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Massive Scouting Report: The terrifying transition of Atlanta United

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Preview Crew SC’s match with Atlanta and learn what to watch for

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Tata Martino has led the way for an Atlanta United team that’s hit the ground running in MLS.
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

[NOTE: Changes made to reflect game being played in Atlanta]

Columbus Crew SC fans could use a reason to smile. Any reason to step down from the ledge; to pull their head above water.

Will it come in the club’s first-ever meeting with MLS newcomer Atlanta United?

Here’s a look at what might be expected on Saturday when the two clubs meet in Atlanta at 7 p.m. EST, in a clash between sides that may be battling each other at the playoff line come the end of summer.

At A Glance

Record: 5-6-3

Form: DWWLL

Atlanta has dropped its last two matches in MLS action, to Chicago Fire and Vancouver Whitecaps, allowing a total of five goals in those two games. Prior to that, ATLU ripped a New York City FC squad that looked asleep and hammered a Houston Dynamo side that can’t win on the road.

Atlanta did win in U.S. Open Cup action on Wednesday, edging one the USL’s best clubs, Charleston Battery, in a high-scoring 3-2 battle.

Formation: 4-2-3-1

Goal leader: Miguel Almiron (7)

Assist leader: Yamil Asad (6), Julian Gressel (5)

Atlanta’s personnel

United came into MLS with a bang, making big signings ahead of its first season and taking a very proactive expansion approach. The results have paid off for the most part.

This is a flawed team, but one that plays an exciting brand of soccer and even with it’s tarnished edges is still out-performing your typical MLS expansion club.

That all starts with Atlanta’s explosive attacking corps, which starts with designated player Miguel Almiron, who can and has played anywhere across the attacking unit. He’s not a typical creative playmaker, but uses his blazing speed and touch to rip apart holes in the defense.

Yamil Asad has been part of the supporting cast on the wing, and Hector Villalba was the other big signing entering the season. He’s been a dangerous piece playing both the wing and as a lone striker in the absence of Josef Martinez due to injury.

Martinez is a key cog, and after missing a big chunk of time, he is back. His penchant for running the central channel and splitting the center backs, as well as finishing, make ATLU much better with his presence. His .72 expected goals per 96 minutes is one of the best numbers in the league.

Rookie Superdraft selection Julian Gressel has surprised some people with his play. He provided danger on the wing during Martinez’s absence and previously played as a box-to-box midfielder. Perhaps the frontrunner for MLS Rookie of the Year, how he fits now that Martinez is back is a storyline to watch.

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC
Your MLS Rookie of the Year?
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Larentowicz has provided a veteran presence in front of a back line that features former Crew SC captain Michael Parkhurst as a fixture in the back line.

He has paired with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who has taken a freelancing role and is not afraid to charge forward. At times he’s looked great, and at other times his swashbuckling style has created some issues.

The strong fullback pairing of Tyrone Mears and Greg Garza likes to get up the field. Garza leads the team in touch percentage at 12 percent — ATLU’s wing-dominant attack transitions through the U.S. international.

The ATL conundrum

There is no doubt that Atlanta has been a fun addition to MLS. It’s brought entertainment value with a team that wants to attack at full speed ahead.

ATLU actually does often control possession — third in MLS at 55.6 percent — but isn’t a slow burn type of team. Gonzalez Pirez and Garza act as fulcrums to swing the ball forward and get it to the attacking quartet as quickly as possible.

Transition is where Atlanta is deadly.

Gerardo “Tata” Martino has kept his team aggressive in its approach, willing to get the outside backs high up the field and keeping numbers in attack.

But the numbers show the fine line that Martino and his team tread; they also show that it’s possible Atlanta’s bubble bursts a little bit.

ATLU currently leads MLS with 1.93 goals per game. That comes from an aggressive approach mixed with the attacking skill to slice up opposing back lines.

But the cost comes at the other end, where it allows 1.43 goals per game, which is in the bottom half of the league.

That’s probably a rate Atlanta can get by with, even if it may create some nervy moments or epic collapses. But if you buy into underlying analytics, it’s unclear if all that will hold up through the full grind of the MLS season.

Atlanta’s expected goals per game (1.15) is actually 18th out of 22 teams in Major League Soccer. It’s expected goal differential per game (-0.42) is also 18th (and, obviously, negative, which is not a winning formula).

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC
What are all these numbers about? I just want to score goals.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLU’s GD-xGD, which gives you an idea of how much a team might be “overachieving” in goal differential, is 12.9 — the most overachieving number in MLS, but a significant margin.

So why does Atlanta’s exciting attack overachieve? Is the ground going to fall out from underneath this team?

I would suggest part of the reason is the type of chances ATLU creates. While attacking soccer is its bread and butter, Atlanta actually averages just 10.8 shots per game, which is the second-lowest number in MLS. Obviously less shots means less chances to score which means the number of goals expected goes down.

