Know your enemy! Each week, we do a Q&A with our friends around the SB Nation Soccer world to get some insight on their team from those who know them best.
This week, the Boys in Blue return to Yankee Stadium to face MLS expansion side Atlanta United FC. The ATLiens have outperformed typical expectations for an expansion team, taking 11 points from its first 8 games and sitting in sixth place in a clustered Eastern Conference. They have been prolific in scoring goals, tallying 18 already in the young season.
Haris Kruskic of Dirty South Soccer fielded our questions ahead of the match Sunday, touching on expansion expectations, new players, and where ATL might end up this season following their better-than-expected start.
Q. As an expansion team, Atlanta built a whole roster from scratch and, recalling the opening days of NYC FC's inaugural season, it is overwhelming, to say the least, to keep everything straight with the mix of internationals, MLS vets, journeymen, and draft picks. I also recall being totally wrong in my expectations of who would contribute and who I should care about (sorry, Tommy Mac). So, coming into the season, who were the players (or player) you were most looking forward to seeing play? How have expectations changed since the start of the season with these player(s) and which new additions have come out of nowhere and exceeded your expectations?
H. I think it's natural to immediately be drawn to the Designated Players simply due to their cost. As an expansion side, fans hoped that Atlanta was spending their money the right way, on players who could be considered some of the best in MLS by the end of the season. Well, the three DP's are certainly making a case for that billing. Miguel Almiron has 2 goals and 4 assists to start the season, Josef Martinez scored 5 goals in the first 3 matches and has since been sidelined with a partially torn quad, and Hector Villalba has 4 goals and 2 assists. All three players are living up to the expectations so far.
There's a long list of players that I've been pleasantly surprised by, but I'll narrow it down to three. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has been spectacular, and personally I think he'll be considered one of the best center backs in the league eventually. Yamil Asad has also been great when not suspended, with two goals and four assists. Finally, not a whole lot was expected from Jeff Larentowicz when he joined, especially at 33. However, he's managed to become a regular starter for the club in arguably the most crucial position as a holding mid.
Q. Let's shift over from individual players to the team as a whole. Give us a sense for how Atlanta FC plays under Tata Martinez. Where does the attack come from, how does the team defend, where is the focus of the tactics, etc.? Also how have the tactics impacted (for better or for worse) Atlanta's admirable 11 points from 8 games haul?
H. Atlanta wants to control possession, starting from the backline. You'll see a plethora of switches between the defenders on Sunday, patiently waiting for an opening to reveal itself. The center backs, Pirez and Michael Parkhurst, are good passers of the ball and will attempt to unlock an opposing backline with long passes to wingers flying down the flanks. Greg Garza has a really fascinating role as the left back, because he generally prefers to get up the pitch and join the attack when given a chance. However, like last week against D.C. United, that can leave Atlanta vulnerable on the counter.
Larentowicz and Carlos Carmona generally don't get too involved in the attack, acting as two holding mids that look to offer extra protection to Atlanta's defense.
Almiron is the engine that keeps Atlanta's attack running. He is by far our most influential player.
As for a tactical impact that has impacted us for better or for worse, I don't know if this is really a tactical impact, but Atlanta have managed only 1 point in 3 matches when playing with 10 men. I would say our aggression has come to bite us on more than a couple occasions this season. It's important for everyone to stay focused and not get frustrated.
Q. Curious as to how expectations for results have changed through 8 games this year. First year teams have a history of struggling in MLS (cc: Minnesota), but it's for good reason: Schedule can be taxing, competition is fierce, and games are physical. However, Atlanta has navigated the start of their season well and could threaten for the Playoff spot. Where did you expect the team to finish and what did you hope to accomplish before the season started? Have expectations changed following the strong start?
H. I kept my hopes low before the season began, for all the reasons you listed. I bought into the "expansion team curse", if you will. I thought we'd compete for a playoff spot but ultimately fall short, but I had some hopes for a U.S. Open Cup run, which I guess is still to be determined whether that is wishful thinking or not.
But now that we're seven matches in, I feel pretty good about our playoff hopes. If we keep up our play, we should manage to grab the #5 or #6 seed in the East.
H. (4-3-3) - Alec Kann; Garza, Pirez, Parkhurst, Mears; Larentowicz, Carmona, Gressel; Almiron, Jones, Villalba
H. 2-2 Draw.
There you have it! Thanks again to Haris for answering our questions. Have some thoughts you want to share about trap music or soccer stuff? Let us hear it in the comments section, and be sure to check out our “reverse fixture” over on Dirty South Soccer.