Had you heard these teams have played once before? A 6-1 loss in Minnesota’s home #snowpener was a genuinely remarkable occasion. It was the first home MLS game in Minnesota’s history. It was the first game between the two sister expansion clubs, inevitably linked by history. Importantly, it was defined by an introduction to Minnesota weather for the world and by images of the stubborn badge of honor of watching the match shirtless through the blizzard. Josef Martínez bagged a hat trick, Miguel Almirón enjoyed a brace, and Kevin Molino opened his account with a penalty, Minnesota’s only goal that afternoon.
Armando Villarreal dons the whistle for this midweek matchup. Villarreal is most notable (to Minnesotans, anyway) for manning Minnesota’s first-ever MLS win against Real Salt Lake. More forgettable was his work on Minnesota’s 3-1 demolition by New York City FC. The referee has dealt four red cards on the year. A final interesting note: in 18 MLS matches this season, Villarreal has yet to oversee a victory by an away side.
GK Alec Kann (quad injury) - Out
M Miguel Almirón (left hamstring injury) – Out
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
M Sam Cronin (head injury) – Out
D Michael Boxall (international duty) – Out
M Johan Venegas (international duty) – Out
D Marc Burch (thigh injury) – Questionable
This space has had some consistent themes regarding the Loons’ play style this year, including “play direct and fast” and “Christian Ramirez needs to come find the game” and “positional fluidity is key.” This week, whatever Minnesota’s strengths or preference, the club will almost certainly need to come out and play to counterattack.
The only reason that Atlanta’s goal differential over the last five matches is a paltry +9 is because its 7-0 demolition of New England falls just outside the five game window. This team is not just good: this team is lava hot at just the right time. Minnesota, meanwhile, has found something of a stride over the last five games but the usual depth issues coupled with a very short turnaround time from their Houston match means the Loons will not be favorites on Tuesday night.
One potential opening for Minnesota comes via the absence of Almirón, who lit up the Loons earlier this year. However, Atlanta has relative depth to spare, and a midfielder like Yamil Asad can do what Almirón does well on any particular day. Grouped with Golden Boot contender Martínez, Rookie of the Year frontrunner Julian Gressel, and a bench that would mostly find the starting XI for Minnesota, and it could be a long day.
Positional fluidity is likely out the window for Minnesota. Rather, this group must stay organized and compact, potentially lining up more in a 4-5-1 than the traditional 4-2-3-1, and the midfielders must come ready to play defense. An interesting wrinkle will be whether Minnesota plays several ostensible backups for rotation after only three days since the Houston match. Might Abu Danladi get the start for Ramirez? Will Sam Nicholson see the starting XI instead of Miguel Ibarra? Who replaces defensive midfielder Cronin this time around? Will Ismaila Jome and Brent Kallman see time in the absence of key defenders? Not only might this rotation be necessary, but looking ahead to next season, it might be an important chance for Adrian Heath to play with the pieces he has and see the ways they could fit together.
Expect Atlanta to dominate possession and shots and, facing what will likely be a more narrow defensive alignment, to see a lot more space down the flanks to then turn in crosses in the box. For the Loons, they may concede the flanks for the sake of covering the middle of the field and when they grab possession they will deploy some quick and aggressive passes downfield, hoping to spring something out of nothing.
Atlanta United is playing great soccer, at home, against one of MLS’ worst teams. If it chooses to play something resembling a starting lineup, and if it approaches the game with the professional attitude of playing hard despite the opponent or any other circumstance, it should brush the Loons aside.
Anything is possible. Atlanta will definitely have its opportunities, and it’s on Minnesota to avoid the kind of clumsy mistakes that lead to easy goals. Make Atlanta earn everything it gets, and its front-footed attack may cede opportunities to get in behind. But that will be meaningless if Minnesota gives itself a mountain to climb behind mental errors and avoidable mistakes.
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Tags: Abu Danladi, Atlanta United FC, Brent Kallman, Christian Ramirez, Houston Dynamo, Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel, Marc Burch, Match Preview, Miguel Almiron, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Sam Cronin, Sam Nicholson, Yamil Asad