Header photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer
Do you follow the day-to-day of Atlanta United? I don’t! So I asked for the input of someone who does. Chris Smith covers the Five Stripes for Last Word on Sports, where you can follow his work. Catch up with the relevant topics before tomorrow’s Nashville game in the A here:
Tim Sullivan: The big story for Atlanta – basically since Miguel Almiron left – has been Josef Martinez. The latest chapter is his injury, so how close to 100% is he at this point?
Chris Smith: “At the start of the season, it looked like Josef had forgotten how to run properly but now, he’s definitely on the right track. That goal against Inter Miami a couple of weeks back, which was really well taken, seems to have filled him with confidence. He’s also more mobile now and while I won’t say he’s back to he’s best yet, he’s on the right track.”
TS: Ezequiel Barco and Alan Franco have been (tentatively) cleared by Gabriel Heinze. Barco’s star-crossed reputation is well-known, I guess, but what does each of them provide to this Atlanta team?
CS: “Even though he’s frustrating, Barco is that wildcard player who can offer Atlanta that bit of magic. At his best, he’ll turn defense into attack at a moment’s notice and he presses well. They’re two things Gabriel Heinze is trying to install into this team. I doubt he’ll start against Nashville, but he’s a great maverick option from the bench.
“As for Franco, he’s had a tough start to life in Atlanta. The fine form of Anton Walkes limited his minutes before injury and when he did get on the pitch, he looked nervous. But based on my own scouting before he signed, I have real faith Franco will be a success. He’s a great ‘front-foot’ defender, proactive and aggressive in winning the ball back. He has plenty of pace covering behind his defense and should help facilitate a high line for Heinze moving forward.”
TS: Heinze has gone primarily with a 3-4-3 formation this season. How has it gone well this season? How has it gone poorly?
CS: “I think trying to put an actual formation to Atlanta is quite arbitrary at the moment. In possession, Santiago Sosa has been stepping into that deep-lying midfield role to dictate play. He’ll then retreat back in defensive transition to try and keep Atlanta solid.
“Heinze definitely has the side better with the ball, largely dominating possession. While the attack isn’t humming yet, which is frustrating, that possession makes Atlanta tough to hit on the break. And if you don’t have the ball, you’ll struggle to hurt the opposition regardless. Some frustration, but plenty of progress.”
TS: Nashville and Atlanta seem to be natural rivals, but have had a limited history because of the circumstances of last season. How is Nashville perceived around the Five Stripes’ locker room?
CS: “Most players and coaches will say it’s just another game and in this case, I think they’re telling the truth. Due to geography, I have no doubt that this will develop into a good rivalry in years to come but right now, that history between the players just isn’t there, or the fans to be honest. By contrast, you can feel the heat when Atlanta play Orlando. But I think this game will develop into something special with time.”
TS: On a team of big names, who are the unheralded players who can make a difference (this year’s Jeff Larentowicz, if you will)?
CS: “He’s never been the most popular among the fans but I think Emerson Hyndman has been excellent since Heinze arrived. He keeps it simple in possession, taking the and passing it on quickly, but he never seems to get flustered under pressure. Hyndman is also great at those little unnoticed things, making an important interception here, or blocking a passing lane there. His work rate is off the charts.
“And as I mentioned before, Anton Walkes has looked fantastic next to Miles Robinson. They have a great partnership going and it’s up to Franco to prove he can take one of their spots.”
TS: Do you have any specific predictions for the game, including a final score if you’re comfortable giving one?
CS: “Well, both sides have been great defensively but are struggling to create chances. But this is MLS, so it’ll probably be 4-4!
“In all seriousness, I don’t see a lot of goals. I’ll back 1-0 to Atlanta but it could just easily be the reverse of that.”