2017 Atlanta United Review
Atlanta United broke the league last year. They did everything everybody said an expansion team couldn’t do and more. The Five Stripes made the playoffs, had a successful foreign coach, hit on all their big name young DP signings, and created a cohesive, fun identity in the process. Oh, and along the way they put the “Atlanta is a bad sports town” thing to rest. They finished 4th in the East with 55 points, scoring 70 goals with the 4th best goals allowed in the league.
Out: Yamil Asad (M); Kenwyne Jones (F); Anton Walkes (D); Carlos Carmona (M)
In: Ezequiel Barco (MF/F) – will come into the league with a lot of hype and a lot of uncertainty. He was paid the biggest transfer fee in MLS history and if he lives up to the hype could dominate MLS. Zeke excels at close dribbling, has great passing vision, and took a clutch PK in a Copa Sudamericana match for his Argentine club Independente. He figures to start at right wing and Atlanta is betting he’ll produce better than Asad’s 7g/11a season last year.
Franco Escobar (D) – figures to either be a starting center back in a 3-5-2 or a right back in a 4-3-3. Depending on the price he could be a sneaky good way to get into the Atlanta backline.
Darlington Nagbe (M) – Nagbe has been an brilliant player to some and a frustrating one to others. At times last year Atlanta wasn’t able to effectively possess (read pass) the ball, Nagbe will improve that a lot.
Mitch Hildebrandt (G) – If Atlanta learned one thing losing to Minnesota United after their keeper got a red card, it’s that 3rd string keeper is the most important position on the roster.
Some draft picks and teenagers including Diego Lopez – They look to be destined for the new USL team, which will probably be better than about 6 MLS teams.
Expected/Predicted Starting XI Picture
So how will this 4-2-3-1 look? Expect Barco and Almiron to interchange a lot on the wing and in the middle. Almiron loved to drift out wide left and look for ways to cut in from the wing on his prefered left foot. Almiron may also slot in underneath Martinez and play as a second striker. However, Barco looks to be a bit more two footed, so he could very well play more centrally at times. Aside from that, the team will work to possess more and pass teams to death while finding Josef Martinez on devastating cutting runs into the box and having Tito Villalba run past everyone on the field yet again this year. It is going to be very exciting when Atlanta has the ball this season, especially against teams that either try to play them in a wide open game or against teams that try to park the bus but aren’t cohesive enough.
Defensively, this team was really surprising last year only allowing 40 goals. Atlanta could either repeat that, or whoever replaces Carmona could fail to settle in with the team shielding the back line and Nagbe could be caught up field a little too much with Barco not offering the same defensive work rate as Asad (I really liked Yamil Asad). Losing Carmona isn’t a devastating problem for the team, but replacing him will be key. The smart play would be signing a player on a season long loan while Chris Goslin gets some seasoning in USL to be ready for the first team next year. This will really be the key to if they are a really special team or a team that scores a lot and lets in a lot of goals.
Atlanta also experimented (meaning used in emergency situations when there were injuries or suspensions) with a 3-5-2. Tata Martino has said that the team would train with the formation in pre-season and we may even see it in friendlies before the regular season starts. Atlanta let in a lot of goals with the 3-5-2 allowing 5 in two games the formation was deployed in.
Look for Andrew Carleton (M), Romario Williams (F), or Brandon Vazquez (F) to be the attackers to come off the bench with Julian Gressel (M) coming on to stabilize the midfield, play the wing, or even right back when need be. Jeff Larentowicz (M) seems to be the odd man out with Nagbe being brought in but should still see some playing time.
Last year when Atlanta was at its best it was pressing teams, forcing turnovers, and was totally lethal in the transition. We saw this when the team played the final games of the season in Mercedes Benz Stadium and completely dominated weaker opposition. A wide pitch made a huge difference and Atlanta put up impressive goal numbers with teams failing to cover the space Atlanta was able to exploit with their speedy players.
The Five Stripes were also pretty good against playoff teams, beating NYCFC, Columbus, Chicago, and Houston. In those wins, Atlanta didn’t compromise their attacking style and went at the goal to get a result. Their draws against Toronto and Orlando were some of the most exciting games of the year and the loss to Columbus after a 0-0 refusal of the ball to go into the net was truly memorable if not completely heartbreaking. When teams gave Atlanta possession and didn’t have the defensive solidity to park the bus, United created good chances, like against the Colorado Tim Howards. In games where Atlanta struggled, they either lost focus, like against Vancouver, or played opposition who parked the bus, like against SKC, DC United, and away to New England.
Club President Darren Eales has discussed that he hopes Barco will help break those teams down and the addition of Darlington Nagbe will help Atlanta keep possession against teams that like to get stuck in. As far as how Barco will figure with the team, he will probably do more than just fill in for Yamil Asad. Last year, Asad was tremendous for United. In the attack he combined with Greg Garza to give defenses fits on the wing and his defensive work rate was, frankly, incredible as he was 4th on the team in tackles and was always working to get back to win the ball and turn it back upfield in transition. Barco won’t offer that same level of defensive production, but that’s partly because Nagbe will be backing him up a bit more than Jeff Larentowicz was able to with Asad last year.
If everything goes right and Barco is a step up from Asad, Nagbe solidifies the possession while whoever replaces Carmona adapts well to the team, and Escobar is an improvement over converted center back Anton Walkes at right back, this team could historically dominate MLS and walk away with the Supporters Shield. If the new pieces don’t quite fit, those teams that bunker still find success, and teams are able to counter effectively while Atlanta tries to score 5 goals a game, the Five Stripes could end up in 4th place again in the East.
Closing Fantasy Thoughts/Conclusion
Every week Atlanta will have as many as 9 players viable for fantasy. The only one I would avoid is Nagbe. I expect he won’t quite get the passing bonuses to justify his price which will be a bit high because of his USMNT notoriety. My top 4 would be Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Miguel Almiron, Tito Villalba, and Josef Martinez with Brad Guzan, Fidel Escobar, Michael Parkhurst, Barco, and Garza in the mix – if Barco breaks out he’d take LGP’s spot in the top four in my mind. Almiron could wind up being a must own player – especially if he plays that second striker role under Martinez like Valeri did last year against whoever Portland started at striker when Adi went down. Atlanta’s players won’t be cheap though, but they should be worth it. LGP ended last year as the top defender in the game and was 11th in points overall and I could see him priced as the highest defender in the game with Guzan as the most expensive keeper. Franco Escobar might be the best value pick among regular starters as the rest of the players seem ready to set owners back a bit.