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The Atlanta United Preview

On Sunday, Charlotte will visit Atlanta for the first time. I imagine this will become one of Charlotte’s biggest rivalries, simply due to geographic proximity and overlap in other sporting team fandom. It also helps that Atlanta fans are rabid, which should work to create great atmospheres.


Full disclosure, I have not had a chance to actually watch a full Atlanta game so far this year. Information below is gleaned from match recap videos and team/player data.*

​Team

Total Possession

Shots per game

Shots on target

Goals for (xG)

Goals against (xGA)

Points (Standings place)

WhoScored Rating**

Charlotte FC

51.2%

8

4

0 (1.6)

4 (3.6)

0 (13th)

6.23

Atlanta United FC

53.7%

12

5

3 (3.1)

4 (2.6)

3 (7th)

6.49


Through two games, Atlanta sits 7th in the East with a goal differential of -1. Winning against Sporting (3-1) and then getting blown out by Colorado (0-3) makes it hard to understand this team so far, though injuries and absences (more on that further down) certainly play a part.


Atlanta has struggled to make the most of their possession this year. Sporting controlled possession (57% vs. 43% for Atlanta) but Atlanta took advantage on the break and maximized the possession they had. Compare that to their game against Colorado, in which Atlanta dominated possession (64% vs. 36% for Colorado), but were destroyed by Colorado on the break. I will focus a lot more on the Colorado match than on the KC match, as I think you tend to find more useful information in a defeat.


In watching the recap of the Colorado game, it could have easily been 4-0 or 5-0 Colorado. Colorado got behind the Atlanta backline time and again. I was struck by how little Atlanta seemed to create—there were a lot of shots from outside the box, but only a few outstanding chances created.***

Shot map of Colorado and Atlanta, 3/5/20222
Shot chart via MLSsoccer.com. MLS has it set up weird (read: badly), where Atlanta and Colorado's colors are basically the same. Atlanta's shots are on the left, Colorado's are on the right.

Note the areas Colorado is shooting from. This backline for Atlanta is exploitable. I think they would very much prefer to not be playing Franco at CB right now, but are being forced into it due to suspension, injury, and absences.

 

It will be interesting to see what happens with possession versus Charlotte. During the first two games, Charlotte has basically split possession against opponents (53% against DC and 49% against LA). Atlanta’s team has struggled with creating dangerous opportunities, mostly because their passing hasn’t been hugely adventurous. Most of their best chances in both games seemed to come on the break or from set pieces.

ATL vs KC heat map
Heat map via WhoScored
COL vs ATL heat map
Heat map via WhoScored

Take note of Atlanta's right side. KC was definitely targeting that side during their game. COL had less possession, but note there is still definitely activity down the right. Charlotte should look to test it as well.

 
ATL UTD Starting XI vs. Colorado. Created via buildlineup.com

Injury Report

Of course, this whole discussion must take into account the current health of the Atlanta roster. The short answer is: it's not healthy (at least in terms of overall availability).


Week 1 starter Luiz Araujo (winger) is out for about 4 weeks due to a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, Atlanta continues to deal with several other notable absences. Starter Osvaldo (Ozzie) Alonso missed the Colorado match due to precautionary testing with a cardiologist. Midfielders Franco Ibarra and Santiago Sosa are just now returning to the U.S. after acquiring green cards. Finally, new signing and midfielder Thiago Almada is just back in the country, too.


Thankfully, it appears Alonso's heart issue is not serious, but it remains to be seen who, if any, of these players will be available for the game on Sunday (though the club is hopeful about Alonso and Sosa).


Attack

Josef Martinez remains the focal point of the team. Yet to score this season, he will assuredly want to get one in front of the home crowd. One could argue that he still hasn’t reached the heights of his pre-injury days, but last year's total of 12 goals in 24 total appearances still speaks to the threat he provides. He has also been responsible for 2 assists already this season.


Brooks Lennon stepped into Araujo's vacated spot last weekend, while Tyler Wolff has started each game on the opposite wing. Martinez has, of course, started both games.


With only one goal between the four who have started (Araujo in the first game), they haven’t offered much in the way of end product yet. Wolff has also been sloppy with his passing (67.65%). Dom Dwyer seems to be their man off the bench, having played in both games. He has scored one goal so far this campaign and looked good (as did the whole team) against Sporting.


Midfield

Atlanta’s midfield has not been great thus far, though the injuries and absences account for a lot of that. George Campbell stepped into the midfield from defense last week and was impressive. A natural CB, he didn't look out of place in the middle of the pitch. His pass accuracy thus far has been solid (86.75%/90) and he is consistently attempting to move the ball forward (19.9 forward passes/90; note: this number is probably a bit inflated due to his time at CB). He will probably step back into the backline as Miles Robinson received a red (second yellow) in his previous match. Alonso may be back for this game, or another of the just arrived reinforcements.

