Once upon a time, there was an expansion team that changed how American sports professionals thought about expansion teams. The Seattle Sounders did everything right in 2009. Atlanta United is doing all of that, and more, at least to start 2017. Friday night (7:00 p.m., FS1) is the first time that AUFC will visit CenturyLink Field. Both teams will be depleted due to international call-ups, and Atlanta will be flying across the country on short rest.
Dirty South Soccer’s Haris answers Three Questions.
SaH: How has Tata Martino adapted to MLS so quickly?
DSS: Well, it's still early. However, I think Martino was given an ample amount of time to bring in players he was familiar with from the Primera Division in Argentina (Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Yamil Asad) and CONMEBOL qualifying (Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Carlos Carmona). Credit should also be given to Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and the rest of the front office for their dedication to fully understand all the nutty MLS transfer rules. They were all for tailoring the squad in the way Tata wanted.
Martino has also embraced the decrease in media pressure that comes with coaching an MLS team rather than Barcelona or Argentina. He's gone on record saying the media made his love for coaching a lot less enjoyable, and that being in Atlanta has taken plenty of weight off his shoulders. So, perhaps it's not necessarily that he's adapted to MLS, but that he's more comfortable with MLS than other places he has coached.
SaH: Has anyone figured out how to slow down Miguel Almiron yet?
DSS: Honestly, no. Now, three matches is a very small sample size, but the only thing that's really slowed Almiron down to start the season is Almiron. His dribbling and ability to keep the ball from other midfielders is fun to watch, his passing is incredible at times, and he's capable of wonderful strikes. If I had to point out one negative, sometimes Almiron has a tendency to get unnecessarily flashy. A flashback of the New York Red Bulls match comes to mind, as he tried to chip Luis Robles 1-on-1 rather than evade Robles for the tap-in. I feel silly for telling a professional how to do his job, and Almiron is certainly capable of pulling off a magnificent chip. Once in a while though, he attempts to wow the crowd when we'd be satisfied with a goal.
SaH: Much of the focus is on Atlanta's attack, but how does the defense work?
DSS: The defense has done a surprisingly good job to start the season. Heading into an inaugural campaign, most immediately assumed the backline would struggle simply because none of the defenders have played together before. That, for the most part, has not been the case.
Greg Garza has arguably been the best left back in MLS so far, with two consecutive Team of the Week honors. Martino loves to get the fullbacks upfield, but each plays a different role when joining the attack. Garza likes to make overlapping runs or cut into midfield, while former Sounder Tyrone Mears prefers to cross the ball into the box. It's an interesting contrast and one that makes Atlanta tougher to defend.
Meanwhile, our centerback pairing didn't have a whole lot of work to do the past two matches against a very poor Minnesota United and a 10-man Chicago Fire. However, I still think Leandro Gonzalez Pirez will be considered one of the best defenders in MLS by season's end. He alone completed more passes than Chicago did two weeks ago. Pirez is a tank, but can also pass downfield to a sprinting winger at a moment's notice.
Lastly, Michael Parkhurst is exactly what you expect from an MLS veteran. He doesn't make too many mistakes and is a vocal leader. Overall, Atlanta United has conceded three goals in three matches, but only one of those wasn't an own goal or a penalty. That's way better than anyone in Atlanta could've anticipated.
Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Alec Kann; Greg Garza, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Tyrone Mears; Jeff Larentowicz, Carlos Carmona; Jacob Peterson, Julian Gressel, Hector Villalba; Yamil Asad
DSS: Atlanta United is certainly going to feel some effects of the international break with Josef Martinez likely out for Friday's match due to injury and Miguel Almiron and Kenwyne Jones playing two matches for their respective countries. What's the likely status for Seattle's international call-ups against Atlanta?
SaH: Unlike AUFC, there were no injuries plaguing the Sounders' call-ups. Roman Torres is the least likely to play. He looked exhausted at the end of the draw with Panama. Clint Dempsey probably will not start. It was just three weeks ago when he was unlikely to be called into US duty. Joevin Jones is young and can run for days. Nicolas Lodeiro put thousands of miles on his frequent flier card, but did not play in either of Uruguay's matches.
That's a pretty good set of circumstances for the Sounders. They do have a couple of injuries plaguing them right now. Jordan Morris has an ankle knock and is day-to-day. Both Oniel Fisher and Brad Evans are working back and could probably be ready if this wasn't a Friday night game. Aaron Kovar is on the road back from his groin surgery.
With a roster at just 25 players, having four injuries and four call-ups with a Friday night game after Tuesday international duty is going to be rough.
DSS: How nice is it to have Clint Dempsey back?
SaH: It's awesome. Most important is it means Clint is playing soccer again. There is also the fact that though the Sounders won MLS Cup, Clint was not there. He's the type of player who would be more motivated by such a situation. A hungry, healthy Clint Dempsey is the type of Dempsey that threatens to win the MVP. One only need look at his performance over the international break to see that Deuce is Deuce again.
If he can carry a four-goal blowout into April, the Seattle Sounders are going to win a lot of road games. His partnerships with Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro are stronger than the one he rapidly developed with Christian Pulisic. Captain America is back, even if he no longer has his shield.
DSS: What are your main takeaways from Seattle's start to the season? Any signs of complacency after the MLS Cup win?
SaH: Road games are hard and the offseason after an MLS Cup is short. In several ways, Seattle started slow on purpose. They gave Lodeiro an extra week off. Several players started US camp just three weeks after the Cup parade. There's little time to recover after that. Put in tired legs and two road games in a league where home teams win 50%+ of their games is rough. And after this Friday's game, the team is back on the road for
fourthree matches. It's a rough first 20% of the year, but it will mean a home heavy schedule for the remainder.
Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Tony Alfaro, Chad Marshall, Gustav Svensson; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Harry Shipp, Nicolas Lodeiro, Alvaro Fernandez; Jordan Morris