The Five Stripes play the second of their four consecutive road games on Saturday night as they visit T-Dot to face last season’s MLS Cup runners-up, Toronto FC. The Reds feature one of the best combinations on the attacking end in MLS with U.S. national team star Jozy Altidore and Italian Sebastian Giovinco. It is their defense that will provide a very different test to Atlanta United, and that’s what we will dig into now.
Toronto is one of the few teams in MLS to play with three center backs. Manager Greg Vanney switched to this formation during their stretch run and has found great success with it. Drew Moor plays between Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta. Wing backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour drop back to help as needed, but definitely skew more to attacking in the distribution of their responsibilities.
Movement will be the key for Atlanta United in order to unlock one of the league’s stingiest defenses in 2017. Toronto has only allowed two goals thus far and has racked up three shutouts. With Morrow and Beitashour likely to push forward into the attack, Atlanta will have opportunities to get behind them on the wings. Yamil Asad and Tito Villalba (if he moves back to the right wing) will be in key positions to create chances. Their runs off the ball will be just as important. If they can stretch the three center backs out, holes will open up for Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel to exploit. While Toronto has been great defensively in 2017, the Reds have not faced a team with the weapons that Atlanta can throw at them.
This brings us to the question of who should start up front for the Five Stripes. With Josef Martinez injured, Tito Villalba moved up top against Seattle. He had two one-on-one attempts with Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei that were denied. While his runs off the ball replicated Martinez, he struggled with the physical side of playing up top.
Against three strong center backs who are all dominant in the air, Kenwyne Jones could be a better option for the United attack. Jones was effective in his limited action in Seattle, with his late chance denied by a scrambling Cristian Roldan. His size gives the defense an outlet, his movement will force the Reds to communicate well to keep up with him, and he can open up space for the attacking quartet in the midfield to run through. With a full week to prepare, Tata Martino will be able to consider what Jones brings to the group on Saturday night.
Atlanta’s pressing style will give Toronto another set of problems. Moor, Zavaleta, and Hagglund are known to have their struggles in completing passes consistently. Toronto generally does not build out of the back, it would rather get the ball to U.S. national team midfielder Michael Bradley and let him orchestrate possession from the midfield. United can swarm the center backs, and goalkeeper Alex Bono, when the ball is at their feet and force turnovers in bad positions.
We will get deeper into the match with Friday’s Forecast. If you have any questions in the meantime, send them my way on Twitter at @Longshoe.