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Crossing the Touchline: Atlanta United at the Crew

What’s up with the defending MLS Cup champs?

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday evening, Columbus Crew SC will attempt to accomplish something the team never has before: defeat Atlanta United. The Five Stripes come to MAPFRE Stadium as the defending MLS Cup champions but have struggled to start the 2019 season, with no wins through three games (0-1-2).

Like the Crew, Atlanta welcomed in a new head coach this season, with Tata Martino leaving to take over the Mexican National Team and former Ajax and Netherlands manager Frank de Boer becoming the second head coach in team history. United also sold playmaker Miguel Almiron to Newcastle United of the English Premier League, replacing him with Pity Martinez. It has not been the smoothest of transitions just yet.

To learn a little more about what’s been going on with Atlanta, we turned to SB Nation’s United site, Dirty South Soccer, and editor Sydney Hunte. Here’s what he told us about the Five Stripes.

Questions for Dirty South Soccer

Massive Report: It’s been quite a while since a team has repeated as MLS Cup champions. How confident are those in Atlanta that the Five Stripes can do that in 2019? Is that the expectation for the year?

Dirty South Soccer: Expectations were definitely high coming in — at worst the hope was that it could at least challenge for MLS Cup once more and make a deep run in CONCACAF Champions League, if not win it altogether. Of course, the latter didn’t happen, the quest for a repeat MLS Cup hasn’t gotten off to a good start, and a shot at the Supporters’ Shield is looking dim early on. Oddly enough, maybe it was best for Atlanta to get knocked out of CCL because it allows them to fully focus on MLS, especially with a new coach in Frank de Boer leading the way. But it was hard to imagine them to be in the spot they are right now; fortunately, there’s a lot of season left to go and I do think that they right the ship eventually. I feel getting a win at Columbus heading into another long break will work wonders for the team’s confidence and let the fans know that things are moving in a positive direction.

MR: We obviously know Tata Martino is gone. Could you tell us a little about Frank de Boer and how things have been different/the same under a new head coach?

DSS: Under Martino, we saw a more direct attacking style that benefited players like Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba in a big way. He tactically preferred a 4-3-3 formation but switched to a 3-5-2 later in the season that played a big part in Atlanta winning MLS Cup and enjoying great defensive success throughout the playoffs. With de Boer, that’s changed to a 3-4-3 that’s seen the team struggle to really take hold of, and it’s turned the coach into a rather polarizing figure already. I think that when you bring in a coach with a different philosophy, there’s bound to be a time of getting used to new ideas and tactics, and we’ve seen that from Atlanta — but I don’t think fans expected the team to struggle the way they have. I’ve come away personally a bit puzzled with de Boer’s tactical decisions and how he’s opted to position some of his players (i.e. Michael Parkhurst practically playing as a wingback during Atlanta’s draw against Philadelphia).

The good news is that with the international break, it gave the club a chance to breathe and rest after a heavily compressed March that saw it juggle CONCACAF Champions League duties with league play. Also, we saw some more frequent spells of positive play that we didn’t see earlier in the season that hopefully manifests itself as things progress. But I think de Boer needs to establish an identity and do so quickly, or he’ll risk putting Atlanta behind in the standings and dropping what could turn out to be critical points toward the end of the campaign.

MR: With Miguel Almiron doing his thing in the EPL, how has Pity Martinez filled into that role? Obviously a good player but how is he different than what Almiron gave United?

DSS: He’s not an exact carbon copy of Almiron in that he won’t put in that defensive workrate and give you that same speed on the ball that Almiron gave Atlanta during his two seasons here. Having said that, we’ve seen spurts of Martinez’s great ball handling and skill, but I think that’s the problem: we haven’t seen it over the course of an entire 90 minutes just yet. de Boer has gone on record as saying that the adjustment from playing on grass in Argentina to playing on turf in Atlanta is part of the reason why we haven’t seen Martinez at his full potential as of yet, and while I feel that there’s a little merit in that statement, there are a number of fans that really don’t buy that. (To be honest, I think part of that is the discontent they’re feeling with the direction of the club under de Boer’s leadership thus far.)

On the other side of the coin, could it be something deeper, like homesickness or unhappiness with his role? There was always going to be an adjustment for Martinez coming up to North America with building chemistry with his teammates (especially Josef Martinez), and I think you’re seeing that - but it has to be better from him and he, the fans and the staff know it.

To read Massive Report’s answers to Dirty South Soccer’s questions, check out their Three Questions piece.