtain, but Vancouver’s starting back line has four defenders all six-foot tall and above, in front of New Zealander Stefan Marinovic, goalkeeping in his first full MLS season. They might wind up on a 10-day with the Hawks if they’re not careful.

Atlanta may continue controlling possession, as they have against Houston (59%) and DC (53%). But they’ll need to use aggressive speed and creativity, setting teammates up from the wings rather than straight-ahead, to punch the ball in around Vancouver’s high-statured defenders. A good example was Julian Gressel’s deft touch pass last Saturday to set up Miguel Almiron’s booming MLS Goal of the Week.

Waston, who scored twice in the 3-1 win over visiting Atlanta last year, and defensive midfielder Brek Shea, who scored in transition off a nice feed from Kamara last week, will apply pressure to unsuspecting opponents in transition. Greg Garza will be busy in the midfield helping Jeff Larentowicz keep Vancouver from building up heads of steam in the opposite direction.

Remember when ATLUTD got waxed a couple weekends ago? Houston’s very next visitors, Vancouver, came in and made quick work out of the Dynamo with a 2-1 victory. The Caps compiled the best away-game record in the West in 2017 (6-9-2 road W-L-T) and are not easily intimidated. They’d love a signature win to try and keep pace with their current Western Conference co-leader… expansion franchise LA FC (???). As usual, Atlanta will need to avoid the post-goal, post-substitution, late-game lapses if they intend to melt the Whitecaps down over 90 minutes.

 

Let’s Go United!

~lw3

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A couple weeks off for The Five Stripes. Good luck to these fellas in international duty!

~lw3

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Winter Isn't Coming... It's All Year Round!

Gutsy defensive win for the Five Stripes against a much improved MNUFC team! Let's play this match in OUR house next year, how 'bout it?

~lw3

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Ah, sweet room temperature soccer! Atlanta United is back at the Benz this afternoon versus upstart LAFC (5:00 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL). Before a raucous crowd and yet another national audience, Atlanta is out to ensure that the new Angelenos accept they're Just Another Run-of-the-Mill MLS Expansion team.

LAFC blazed to a 2-0-0 start, including a season-opening 1-0 win in Western Conference champ Seattle, and then a 5-1 thrashing of Real Salt Lake. While they won't get to play a home game at the new Banc of California Stadium until April 29, they got a chance to pack the LA Galaxy's house. They blazed to a 3-0 lead before they faced the Wrath of ZLAtan. Ibrahimovic's acrobatic heroics helped the home club Galaxy save face with a 4-3 win, averting the inflation of heads on coach Bob Bradley's newest side to insane proportions.

"It's impossible to lose that game," LAFC star forward Carlos Vela, who scored twice on the Galaxy, told the L.A. Times in reflection. "I can't understand how we lost. The only thing I said to the team is it won't happen again." Vela feels the collapse will bring his club together, closer and more focused. "When you are winning, you think all is good. Like we are dreaming. But it's not real. Now is when we learn. We can see the mistakes. we are a new team."

Atlanta's offense was frozen in frigid Minnesota last week, but they "parked the bus" after scoring just a few minutes into the contest, and outlasted the Loons by a 1-0 score. This match should allow The Five Stripes (3-1-0 W-L-T) to thaw out the offense and retain a possession advantage they ceded last week against Minnesota United.

Despite two strong overall goalkeeping efforts so far (Tyler Miller, in LAFC's case), this could shape up to be a wild scoring contest. Atlanta's Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is suspended, while his fellow defender Franco Escobar is in concussion recovery. Look for a major role for Mikey Ambrose in helping limit chances for Vela and Diego Rossi. Meanwhile, Walker Zimmerman will be manning the starting backline for LAFC for the first time alongside Laurent Ciman. They'll have to hold off the full complement from an Atlanta offensive front that loves to pile on the press in front of the home crowd. Can Atlanta United keep the fans feeling peachy keen?

Let's Go United!

~lw3

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On 3/3/2018 at 9:20 AM, High5 said:

The write-ups are always appreciated, but especially here. I didn't know about anything that happened this offseason. I was just hoping Josef Martinez was still around. Having better, more prestigious leagues out there to take your top talent is a big reason I find it hard to get invested. But between the fat cash and crazy fan support I guess we have a better shot than every other team to keep those players around. 

