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The Atlanta Preview, Part II

I have to say, I don't get the scheduling on this. Charlotte played Atlanta on March 13th. They will play them again on Sunday, April 10, which is not even a month apart. Just doesn't sit quite right with me.


Being that we're only a few weeks removed from the first matchup, it doesn't seem like much should have changed since the first preview. Well, it has, mostly due to Atlanta having a seriously rough go of it with injuries:

  • Josef Martínez will not play Sunday as he is getting his surgically repaired knee reexamined after experiencing discomfort

  • Osvaldo Alonso is out with an ACL tear

  • Matheus Rossetto is out with a hamstring injury

  • Emerson Hyndman is still recovering from his ACL tear

  • Luiz Araújo is still recovering from his hamstring injury

  • Machop Chol is dealing with a leg injury

Um...that's a lot. Listen, I don't root for injuries and I hate seeing great players go down with them. I really enjoy Martínez as a player and, from the little I've seen of him, Araújo looks electric. But their bad fortune could be Charlotte's good fortune, Atlanta will be without two midfield starters (Alonso, Rossetto) from this year; Hyndman was a starter last year; Araújo and Martínez are both DPs and good to great attackers. You do not root for injuries, but you also can't do anything about it when they hit a team. Sometimes you just get a team at the right time.


Of course, it should also be noted that Atlanta still sits 3rd in the East with 10 points and still have plenty of talent. They're also coming off a win in DC, although it took a 94th minute score to get it.

Team

Total Possession

Shots per game

Shots on target per game

Goals for (xG)

Goals against (xGA)

Points (Standings Place)

WhoScored Team Rating

Charlotte FC

51.3%

10.5

4.5

6 (5.7)

9 (10.7)

6 (9th)

6.49

Atlanta United

55.8%

12.0

4.8

9 (6.5)

8 (6.5)

10 (3rd)

6.59​

 

Normally, I start previews with injury reports, but well, that's already been done. For further context, though, here is how Atlanta started against DC:

ATL Starting XI vs. DC, 4/2
ATL Starting XI vs. DC, 4/2

Below is how they ended:

ATL Final XI vs. DC, 4/2
ATL Final XI vs. DC, 4/2

To say the trip to DC was unkind to them would be a massive understatement. Three of their starters failed to finish that game and have ended up on the injury list (Rossetto, Alonso, and Martínez).


I'm also not quite sure how accurate that ending formation is. It has Franco Ibarra, a listed midfielder, as a left sided CB in the back three, while Miles Robinson, an actual CB, is playing in the midfield. I don't know enough about Atlanta and their squad to know if that is actually how they would set that out, but it seems odd and incorrect.


Attack

Over the past few games they've been playing in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Tyler Wolff is likely to start and I would guess Marcelino Moreno, as well. Wolff has started as both a winger and attacking midfielder.


At striker, they have limited options. They have the veteran Dom Dwyer, who has come off the bench 3 times this year, scoring once. After him, it's Jackson Conway, a huge unknown. Conway came off the bench last week against DC because Dwyer missed that game due to a red card against Montreal. Conway is incredibly young at 20 and only has 9 appearances for Atlanta (1 this year and 8 last year). He did start 2 games for Atlanta last year, but he's only scored one goal at the senior level. His finishing definitely leaves something to be desired:

Conway is a tall forward at 6'3". Dwyer is more diminutive at 5'9". Martínez is 5'8" for comparison. I would anticipate Dwyer to start, but it's clear they don't have any established threats at striker off the bench if they need to try to change something.


Midfield

Midfield has a lot of options, even with the injuries.

Wolff heatmap via SofaScore
Wolff heatmap via SofaScore

Depending on how you classify them, Wolff and Moreno can fit into this category. Wolff is a player who very much intrigues me. I think he oozes potential. I mean, he did play in 5 matches for Atlanta as a 16 year old! I think he also serves as a parallel for the Adam Armour.


