There were plenty of caveats to Minnesota’s wins against Orlando and Chicago. There were plenty of asterisks to Minnesota’s surrender to New York. So what is one to make of such wildly divergent results? The answer is probably to remove all those asterisks. Soccer in general, and MLS specifically, offers a new set of caveats every week. If you have a great starting roster and poor depth, you probably are not a very good team overall. So, will Minnesota’s result against Atlanta United this weekend “count” if both teams have fairly intact starting lineups? The answer: it all counts.
Minnesota opened a new chapter in its history by playing its first-ever MLS home game against expansion fellows Atlanta United in 2017. The game was marked by an avalanche of snow, and an avalanche of goals against the home side, as the Loons trudged their way to a 6-1 loss. It would be a key game in what would become the worst four-game defensive stretch in MLS history by a single team. Minnesota earned some measure of revenge by beating Atlanta on the road later in the year, a 3-2 win shaped by a 90th minute equalizer by the Loons capped off with a stoppage time winner. It was the first loss suffered by Atlanta in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Chris Penso will be taking his third assignment of the year. Penso was near the top (5 of 27) in yellow cards per game in 2017 with 4.2. In a small sample size this year, he has given 3.5 per game, but most of those came in a single game between Dallas and Seattle. In his only other match, he ended up dealing two penalties to Columbus (it is uncommon for a referee to award two to a single team in a single match). It is probably worth noting that Penso is the referee responsible for the two most recent Clint Dempsey testicle punch sending-offs, so both Uniteds will want to keep their hands out of the cookie jar on Saturday.
M Sam Cronin (neck injury) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
D Tyrone Mears (right calf injury) – Questionable
D Jérôme Thiesson (left hip injury) – Questionable
F Abu Danladi (left hamstring injury) – Questionable
M Ezequiel Barco (right quad injury) – Out
F Jon Gallagher (ankle injury) – Out
F Brandon Vazquez (left hamstring) – Out
M Andrew Carleton (illness) – Out
D José Hernández (quad strain) – Out
D Franco Escobar (concussion) – Out
GK Mitch Hildebrandt (left knee injury) – Out
Atlanta is a good soccerball team. No amount of Minnesotan bluster about building a team the “right” way or quibbling over whether Ezequiel Barco is worth $15 million American dollars makes Atlanta’s squad any less formidable. But both teams have the same number of wins this year, and both teams possess the same number of trophies. Each squad has also given up one genuinely embarrassing result this year. Atlanta is beatable. How does one pull it off?
Two major weaknesses stand out for Atlanta right now. The first is finishing. It seems strange to condemn a team’s finishing that has scored seven goals in the last two games, but here is a table ranking the league leaders in shots taken so far this season:
Despite (or perhaps directly related to) having taken more shots (SHTS) than any other player in the league by a wide margin, Miguel Almiron is the only player on this list to have a shots-on-goal percent (SOG%) in the single digits. Meander down to the next Atlanta shooter on the list, winger Hector Villalba, and you will find him worse in SOG% than any other player except lowly Mauro Diaz. Only once you hit red-hot hat trick machine Josef Martinez do you see Atlanta’s elite attack bearing fruit.
It would be foolish to summarize this information by saying Atlanta has a poor attack. In truth, the fact that Atlanta has found goals in other places is a testament to its well-roundedness. But I find in soccer it is often also rash to dismiss small sample sizes out of hand. In finance we might call a small sample size statistically insignificant, but in sports we call it a streak. Players and teams run hot and cold. None of this means that Almiron is bad overall, but he’s having a tough go of it at the moment. And within those streaks one can exploit weakness. More on that in a moment.
The second big area of opportunity to exploit against Atlanta is its defensive speed. Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst, and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez all lack elite speed, the first two weighing in at 34 years old. Each is a competent defender in his own right, but a well-timed run or fast-paced counterattack can put the back line on its heels.
So how does one beat Atlanta? It has to be on the counter attack. By dropping deep, Minnesota can concede the possession game to Atlanta, something Minnesota coach Adrian Heath hates with his very soul, but position itself into forcing players like Almiron and Villalba into taking shots from low percentage distances and angles. It can be a white-knuckled viewing experience for a Loons fan, but a crowded box might take advantage of what is ailing the Five Stripes right now. Then, when possession is regained, Minnesota can explode forward and take advantage of the hopefully high line of Atlanta coupled with its poor pace. For this reason, it might be wise to prioritize speed up top, which could mean playing Abu Danladi for Christian Ramirez (assuming Danladi is fit to start) and ensuring that both Sam Nicholson and Miguel Ibarra find the pitch at the same time, whatever the formation.
Success is hardly a guarantee. Atlanta is a very good soccerball team. But, at home, on a cold day, driving right at their weaknesses, Minnesota can be a very good soccerball team, too.
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Tags: Abu Danladi, Atlanta United, Christian Ramirez, Ezekiel Barco, Hector Villalba, Jeff Larentowicz, Josef Martinez, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Match Preview, Michael Parkhurst, Miguel Almiron, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Sam Nicholson