|Minnesota||L||—||—||—||—||-4 GD||0.0 PPG|
|Atlanta||L||—||—||—||—||-1 GD||0.0 PPG|
There’s little history of which to write, with Atlanta United embarking upon its inaugural season. Widening the scope to Minnesota’s stint in the modern NASL, and any professional side from Atlanta, the Stars and Loons collectively posted a 11-3-4 record against the Sliverbacks and boasted a plus-eight goal differential in the series than spanned 2011 to 2015.
Ismail Elfath mans the whistle for the first time in 2017 and only served in 19 MLS games last year. In that time, Elfath placed right about in the middle of the officiating pack in terms of fouls per game and yellow cards per game. If Minnesota finds its players scrambling back on quick break or on broken defensive coverage (as it did against Portland), the club may be grateful for the official’s relative leniency.
Carlos Carmona bears the dubious distinction of earning Atlanta United’s first-ever red card, and earn it he did after raking his studs on a Red Bulls player who was down on the turf, in full view of the referee. Atlanta will need to replace him in its midfield, and that may come in the form of playing MLS veteran Jeff Larentowicz in a straight swap at holding midfielder. Otherwise, Atlanta may play Julian Gressel — whose opening day start came as a surprise — in a more defensive role and task another player with serving as Atlanta’s No. 8. The choice is important, as Atlanta’s backline is already without starter Zach Loyd due to a groin injury.
Of course, the solution in the defensive midfield could also be settled by another important question up top. Potential future star striker Kenwyne Jones started for Atlanta on the bench last week, with Josef Martinez moved to the No. 9 role and Yamil Asad playing on the left wing. Martinez may be a better fit on the left wing, and the club will want to get Jones his minutes. That said, it is hard to pull Asad, who bagged the club’s first MLS goal against New York. The answer could be to start Jones up top, start Martinez on the wing, and make Asad that box-to-box man described above. At the very least, Atlanta won’t want for options.
Minnesota will not have suspensions or injuries to combat, save for Bernardo Añor who is nursing a hamstring injury, but will have a few interesting personnel considerations. Many wondered who would start as Minnesota’s striker last week: Christian Ramirez, Abu Danladi, or even both. Coach Adrian Heath ultimately chose “none of the above” and started Johan Venegas up top, making room to include Mohammed Saeid in a three-man midfield. Venegas was not poor, and Saeid was not great. When Ramirez was subbed on as a No. 9 and Venegas dropped back into a second-striker role, Venegas looked much more dangerous and Ramirez obviously bagged a goal. This does not mean Minnesota should immediately move to that lineup; much of that later success owed to Portland playing more defensively, and this was still the formation that collectively gave up three devastating late goals. But Minnesota should seriously consider the swap.
A few other personnel decisions linger for the Loons. Bashkim Kadrii, probably the team’s best on the left wing in the preseason, will not win any awards for his performance against the Timbers, and the more fluid positioning of Miguel Ibarra may serve the team well. If a new forward is introduced and Venegas is pushed back to the hole behind the striker, someone will need to make room, most likely Saeid. Finally, Jérôme Thiesson is now with the team and available to start at right back this Sunday. Heath will need to decide whether it is worth starting a man who has only been with the team a couple of days to get the error-prone Jermaine Taylor off the pitch.
Much has been made of the contrasting approaches to franchise building these two expansion siblings have taken, but their preferred tactics also present an exercise in contrasts. Atlanta has been built for speed, while Minnesota has been built for comfort. Atlanta will feature players like Miguel Almiron — a winger at heart, so far played as a No. 10 — and Josef Martinez; young Designated Players who will be unafraid to run directly at Minnesota’s defense. The Loons, on the other hand, have attacked with possession and patient buildup. Kevin Molino and Johan Venegas showed moments of excellent cohesion with some clever passing sequences up Minnesota’s right side last week against Portland.
A big question on Sunday will be the amount of pressure each team applies on the other. Against the Timbers, the Loons refused to flat-out bunker down in against a technically superior team, but also opted not to place much direct pressure on the Timbers when they had the ball (which was more often than not). Atlanta, on the other hand, uses the speed and physicality of its front four to keep its press high. The impact of these styles will be fascinating to watch. Minnesota makes itself less susceptible to quick breaks by a quick team when applying limited pressure, but that may allow Atlanta’s more clinical side to flourish. At the same time, Atlanta looked entirely gassed last week after the 65th minute owing to some early season fitness, and its energetic play style. Can Minnesota use its patience to its benefit if it keeps winds up with more fuel left in its tank late in the game?
The Loons will have an easier time this week if they keep the field wider, avoid getting pinned to the right side, stay more organized defensively, and reduce the number of costly mistakes. That is a lot of ifs.
Speed and pressure can disrupt the flow of a Minnesota team still finding its tactical footing. The Loons proved last week they are susceptible to committing big mistakes. If Atlanta keeps the pressure high, and can keep the pace high for 90 minutes, it will almost certainly force Minnesota to make some dangerous decisions.