I feel like we are building one hell of an attack. Almiron is a player who I think could play in any league in the world. Josef Martinez is a very good striker just not very big. I think adding Nagbe to our midfield was a phenomenal move to compliment our fast paced aggressive play style. Once we can get Barco back and in the groove, I think we will be dominating MLS very soon. 

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At mid-week, Josef Martinez looked like a Transformer, with one arm encased in a massive air cast as he left practice. While the MLS’ top goal-scorer’s injured arm is feeling better, it’s Martinez’s legs that Atlanta United will need to be at 100 percent, with the Eastern Conference-leading New York City FC in town (6:00 PM Eastern, FS1, 92.9 FM in ATL).

On Saturday, New England and Columbus each failed to win and overtake Atlanta (4-1-0 W-L-T) in the total-points table, setting up a true 1 versus 2 matchup on the Mercedes Benz Stadium pitch today. Atlanta has benefitted in the schedule from 4 home games in their past five (plus a two-week hiatus before visiting Minnesota). Beginning with this contest, ATLUTD will vacillate between home and away games for the next ten games, concluding when they meet NYCFC (5-0-1) in Manhattan on June 9.

Coach Patrick Vieira’s club has acquitted itself quite well away from home. The Pigeons swept Sporting KC in the season opener, and in the weeks prior to Wednesday’s 4-0 home win over Real Salt Lake, they tied in New England, then prevailed in San Jose.

Stretching Atlanta’s clean-sheet streak beyond a month will be a tall order, and not just because of NYC’s ageless wonder, 36-year-old captain and Best XI’er David Villa. Atlanta midfielders and defenders have to keep the ball off the capable feet of Jesus Medina (MLS-high 5 assists), who has been laying scoring opportunities on a platter for midfielder Maxi Moralez (4 goals) and Villa. Atlanta and other opponents are catching a break without drink-stirring midfielder Alexander Ring, who remains out with a sprained knee.

But Atlanta has quite an offensive counter with the availability of striker Ezequiel Barco, who coach Tata Martino insists will appear even if he is not in the Five Stripes’ Starting XI. Keeping NYC goalkeeper Sean Johnson (25 saves, 2nd in MLS) from getting peppered with shots-on-goal by Atlanta’s loaded front line will require great discipline by NYC defenders, especially disallowing Miguel Almiron (MLS-high 28 shots, only 5 on-goal) feasting off penalty kicks, mistakes LAFC made in last week’s rousing 5-0 Atlanta United victory. Whichever of Moralez or Atlanta’s Darlington Nagbe controls possession will dictate the direction of this pivotal contest.

Let’s Go United!

~lw3

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Back on the road they go! After making the most of a comfy early home schedule, Atlanta United now heads to Los Angeles to face the Galaxy (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM). Will they be prepared to face the OnZlatan?

The Galaxy’s newest star striker, acquired from Man U with Total Allocation Money, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been a supernova, taking MLS by storm with three goals (two game-winners) in three appearances over the past month. With Zlatan touring the late-night and early-morning talk shows, it’s been hard to take an eye off him. And maybe that’s been a problem for Ibrahimovic’s own teammates, who have struggled to produce offense when they’re not clearing the way for their Swedish star.

Since that thrilling Zlatan-led come-from behind victory versus new crosstown rival LAFC on March 31, the Galaxy (3-2-1 W-L-T) ran into Sporting KC’s wall, losing 2-0 here at the StubHub Center, then managed to cling to a 1-0 lead in Chicago last Saturday, after Zlatan’s goal concluded the first half.

Acquired from Columbus, Ola Kamara (18 goals in 2017, 5th in MLS) managed to score the season-opening goal for the Galaxy, but he hasn’t logged a goal or assist in any of the five games since. Kamara’s would-be ice-breaking goal off a header last week in Chicago was waved off by a lineman call.

Last year’s top scorer on the team, winger Romain Alessandrini (13 goals in 2017), has only one goal thus far as well, and that was way back on March 4. He is re-acclimating after missing three games so far with an injured hamstring.

