Some people might suggest that Sounders-Five Stripes is a rivalry. These people have never met a real rivalry, like the Heritage Cup. Sure, Atlanta United have a large crowd and an MLS Cup. But it takes more than a rare killing of soccer to make a rivalry. It’s not like the Five Stripes are as good as Toronto, regularly competing for Cups.
Even without a rivalry, this is a key match for Seattle Sounders FC. Brian Schmetzer needs to hold form over the next two matches to get to the break. Plus, it’s fun to dominate Atlanta on national television (FOX, 1:30 PM PT).
For Dirty South Soccer, David McFarland answers Three Questions.
SaH: What’s up with Josef Martinez? He’s been back from injury for a while but doesn’t seem to be the scoring threat he was.
DSS: It was always going to take Josef time to return to his best after suffering an ACL tear, though we’d have loved for him to fire on all cylinders from week one. Josef’s first and only goal came two weeks prior against Miami, while his movement and fitness has slowly grown game after game along with the general cohesion of the squad with so many new faces. Atlanta’s attack in general has struggled, currently averaging only slightly more than a goal per game. Josef frequently has to drop into midfield to pick up the ball and acts as a playmaker rather than goalscorer; Atlanta’s possession is so static and predictable he becomes isolated up top. But as Heinze’s specific movements in attack and style become more and more natural, success in the final third will follow. Another issue is that all of Atlanta’s wingers have failed to impress, nor look likely to do so anytime soon. The summer transfer window gives Heinze an opportunity to rectify Atlanta’s lack of steel on the flanks. It may take until the tail end of the season, but I’m confident we’ll see the Josef Martinez who scored 31 goals in one season again. For now, 1-0 wins may be the best we can hope for.
SaH: Emerson Hyndman is now one of the more important midfielders on the squad. How is he dealing with the pressure and can Atlanta be successful with him being a high-touch player?
DSS: Hyndman is an interesting case among Atlanta United fans. His debut season in 2019 under de Boer was successful enough to get a permanent move from Bournemouth but he fell off drastically last season. It didn’t help Hyndman’s case that he’s heavily over paid with a salary of almost a million dollars. Recruitment since Tata left has been underwhelming at best, and Hyndman is one of the leading examples. That’s not to say he’s bad, just overpaid in a salary-capped league. And to be fair to him, he’s bounced back to his 2019 form this season. Hyndman is the type of player who needs a system to survive and that’s what Heinze offers. The 25-year-old has fit in as a box-to-box midfielder this season with the more defensive Santiago Sosa behind him. He frequently pops up in the final third and has a goal and assist so far. There’s hope that he can be a key piece in Atlanta for years to come despite weighing down the wage bill. The early returns from Hyndman under Heinze have been promising but he’s still more of a complementary piece than midfield controller.
SaH: Now that this is Gabriel Heinze’s team, how has the playing style shifted from de Boring?
DSS: The transition from the infamous Dutch manager to Heinze hasn’t been a flick of a switch. The Argentine is focused on Atlanta keeping possession and the Five Stripes average 60% of the ball per match (the most in MLS). It frequently disintegrates into side-to-side or backwards movement of the ball instead of penetrating the opposition with line-splitting passes, however. Atlanta averages a league-high pass completion of 86% and attempts some of the fewest dribble attempts. The result is 12.8 shots per game but the 4th lowest shots/per goal and 3rd lowest expected goals per shot. And while this may seem like some very de Boer-esque stats, there’s sufficient evidence that this is far from the end product of the Heinze project. Whereas de Boer descended into soccer of this type after Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s tactics completely wore off, Heinze is slowly pulling Atlanta out of the safe possession mindset. The best half of soccer the Five Stripes played in recent memory came in the CCL quarter-final first leg against the Philadelphia Union. Atlanta consistently penetrated the Union’s deep block and controlled every aspect of the game with the ball. It was quite the shock to come out 3-0 losers after a scoreless first half, but that’s where a subpar attack causes problems.
Atlanta faced off against a back-three system last week as well, and while Montreal is far from identical to Seattle, I expect a similar lineup. Brad Guzan, George Bello, Miles Robinson, Anton Walkes, and Brooks Lennon will form the defensive corps.
DP centerback Alan Franco started last week but picked up an injury midway through. Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra, and Emerson Hyndman will be the midfield trio while Marcelino Moreno, Josef, and Erik Lopez are the frontline. Ezequiel Barco and Jurgen Damm are still sidelined with injury.
Check out The Reverse where there’s more Nouhou for Chad Marshall Defender of the Year talk.