By Jason Longshore

Atlanta United will be on the road for the next four games, and the journey starts in the Pacific Northwest against the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders. The Five Stripes will be looking for their third straight win while the Sounders enter the game 1-1-1 in 2017. For Atlanta, this will be their first game without star striker Josef Martinez, who was injured with the Venezuelan national team last week. He is expected back in 4-6 weeks.

Martinez’s absence is the biggest storyline heading into the match as Tata Martino will have his work cut out for him in finding a replacement. He is not lacking for options as United has built a deep squad for him to choose from. But anyone would struggle to replicate Martinez’s stellar form thus far. The league’s leading goal scorer will not be easy to replace.

Yamil Asad is a likely replacement for Martinez up top; he played that role in the team’s final preseason match against the Charleston Battery in February. Kenwyne Jones is another possibility, but it is a concern that Jones played two games for Trinidad and Tobago in the last week and might not be ready for a 90-minute shift in Seattle. Other options up top include rookie Julian Gressel, winger Tito Villalba, and veteran Jacob Peterson.

Earlier this week on The Morning Show with John Fricke and Hugh Douglas, right back Tyrone Mears made it clear that the squad will not alter its game plan due to Martinez’s absence or the competition in front of them. Expect Atlanta to press Seattle early and often, trying to force turnovers in the Sounders’ defensive half. So far this season, Atlanta has been very efficient in capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes. The Five Stripes have scored on just fewer than 30 percent of the shots they have taken.

Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer told local media that all of the Sounders’ national team players are expected to be available Friday night against Atlanta. U.S. national team forward Clint Dempsey scored four goals during World Cup qualifying in the past week and looks to be in exceptional form coming into the match. Forward Jordan Morris did not play for the U.S. during the break due to an ankle injury suffered in Seattle’s last match before the break on March 19. Joevin Jones played with Atlanta’s Kenwyne Jones (no relation) as Trinidad and Tobago split its two World Cup qualifying games in the past week. Center back Roman Torres played two complete games for Panama over the break while midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro was an unused substitute in Uruguay’s two games.

Atlanta will have to determine the availability of Jones, midfielder Miguel Almiron (started both games for Paraguay, although he only played 45 minutes against Brazil on Tuesday), and midfielder Carlos Carmona (one brief substitute appearance for Chile during the World Cup qualifying window).

Pressure Points

  • Flanks: Seattle’s midfielders Lodeiro and Harry Shipp pinch inside often to combine with Dempsey and Morris. Left back Joevin Jones bombs forward often. Atlanta will have opportunities to exploit Seattle’s weaknesses wide. Tito Villalba scored his first goal of the season against Chicago and another strong performance from him will be needed against the excellent Jones.
  • Nicolas Lodeiro’s passing:  If Lodeiro is given time and space to pick out passes, Atlanta will give up goals. Lodeiro’s arrival transformed the Sounders last season from one of the worst teams in the league to the eventual champions. His long passing, 25 yards and longer, is outstanding. Atlanta needs to deny him opportunities on the ball, and shut him down when he does receive it to prevent those passes from finding runners.
  • Seattle’s forwards vs. Atlanta’s center backs:  Jordan Morris is a very unorthodox forward and will be a handful for Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. If he is unable to play due to the ankle injury, Will Bruin presents a completely different test as a strong target forward. Morris is dangerous due to his speed in the open field. Bruin is dangerous due to his physical hold-up play and ability to get on the end of crosses in the box. Clint Dempsey is another issue altogether as his freedom in the Sounders’ attacking system can make it difficult to defend. Parkhurst and Gonzalez Pirez will have to stay in constant communication in a noisy CenturyLink Field, and will likely need help from the defensive midfield to neutralize Seattle’s attack.
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