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Know the Enemy: Atlanta United

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps will look to make it three wins in a row, and four wins, one loss, and one draw in their last six, on Wednesday evening, when they host Atlanta United FC.

After Wednesday’s match, the Whitecaps will be heading to Kansas City to play a Saturday afternoon match, so expect a lot of rotation either Wednesday or Saturday. However, recent injuries have made that rotation a bit more difficult to accomplish.

Already without potential starters Jasser Khmiri (left knee surgery) and Yordy Reyna (left hamstring strain), the Whitecaps were dealt another blow Monday at training when captain Jon Erice went down with an ankle injury. However, our Samuel Rowan learned that it isn’t as bad as first feared.

The loss of Erice will be heavy, as the Caps are not very deep at the holding midfield position. One potential replacement, Michael Baldisimo, is out with a left ankle contusion, while potential fill-in Russell Teibert has been playing well in a more advanced position, and needs to cover for the defensively lazy Ali Adnan. The most likely replacement is recently returned Andy Rose.

After starting the season with only one win in their first six matches, Atlanta have won their last four games and have outscored their opponents 7-0. In fact, all five of their victories this season have been clean sheets.

It is not all bad news for the Whitecaps as Atlanta borded the plane on Monday without starters Michael Parkhurst and Darlington Nagbe. Meanwhile, Ezequiel Barco is away on international duty. However, former Whitecaps Brek Shea DID board the plane. Expect to see him in the match, possibly starting.

Of course, Josef Martinez is still a threat, with his four goals already this season. Doneil Henry and Erik Godoy will certainly have their hands full. While not at the level of Almiron yet, new designated player Pity Martinez has been making an impact in the middle of the field.

In preparation for this match, we spoke with Dirty South Soccer’s Sydney Hunte (@SHWrites) about Atlanta’s start, life without Almiron, and the reception their new manager received. You can find out answers to their questions here:

1. Tata Martinez was replaced this offseason by Frank de Boer. There appeared to be a lot of disgruntled Atlanta United fans at the hiring of, and subsequent poor start for, Frank de Boer. What was the reason for this attitude? Have the pitchforks died down for de Boer yet?

My opinion is that de Boer is learning to make better use of the pieces he has now, rather than to overhaul the team’s style to one that he had success with at Ajax. That’s not to say that he’s not been completely hands-off from a tactical standpoint, but as the team has grown more comfortable with him and vice versa, it’s begun to find its stride and develop more of a defensive identity - it has not allowed a goal during its four-match win streak. Once Atlanta’s offense gets really going, if the defense can continue to play the way it has, this team will be very tough to beat.

2. Next to, of course ;), Vancouver Whitecaps Alphonso Davies heading to Bayern Munich this offseason, Atlanta United made headlines with the transfer of Miguel Almiron. Have the on-field tactics and performances changed with his departure? If so, how?

This was always going to be a different club with Almiron gone, given his connection to the rest of the attack - especially Josef Martinez, who I’ll touch on shortly. Atlanta hoped that Pity Martinez would be the logical replacement for Almiron when it signed him in the offseason, along with some hoped-for improvement from Ezequiel Barco. Martinez, despite being the club’s No. 10, won’t give you the same defensive workrate that Almiron did, preferring to keep himself forward in the attack throughout the match. Unfortunately for Atlanta United, the first portion of the season was an exercise in frustration as his production and chemistry with his teammates was lacking, but he’s really turned the corner over the last few matches and looks much more comfortable on the field - culminating in his first MLS goal on Sunday against Orlando City.

Barco probably couldn’t have been called up by Argentina for the U-20 World Cup at a worse time. Much like Pity Martinez, his performances last season were decent in spurts, but still well below what fans and the front office expected when they brought him in for $15 million in the 2017 offseason. He’s grown into a much more confident, well-rounded player this season, exhibiting the tenacity and assertiveness that we’ve really been asking for and have expected since he got here.

3. Josef Martinez seems to have come out of the gate slow, at least for his standards. Are there reasons to be concerned for Atlanta United fans or does he seem to be rounding back into form?

I think he’s rounding into form. There was a slight worry among some fans that de Boer had ruined Martinez, but while he’s not scoring goals at the rate he did last year, he’s been able to contribute in many other ways. An example of that was in the Toronto FC match last Wednesday where he assisted on both of Atlanta’s goals, notable because it is his first multiple-assist game since arriving in MLS. During the Orlando City match, he played more as a false 9, playing closer to the midfield rather than his usual slot at the head of the attack. I think that once he starts to really build the same rapport with Pity Martinez he had with Miguel Almiron, he’ll start to really get going goalwise.