Rossetto and Sedjec, who have started both games, have tended to be a little more conservative in their passing, especially Rossetto. He has been a good recycler of the ball (15 backward passes/90 and 30 sideways passes/90 to just 8 forward passes/90). Rossetto has shown he can stretch the field with his long passing, but overall, Atlanta’s midfield hasn’t been very dangerous when in possession.

ATL pass network vs. COL, 3/5/22
ATL pass network vs. COL. Via MLSsoccer.com
Forward passes COL vs ATL
Via WhoScored. Forward and sideways passes into the final third for ATL.

Defense

As previously said, Robinson received a red in the last match, so we will probably see Campbell step into his spot. With 4 total goals conceded on the year, it is safe to say this group has been exploitable so far. Gutman has struggled with his pass accuracy so far (72.22%), but the remainder of the group is solid (84% or higher). None of them are particularly adventurous with their passing and none of them have been very successful with long passes (Hernandez is the highest with 66.67%). Franco especially seemed to struggle against Colorado. Apparently, he was a slow starter last year too and has struggled with consistency in his Atlanta career. If everyone is available, he wouldn't' be starting this game. Overall, this group doesn’t seem to be playing up to their level quite yet, and they could easily have given up a few more goals than they have (note: their xGA is actually just 2.6, but man did Colorado seem to miss some sitters. Perhaps I'm overly negative with my assessment of their defense, but to my eye they are giving up a lot of good chances and I was legitimately surprised by how low the xGA was).


Atlanta has been bad in the air, with only 7 aerials won as a team (although, Charlotte has only won 11). They are one of the best in the league when it comes to not fouling, only averaging 10 fouls per game so far on the year (Charlotte, for reference, is middle of the pack at 13 fouls per game).


Goalkeeper

Old USMNT friend Brad Guzan continues to man the sticks for Atlanta and he hasn’t had the greatest start. As mentioned, he’s conceded 4 goals already and, while some were the result of poor backline play, he hasn’t exactly looked stout in goal. There were a few instances where he looked less than convincing in coming out for a ball. Charlotte should try to get some crosses in and test this. At 37, Guzan might still have some legs in him, but it’s clear he’s not what he once was.


Conclusion

As it would be with most teams, it is too early to tell what this Atlanta team is. When injuries and absences are added to the newness of the campaign, this team remains a (talented) mystery.


Nothing in the stats so far jump out as overly impressive (again, two game sample size), though they have dangerous players and more coming back. Where they have been most dangerous is on the break. With players such as Alonso, Ibarra, Sosa, and Almada coming into the squad, Atlanta's passing, which has already been solid (83.0% as a team), should see a more daring and dangerous edge to it. The question for Charlotte is: will these players be back in time?


Of course, it may simply boil down to Martinez. When you have a talent like Martinez, goals (and assists) are always possible and he doesn’t always need great service to impact the game. It's not groundbreaking to say that the Charlotte backline will need to be aware of where he is at all times.


From a Charlotte prospective, this defense looks beatable. Already down a starter due to suspension, goals are there to be had. Charlotte hasn’t been great at chance creation so far, having only created 8 shots on target, but it certainly looks like they’ll be able to create some against this team.


It’s obviously too early to say how stout this Charlotte defense really is, and conceding 4 goals through two games is far from ideal. With that said, they don’t look like a sieve. If Atlanta remains shorthanded in the midfield, it's all the more encouraging. If they have some players back, the best hope might be rust and typical early-season-lack-of-cohesion-itis. Before the news broke of the reinforcements, I was a little more optimistic about Charlotte being able to get something out of this game; with them, I'm not so sure.


Prediction: Atlanta 2 - Charlotte 1


Check out the quick breakdown from the Atlanta perspective here.

 

*All data is from Squawka, WhoScored, FBref, SofaScore, AmericanSoccerAnalysis, and/or official MLS stats. We're two games in, so all numbers should be taken with a huge grain of salt, as the sample size is obviously very small.


**As a rule, rating systems are some of my least favorite stats (think PFF in American football or WhoScored in this case). With that said, I do think more data points are always better. I make no sweeping judgements about any system or their validity, nor do I assert they are the end all be all. As with any other stat, I try to use them in context and as a data point for coming to conclusions.


***I am a huge believer in stats. I love advanced metrics in baseball and I have seen some good ones being developed for (American) football. I don’t claim to always understand the math behind them, but I do think that stats can give great insight into how well or poorly teams and individuals are playing. With that said, stats always need context and eye test should not be dismissed. My general goal is to always back up what my eyes tell me about a player or team with stats and if there is a discrepancy, I try to figure out why that is. As I am not a professional journalist and don’t have time to watch every single MLS game (nor do I want to, frankly), I will definitely lean on stats where I don’t have “eye test data” (if you will accept the phrasing).


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