In my last post I talked a lot about how you can't necessarily count on Armour to play much since he's only 19. Well, Wolff a prime example of how that can happen. The question is: should it be? At only 19, Wolff has started 4 games for Atlanta and played in all 5. He hasn't been that effective.


As his heatmap shows, he pops up all over the place but doesn't really have an area of the pitch he's primarily found in. Through the first 3 games, he started as a left wing. During the last two (one as a starter and one as a sub), he's played in a more central role. Clearly, though, he doesn't stay wide when he starts there. He's all over the place, I would assume, trying to find space and the ball, but he's not really finding the it. He only has 122 touches on the year (for reference, Bender has 212 touches and I think they might be playing a somewhat similar role in their respective teams). He also doesn't finish games. He's been subbed off (or in one instance a sub) in all matches.


He still has no counting stats (goals and assists) and his xG and xA don't point to him have any egregiously bad luck (note: I'm using FBref for this. I'm not a hockey assist guy for soccer. MLS has Wolff at 1 assist for the year because of this difference. To me, he has none). His xG is 0.3, while the xA sits at 0.2. In fact, he only has 4 total shots on the year (2 on target). His passing has been, well, passable at 75.3% overall (79.2% short; 79.4% medium; 68.8% long), but it's nothing to write home about. He only has 4 progressive passes on the season. According to FBref, he doesn't have any crosses attempted from open play. He will attempt to take people on sporadically and shows some skill in it (44.4% dribble success rate on 4 out of 9 dribbles attempted). WIth such a low attempt number through 5 games, though, I don't think it's a huge part of his game. He does seem to do a bit of work defensively for an attacking player, which is good.


To go back to Armour, Wolff is the prime example of how a young, promising player can get a lot of playing time and the risks that come with it. He's played a good amount without really impacting the game much. With that said, he definitely has talent and you don't want this game to be his jumping off point.


Other options in the midfield include Ibarra and Amar Sejdic. Sejdic has started 3 games for Atlanta this year, but he hasn't played since the first Charlotte match. Santiago Sosa is also an option, along with natural defenders like George Campbell. While Campbell has started a match in the midfield this year, I wouldn't expect him to this game. Sosa appears to be the one that will step into Alonso's vacated spot.


League record signing Thiago Almada is likely to play. He's played in 3 matches so far, but only started one (last week). An attacking midfielder who can also play out wide, he's young but incredibly talented. While the GIF above shows Conway badly fluffing his shot, Almada's run is fantastic. There's a lot of quickness and ball control to his game. There is some thought amongst Atlanta fans that Almada could start in a false 9 position (see the link to the breakdown below). While he probably has the talent to do that, he is only 5'6" or 5'7" (depending on the source) and under 140 lbs, so there would be little aerial or physicality threat from him. Additionally, he's only 20 with 12 goals in 61 appearance to his name (1 this year and 11 when he was in Argentina). That's not to say he can't score, but it's not like he has a prolific track record.


I would anticipate Brooks Lennon to start as a wide midfielder/attacker, but he has also played as a right back (DC United match). He's been in really good form for Atlanta. Jake Mulraney rounds out the listed midfielders. Mulraney started the DC game as a wide midfielder, but came on as a sub in the Charlotte and Montreal games at fullback (at least according to the MLS site).


Atlanta seems to use their players in a lot of different roles, which makes pinning down who will start at what position incredibly difficult. Coupled with all the injuries and uncertainty surrounding formation, who knows what this midfield will look like. Atlanta's SBNation blog does have a breakdown of what they think will happen.


Defense

The backline is probably the most stable (read: healthy) group for Atlanta right now. At center back, we should see some combination of (the inferior) Alan Franco, Campbell, and Miles Robinson. Andrew Gutman has started as the left back all season. Ronald Hernández started the first four games of the season at left back before not featuring last week (potentially a combination of poor performances and returning from international duty).