It seems likely, though, that the chances Atlanta is creating tend to be higher-percentage looks, as transition is where United is deadly, and the combination of skill + quality chances leads to goals, even if the sheer quantity (or lack thereof) pulls the xG number down a little.

That said, it’s fair to believe that if Atlanta doesn’t shore things up defensively a little bit, that the bubble may deflate a little, if not outright pop.

Notes from last week

In its last week of MLS play, Atlanta fell to the Chicago Fire 2-0 on Saturday — one of just three games during a FIFA international window.

Atlanta bossed possession (61.1 percent) but couldn’t break down Chicago, as ATL fired in a ton of crosses and put only two of 12 total shots on frame.

This is what the day looked like for Atlanta:

Atlanta United dashboard vs. CHI

In many ways, Saturday’s game shows you how Atlanta wants to play — it’s getting up the field quickly and it’s utilizing the wings, whether through it’s fullbacks or attacking players. Almiron likes to drift wide, even when starting centrally, because his speed is one of his biggest assets, and he can use that more by pulling across the field.

Chicago also did some smart things though, by allowing Atlanta some possession and drawing it forward, as well as possessing deep with its bevy of quality deep-lying midfielders (in this case Juninho and Bastian Schweinsteiger) to continue to draw United out, take advantage of its aggressive approach and use it against ATLU.

Luis Solignac got a 29th-minute goal, which put Atlanta in a bind, and then a second-half penalty kick by Nemanja Nikolic sealed it.

Chicago had the ball just 38.9 percent of the time, but still managed the same 12 shots as Atlanta and put half of them on target.

In midweek action, Atlanta rotated most of its squad, but Almiron, Larentowicz and Martinez — who had returned to the field in a substitute appearance against the Fire — all played a full 90 minutes in the Open Cup game.

What does that mean for these three key players on Saturday?

Crew keys

  • Be willing to play a little deeper with the ball/be willing to cede possession

The blueprint is there for how to beat Atlanta. Now the Black & Gold can’t ignore it.

Although Atlanta has posted some high possession numbers, it still seems likely that Columbus, also a high-possession team, will try to control the ball a decent amount.

That’s fine, but there has to be some flexibility. If you try to constantly keep possession high up the field, not only are you less likely to exploit ATLU’s weakness, you’re also opening things up for United to play to its strength.

Playing on the road it may be wiser to play a little more conservatively, and by circulating the ball a little deeper, it’s possible to draw an aggressive team further up the field and create more space to play with in the attack, while stretching a back line that can break.

Wil Trapp will be critical to this — he is the pendulum, and he’ll have to be steady and not turn the ball over.

Nicolai Naess is a question mark for this game, which hurts Columbus’ cause, because he offers another quality player on the ball out of the back.

Of course, allowing Atlanta to play with the ball a little bit also draws it out of its defensive shape. Note that ATLU won significant possession numbers in its last two games, but lost both while allowing multiple goals in each.

  • Don’t let this happen:

This isn’t the flashiest of goals, but it’s typical. Atlanta attacks down the wing, stretches the defense over and then gets the ball into the central area, where it can play the ball to split the center backs. And this was even without Martinez in the mix, who is the master at roasting the center of defense and getting onto the end of the final ball.

Columbus has to expect this and be prepared to defend it. Part of that may be to play a little more conservatively with the fullbacks — if they get caught up the field on a fast ATLU transition, the defense will be in tatters by the time one of United’s skilled attackers waltzes through on goal.

The back line has to be aware and communicate. That’s normal stuff, but even a momentary breakdown can be devastating against a team set up to take advantage.

There will be goals in this game, but you still have to let in at least one less goal than your opponent.

  • Urgency

Atlanta will play with urgency when it has the ball. Crew SC must do the same. That’s been an issue that has led to many of CCSC’s struggles this season (and last). Moving the ball is not good enough. It must be done quickly and decisively, just like Trapp said after the disappointing U.S. Open Cup loss at mid week.

  • Fireworks ahead

Frustrated with Crew SC’s inability to break down a bunkered defense? Aren’t we all.

Don’t expect any bunkering on Saturday.

Martino could pull something out of his sleeve and surprise us, but Atlanta wants to go, go, go.

This will be one week it seems unlikely Columbus will have to worry about breaking down a compact back line.

Final Thoughts

Atlanta is playing it’s third game in a week. Columbus played on Wednesday, but had a long layoff before that.

ATLU played only a few regular starters (though important) ones against Charleston. So expect to see a mostly full-strength lineup. CCSC is more of a mystery, going very much first-11 heavy against Cincinnati.

Here’s one guess at a potential lineup.

Columbus Crew SC vs Atlanta United - Football tactics and formations