To further accommodate the Galaxy’s offensive potential, coach Sigi Schmid shifted the formation from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 against Chicago, allowing Ola and Zlatan to pressure the goal from the same alignment. “It’s all about are we creating chances or not creating chances,” Schmid told the media ahead of this game, “and I think we’re creating chances… as long as we’re creating chances, I’m OK.”

Versus Atlanta (4-1-1), Schmid will deploy an array of midfielders with a mind toward opening up the Galaxy attack, including Gio Dos Santos, who has also been out for weeks with an injured hammy, and his brother Jonathan, who filled in and played well in Gio’s absence.

How well does Atlanta’s show fare on the road? MLS’ leading scorer remains Josef Martinez, who struggled to establish himself during last weekend’s thrilling 2-2 draw versus NYCFC (sorry, I was so sure Alexander Ring wasn’t going to play!). But Josef has not scored a single goal away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium since the franchise’s very first win, in the Minnesota snow back in March 2017. That’s a span of nine road contests, for him, beyond a calendar year. To pull off road victories, Atlanta United needs Martinez to be more than a mere decoy.

The Five Stripes’ offense will have a boost from the return of the team’s March Performer of the Month. Tito Villalba missed most of the second-half versus LAFC and then the whole game versus NYCFC with a leg injury. His return should help re-ignite coach Tata Martino’s 3-5-2 formation, paired alongside Martinez and supported well by Julian Gressel, Miggy Almiron and the acclimating Ezequiel Barco at midfield.

Having Franco Escobar (concussion) and Greg Garza (tough guy, playing through a torn labrum) back on the pitch will help solidify the defense in front of a very busy Jeff Larentowicz. Whichever team can set up their booming scorers for better shots on goal is likely to come out on top tonight.

Let’s Go United!

~lw3

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Pile on the points! On a splendid Saturday afternoon, hopefully with the Mercedes Benz Stadium roof open, Atlanta United has an opportunity to build some momentum and work on some offensive tweaks versus the Montreal Impact (1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South and 92.9 FM in ATL, TVA Sports in MTL).

Belying the mild final score last weekend in Tinseltown, a 2-0 win over the Galaxy punctuated by a successful penalty kick for Miguel Almiron (MLS-high 39 shots) at the close of extra time, was how early and often Atlanta peppered the opponent’s crossbar. Josef Martinez scored the prior goal in the opening half, finishing the carom off a crossbar shot from Julian Gressel. With the road-scoring drought off his back, Martinez (MLS-high 6 goals) is back home out to make amends after a frustrating afternoon, on and (for him) off the pitch, versus points leader NYCFC a couple weeks ago.

Montreal (2-5-0 W-L-T) would much prefer a better time to visit the Benz, as they are working through some defensive issues. That the Impact have allowed an MLS-high 17 goals should reflect not so much on goalkeeper Evan Bush (MLS-high 56 shots faced, 15 more than anyone else; MLS-high 39 saves), but on a porous defender unit.

ESPN FC’s peer-poll winner for Most Underrated Player in the league, Ignacio Piatti scored three goals to give Montreal a 3-1 lead last Saturday, in just its second game at home all season. Yet even that hat trick wasn’t enough. Visiting LAFC would go on to score four unanswered goals, in the ensuing 48 minutes of regulation, to surge to a 5-3 win.

It didn’t help that Victor Cabrera drew a red card late in the first half, forcing the Impact to play a man down the rest of the way. But Remi Garde, in his first full season as Montreal’s coach, was clearly frustrated by his team’s lack of will to compete in the second half of play. “Even if you are playing ten men,” Garde told postgame reporters, “you should be more determined to protect your goal and some time to attack.”

ATLUTD coach Tata Martino will strive to disrupt passes to Piatti, the 33-year-old Argentinian who is arguably the league’s most creative dribbler. That puts the onus on Montreal’s other midfielders, such as Jeisson Vargas and Saphir Taider, and forward Matteo Mancosu to set one another up for scoring opportunities. The Impact offense shouldn’t be placed all at the feet of Piatti.

The Peachtree Press forces defenders into positions where they try just about anything to wrest the ball away from the creative Almiron, hoping in vain that the referees will swallow their whistles. Atlanta (league-high 2.29 PPG on the MLS table; 5-1-1, 3-0-1 at home) has been granted twice as many penalty kick attempts (MLS-high 4-for-6 on PKs) as any other club. Defenders like Cabrera, and midfielders like Montreal’s Ken Krolicki (3 yellow cards), must avoid desperate actions that tilt the pitch in The Five Stripes’ favor. The possible return of Tito Villalba to action, either starting or as a mid-game substitution, will make these prospects tougher on the visitors.

