I know that this game technically might not have playoff implications. At least, not until US Soccer figures out what they’re doing with the 2021 Open Cup which is at this point a conspiracy to prevent Newtown (CT) Pride FC from winning the whole thing but I digress.
If the USOC had not been postponed from it’s original time frame of this spring, MLS would have sent their top eight teams based on overall standings after the first three matches. With the New England Revolution and Atlanta United both sitting atop the Eastern Conference with four points, in theory this could be a playoff or play-in game for the Open Cup. And we all know what happened the last time these two teams played in a playoff match:
HEATED #ATLvNE // @Audi #MLSCupPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/CKYqIzyYo1— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 19, 2019
That clip might not be as legendary as AJ Soares shoving Jaime Penedo to the ground in the MLS Cup Final, but it’s very close. So even if there isn’t a playoff spot on the line, first place in the East to start off the month of April isn’t a bad consolation and this is a pretty good benchmark for the Revs overall. Atlanta is a team that New England have been absolutely horrendous against with a 0-5-2 record overall, though I still demand that 7-0 game (or both of them, I can’t remember and everything hurts) with all the red cards that were overturned be expunged from the history books.
Anyway, this week we chat with David McFarland of Dirty South Soccer about all things Atlanta United so far in 2021, which is a lot, and remember an MLS legend in Jeff Larentowicz. Be sure to check out my answers to his questions over on their site as well.
TBM: We’ve seen it all from Atlanta this year: a 0-0 draw, a convincing 3-1 win against Chicago, and then the disaster of a first leg against Philly in the CCL. What worked well in those three games and what does Atlanta need to improve on after the first month of the year?
DM: Despite Tuesday’s shock 3-0 home loss to Philadelphia Union in the CCL quarter final first leg, April was a successful month in Atlanta. Taking three wins and a draw from the first five games of Gabriel Heinze’s tenure is a happy surprise and the team looks set to only improve from here. The obvious strength has been Atlanta’s defense. It kept three shutouts and has conceded a mere four goals in five games. This has all been without DP centerback Alan Franco as he recovers from COVID-19. New England’s biggest test Saturday will be finding a way to score, though the Five Stripes are yet to face a player of Carles Gil’s caliber. Midfield has also been a strong suit. Atlanta has had at least 60% of possession in four of its five games and dictated the center of the park. Twenty-one year old defensive mid Santiago Sosa has been the MVP so far. He frequently drops between the center backs and has the freedom to break up attacks with his willingness to enter tackles all while being Atlanta’s metronome in possession. While Gabriel Heinze has already instilled a clear identity in defense and midfield after only a month in charge, the attack may take a little longer to fine-tune. Atlanta has only two open play goals in five games and struggled to create chances on a consistent basis despite its high possession figueres.
TBM: Josef Martinez is back and clearly that makes Atlanta a far more dangerous team. But is there someone else that can step up and help shoulder the scoring load for a team that looks a little inconsistent so far?
DM: While Josef is back on the pitch, he’s far from 100%. He’s a level above any other strikers but Atlanta’s lack of goals is still prevalent even with him starting. Ezequiel Barco is most-suited to take some of the goalscoring haul from Martinez, and he has two goals and one assist through five appearances. Still, the Argentine can’t be the sole focus of Atlanta’s attack. The other wingers (Marcelino Moreno, Jurgen Damm, Jake Mulraney) have all struggled. They clearly don’t have the quality to provide the final product or aren’t natural fits for the wing (Moreno). While more goals could come as Heinze’s system becomes more natural, the Five Stripes won’t be a free-scoring team until Josef is back to his best. Unlike 2020, though this season the rest of the lineup has enough quality to pick up results even with a hot-and-cold attack.
TBM: Jeff Larentowicz, our SuperLiga champion retired this year. There’s no question, but I will allow you to speak about his greatness since Atlanta likes former Revs to captain their teams so much.
What a strike!— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 15, 2019
Jeff Larentowicz equalizes with a . #CampeonesCup pic.twitter.com/XNjvJyf50S
DM: Larentowicz will be sorely missed after his retirement this winter. He was a starter on Atlanta’s 2018 MLS Cup run and scored one of the most memorable goals in our short history (as shown above). While age began to catch up to him in the past couple of seasons, he still made 113 appearances for the Five Stripes and offered invaluable veteran-experience in the locker room. It was a shame to see him finally hang up his boots after such an incredible career but it was amazing to see him accomplish so much in Atlanta colors.
With Saturday’s clash sandwiched in Bayern the Champions League first and second leg, I would expect some rotation in the starting XI. Santiago Sosa has played every minute so far and looks due for a rest while Josef Martinez went the full ninety Tuesday vs Philly. Franco Ibarra is the clear replacement for Sosa, despite starting as a make-shift right back midweek. Anton Walkes will likely replace Ibarra in defense. Erik Lopez or Cubo Torres will start in place of Josef, though I personally would like to see the 19-year-old Lopez make his first start of the season. The only injury is a facial knock to right-back Brooks Lennon.
(4-2-3-1): Guzan | Bello, Robinson, Franco, Walkes | Ibarra, Hyndman | Moreno, Barco, Mulraney | E. Lopez |
As for the game, I think Atlanta will take a 2-1 win back to Georgia. Carles Gil will be shut down by the Five Stripes’ rock-solid backline while two scrappy goals on the other end from Lopez will secure the three points.