As with the first matchup, I'm convinced that there are goals to be had against this backline. In watching clips, Franco continues to look like someone who can be exploited by attackers. He gets turned really easily and can get caught ball watching. I think a player like Świderski could give him fits and Charlotte should be looking to isolate him.


All of the center backs are above 80% on their passing. Hernández is also above 80%, while Gutman sits in the low 70s. Gutman is an attacking fullback though and he likes to get involved in the attack. His percentage is definitely a reflection of the types of passes he is attempting (lots of crosses, a decent number of long balls).


Both Hernández and Gutman will join in the attack, though Gutman will do so more often. If Lennon is playing as a right back, he will definitely be getting up the pitch into attacking areas. If players like Martínez and Araújo were healthy, I would be more concerned with the overlapping ability of Atlanta's fullbacks. As it stands, they will still offer a threat, but Charlotte's backline should be more able to deal with it. Further, as with any team that pushes its fullbacks up the pitch, space is usually left in behind if you can win the ball back and counter quickly.


Goalkeeping

Brad Guzan has started for Atlanta all year. It's been a below-average start for him.


His save percentage sits at 61.1% and he's allowed 8 goals on the year so far. His PSxG sits at 5.9 and his PSxG+/- is at -2.1. As a reminder, you want your goalkeeper's PSxG+/- to be in the positive. The fact that it's not isn't a great sign for Guzan. This negative PSxG+/- isn't new for Guzan either. In the last 5 years, his PSxG+/- was only positive once (last year the it was +3.2). Guzan is beatable, but Atlanta has clearly had success even without stellar goalkeeping.


I do think his distribution from the back has been pretty solid for the year. He's at 77.2% pass completion for the year (89.5% short; 95.8% medium; 62.4% long). Atlanta is also trying to play out from the back, as only 37.9% of his passes have been launched.


Conclusion

Much like the first matchup, Charlotte have a good chance to take something from Atlanta. Even though the backline is by far Atlanta's healthiest group, I think it's also their weakest. Attack and midfield are definitely going to suffer from injury, but they do have some ready made replacements for some of those positions. The guys missing, though, aren't easy to replace and that means there is greater opportunity for a Charlotte win.


I expect Atlanta to score, not because our defense is bad, but because that's what this team does. Even with injuries, they'll probably get a goal or two. Against Montreal a couple weeks ago they got 2 goals with 10 men...As such, Charlotte have to figure out a way to score as well. Jóźwiak might technically be available for this game, but I wouldn't expect him to have a large role, if any. Maybe if we're trailing by a couple goals, he gets on to try and get one back, but that's not a situation Charlotte wants to find itself in.


In Atlanta, it took Charlotte about 40 minutes to actually get into the game. That can't happen again, especially against a depleted Atlanta side. I'm hoping we're not going to see the 5-4-1 again. 4-4-2 seems the safest option, with Ríos and Świderski up top, but I'm still not convinced that's the best formational fit for our personnel.


I continue to be an advocate for a 4-2-3-1 with this team. This would allow us to get some combination of Bender, Franco, Alcívar, Ruiz, Bronico, or Jones into the game at the same time. For me, the two midfielders who have to be in the squad, regardless of formation, are Bender and Franco. You can fill the rest of the midfield out however you like.


I will also continue to call for one of Ortíz, Reyna, or Gaines to be included, at least until Jóźwiak is settled. None have lit the world on fire, but they are all tricky and have pace. This team is in desperate need of both and it's still way too early to give up on any of these players.


The rational part of me isn't overly confident about this game, but the fan side of me is wholly optimistic. I'm trying to lean into that optimism. I believe we're going to get repaid for the crap/lucky goals Atlanta got in the first meeting. Plus, if whoever is responsible for scheduling in MLS thinks an early start on a Sunday is going to dampen festivities, I think they're wrong. With a raucous crowd behind them, Charlotte really get up for this game and come out strong.


Prediction: Charlotte 2 - Atlanta 1

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