While Montreal has dropped three straight matches by a combined score of 4-12, their two wins have come against the reigning MLS Cup finalists, a 1-0 road win against shorthanded Seattle, and the same final score at Olympic Stadium versus their CONCACAF-minded rivals, Toronto. Still, catching Atlanta off-guard and extracting any points out of Saturday’s affair will require a disciplined approach from the Impact, one that has not been witnessed so far this month.

Let’s Go United!

~lw3

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It’s time to put the feet to the Fire! With first place on the MLS overall-points table likely up for grabs, Atlanta United heads off to the Second City to try dousing the Chicago Fire (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL).

Over the next nine days, The Five Stripes get a chance to flex the roster depth that Darren Eales and staff have worked meticulously to build for coach Tata Martino. This contest and next Sunday’s tilt at red-hot Orlando City SC will be bifurcated by a Wednesday home meet versus Sporting KC, the MLS West’s current points and goals leader.

Tata proved masterful with substitution decisions that helped Atlanta unravel an otherwise game Montreal Impact during the final 30-or-so minutes of last Saturday’s 4-1 victory. The powerful strikes from the likes of midfielder Kevin Kratz (two impressive set-piece goals vs. MTL) and forward Tito Villalba are likely to be summoned earlier in each of the next three contests, and perhaps as part of Atlanta’s Staring XI, to grant Miguel Almiron (MLS Player of the Month for April), Josef Martinez and Julian Gressel the respites they’ll deserve.

Pecking away at the opponent in hopes they will splinter apart, as was the situation against the backsliding Impact, won’t be so easy against a far more disciplined Fire (2-3-2 W-L-T, 2-1-2 in past five games) at Toyota Park. Chicago coach Veljko Paunovic was maligned after two losses to start the season, but his club has drawn just four yellow cards through its first eight games. The Fire have committed 11.3 fouls per game, like Atlanta (11.0) a shade beneath the league average of 11.5.

Keeping out of trouble with the referees effectively levels the playing field for Fire goalkeeper Richard Sanchez (zero penalty kicks faced) and keeps outcomes in play for 2017 Best XI forward Nemanja Nikolic, 2017’s goals leader (MLS-high 59 shots on goal in 2017).

Chicago thrives, also, by keeping the ball in space as much as possible, partially evidenced by the league-low 9.29 fouls drawn per game. In transition, they’ll spread opposing defenses out and go for the home-run pass. They’ve drawn 3.3 whistles per game on offsides calls (3rd-most in MLS), a number Toronto FC wishes was a bit higher after grey fox Bastian Schweinsteiger’s questionable header goal off a corner kick counted during the Fire’s 2-2 road draw last Saturday.

The Fire have been successful in keeping games close to the vest, with no wins or defeats by more than a goal thus far. Schweinsteiger halving Toronto’s 2-0 lead set the stage for forward Alan Gordon’s equalizer in extra-time that allowed Chicago to steal away a late point (a Fire escape?) up in T-Dot. Atlanta (6-1-1, MLS-high 21 goals and +12 goal differential) will want to score early and create some breathing room. It shouldn’t surprise many if Martino goes for a forward-heavy formation, a shift that places more pressure on the Chicago back line.

Possession control (73.2% possession vs. MTL) has been the secret to Atlanta’s sauce. ATLUTD will need assertive yet sound play from central midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Chris McCann to pick off Chicago’s looping passes before the lobs can find their way to Nikolic, rookie midfielder Mo Adams and Schweinsteiger (team-high 4 assists). Retrieving and getting the ball back to any of Atlanta’s drink-stirrers (Ezequiel Barco, Gressel, and Darlington Nagbe) should deprive the Fire of the oxygen they need to spread.

 

Let’s Go United!

~lw3

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^neglected to mention, above, that Chicago has three games in the upcoming eight days. They host Montreal on Wednesday before a Saturday trip to Columbus. So they'll have even more pressing roster decisions than Atlanta.

~lw3

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